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Journalism Centers Publish Investigation of College Football Deaths from Exertion-Related Illnesses

By Maryland Today Staff

The University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism have teamed up for the first time to publish an investigation into the 22 Division I college football player deaths from exertion-related illnesses since 2000.

The “Pushed Too Far” project was published Friday by USA Today and Monday by the university’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Howard Center.

The primary causes of death in these incidents are sudden cardiac arrest, sickling collapse and heatstroke. The story explores the fact that football programs and coaches face few repercussions from institutions or the NCAA, even when they violate recommended safety precautions that might have prevented death.

The research—conducted by Merrill Professor of the Practice Kevin Blackistone’s Spring 2019 and Spring 2020 “Sports Reporting and Writing” classes, and master’s student Dan Novak—was based on cases gathered from publicly available court records, death certificates, legislative reports, media reports and interviews.

“This would not have been possible without the collaboration with the Howard Center to mold the curiosity of students, who mined information from myriad sources across the country into a piece of explanatory journalism following the death of former Terps football player Jordan McNair, someone who should have become one of their fellow alumni,” Blackistone said.

Following 19-year-old McNair’s death in 2018 from heatstroke, the university implemented all 41 recommendations from two external reviews, including increasing the number and length of recovery breaks at athletic practices, providing cooling stations, establishing an Athletic Medicine Review Board, and creating venue-specific emergency action plans.

There have been no Division I fatalities since 2018; however, Quandarius Wilburn, a football player at Division II Virginia Union University, died in early August after collapsing during practice. Experts said the risk to football players remains, and coaches and schools need to be held accountable for dangerous workouts and training sessions.

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