A Simple Rule: Program Death Penalty for Killing an Athlete

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In February 2002, Daniel F. Reardon, a 19 year-old University of Maryland student, drank himself to death at the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity.  The institutional response was quick: the University of Maryland suspended the fraternity and the national accrediting body for the fraternity revoked its charterThe general principle here seems obvious: if your campus-affiliated organization shares in responsibility for the death of a college student, then your organization is penalized, perhaps even losing its right to exist. However, there is apparently an important exception to this general rule for university football programs. There should not be.

Earlier this summer, Jordan McNair, a 19 year-old University of Maryland student, died of heatstroke after intense conditioning led by members of the university’s athletic program. In an extraordinary move, the university’s president, Wallace D. Loh, apologized to McNair’s family and accepted “legal and moral responsibility for mistakes the training staff made.” There will no doubt be a sizable settlement and consequential institutional actions.

One of these actions that should be considered is the “death penalty” for the Maryland football program. I understand this is a strong statement. But having responsibility for the death of a student in your care is a big deal.

The NCAA has begun to focus on the issue of athlete deaths caused by improper or excessive training. However, coming up with NCAA standards and regulations for the role of strength and conditioning coaches has been “dampened by language that is, by necessity, imprecise because of the field’s inability to come to consensus on how it should be regulated.”

But regulation is sorely needed. According to Scott Anderson of the University of Oklahoma (PDF), 33 NCAA football players died from 2000 to 2016, the vast majority occurring off the field during training. Anderson is blunt: “Killing DI football players in required rigorous conditioning activities is ‘normal’ . . . In conditioning, no other sport kills as does football. . .no level kills at the rate of NCAA football. . .no division kills more players than DI.”

Two types of actions are needed. First, the NCAA needs to develop a set of agreed-upon regulatory standards for appropriate duty of care of athletes in the programs that they sanction (for an example see the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position
Statement: Preventing Sudden Death in SportsPDF). Such standards are needed because even in the best of cases sport involves unavoidable risk and athletes will die no matter what regulations are in place. Not every death is the responsibility of the football program or the university. But some are. We need standards and regulations in order to be able to distinguish the difference.

Second, in those cases where the university is deemed to be responsible, in part or in full for an athlete’s death, there needs to be appropriate sanctions. Such sanctions should include the possible suspension of the entire football program. The NCAA is quick to sanction schools for athletes who sell their university-provided shoes. But the organization has a glaring oversight in its inability to sanction programs responsible for the death of a student in their care. This oversight should be addressed immediately.

Much has been written about the unhealthy culture of football that contributes to pushing athletes too far.  One important, but often overlooked, aspect of unhealthy football culture is the institutional blindness that many university administrators have toward their football programs.

The general principle is obvious: if a fraternity should lose its right to operate on campus after sharing responsibility for the death of a student, then a football program should too. College football is a big deal on American campuses, but not so big a deal that it should be immune to common sense. With more than 2 football players dying each year, the NCAA should act quickly to improve its governance of this issue before more students are killed.

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