What is tone at the top of an organization? What is the culture of your company? Fortunately, the answers to these questions are rarely involved when considering a death, but they were a key consideration in the death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, the athlete who had a heat stroke and eventually died after participating in a workout that included 110-yard wind sprints. 

Due to NCAA rules, the workout was not overseen by the coaching staff but the team’s training staff, with head trainer Rick Court running the drills. It has been reported that Court did not think McNair was in a health crisis and accused him of “dogging it” when McNair collapsed and could not run any more sprints. More troubling was the training staff’s failure to follow standard medical protocols for the victim of a heat stroke by immediately cooling down the body in cold water or an ice bath. McNair’s body temperature was reported to have been reached 106 degrees. Also of concern was the delay between the time of McNair’s heat stroke, between 4:30 and 5:00 and when 911 was called at 5:57 PM, over an hour after the collapse. 

This is the reason safety and health protocols must be followed. By failing to administer standard techniques after the heat stroke, catastrophic results followed. This was only acerbated by the failure to call immediately for expert medical assistance, as apparently it was not available to team members during this workout. 

Anyone who has played football at any level has either been accused of “dogging it” or heard a teammate so accused, but it is the responsibility of traing staff to ensure protocols are being met for both player safety and player health. When they fail in that capacity it becomes the duty of the head of the organization, or head coach, in this case D.J. Durkin, to set the tone for the football team. Coach Durkin has been accused of running an abusive program, one focused on fear and intimidation. But, noted University of Maryland President Wallace Loh, “humiliating and demeaning a student is not only bad teaching and coaching, it is an abuse of the authority of a teacher and coach.”

It turns out both culture and tone matter and could in fact mean the difference between like and death.