Maryland tragedy underscores need for tough safeguards for players’ health

mcnair-240x300In College Park, Md., new cooling tents have sprouted on the University of Maryland’s football practice field, where the training staff also is taking pains now to provide adequate cold drinks and breaks to players. Observers say the pre-season regimens, however, are not only marked by greater attentiveness to the young athletes’ needs, they’re also eerily quiet and somber.

That’s because top Terps leaders have apologized and conceded the school shares blame for the tragic and preventable heat stroke death of Jordan McNair, 19, a Maryland offensive lineman. Coaches forced the young man to run and over-exert himself during a May 29 practice. More importantly, they failed to diagnose the severity of his condition, neglecting to so much as take his pulse and blood pressure, and, in a disputed account, not noticing that he was suffering seizures, or acting fast to drop his body temperature with ice and cooling baths.

Published reports suggest he showed heatstroke signs before 5 that afternoon, though trainers did not call for emergency help and an ambulance until nearly 6, when his body temperature may have hit 106 degrees. He was admitted to a hospital, where nurses and doctors immersed him in a cooling bath and reduced his temperature to 102 degrees — 90 minutes or so after he apparently got into distress.

That also proved too late because McNair had suffered irreversible harm, leading to his death two weeks or later.

As university president Wallace D. Loh said at a news conference about McNair’s death and what the Terps know, thus far, about it:

[B]ased upon what we know at this time, even though the final report is not completed, I said to the family, ‘The university owes you an apology. You entrusted Jordan to our care, and he is never returning home again.’

The team’s conditioning coach — depicted in media reports as a demanding, demeaning, and obscenity-screaming right-hand guy and chiefly responsible for players’ care — has received a pay-out and left the school. DJ Durkin, the football head coach, was put on administrative leave.

The Terps have a sad mess to sort out, echoing what occurred decades ago after the sudden death of basketball star Len Bias.

A major concern that hangs over McNair’s death — and one that should concern not only athletic programs but also athletes, their parents and families, and fans all over — is how a major collegiate team could fail in basic training protocols, especially those to deal with so preventable a problem as heat stroke. Experts have warned players, coaches, and parents relentlessly, with reason, how destructive heat and overexertion can be in causing heat stroke that, in turns, leads to cardiac arrest.

As the New York Times reported in 2014, “a young athlete dies from a cardiac incident once every three days in the United States, researchers say. In hot months like August, heat stroke often causes the death of a young athlete every other day on average.”

At the same time, however, the forbidding and tragic toll of heatstroke and cardiac arrest can be prevented — often at little cost and while allowing even the coaches and athletic programs with highest demands to help young athletes get in peak condition.

Schools should start by screening youths for preexisting conditions, especially those of the heart, and with universal and slightly more expensive ($25-$150) but more revelatory tests like the electrocardiogram or EKG.

Athletic programs also should train their coaches and staff, rigorously and intensively, in recognizing and treating heatstroke, including ensuring that players aren’t subjected to abusive and excessive exercise regimens, that they do get adequate hydration, and that life-saving equipment — including the fast availability of cooling tubs and areas, as well of resuscitation tools — is 100 percent. Can we say it once more: Must athletes be subjected to hard, even extreme work-outs in the heat, knowing not only the risks of heat stroke but also the likelihood of aggravating all manner of health conditions?

In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and I find it unacceptable that Maryland coaches and trainers, while questing for athletic glory, failed to take fundamental and minimal medical measures that could have saved a young athlete’s life.

We’ll leave it to the sports pages, likely the civil justice system, and the now-shaken leaders of the school to sort out whether an abusive and toxic culture, starting with the football head coach, contributed to McNair’s death. It’s a good sign that top officials at the school are paying attention now.

But isn’t it time for lawmakers, policy experts, university presidents, and, oh, yeah, the always profit-seeking NCAA to not only ask tougher questions about the safety of college and university athletic programs but also the care and well-being of young people? We’ve had too many scandals at Penn State, USC, Ohio State, and with Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

At a time when young people, their parents, and families are scrimping and saving to afford usurious tuitions and fees, it seems basic and fair that they then aren’t subjected to gross abuses, notably in athletic programs or their auxiliary functions. As Damon Evans, Maryland’s athletic director, noted with emotion about his regrets and having to apologize to the McNair family for their son’s death: “I have looked into the eyes of a grieving mother and father, and there is simply nothing good enough.”

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