By – The Washington Times – Sunday, August 26, 2018

As a description of a program gone off the rails, much of it sounds familiar: Needlessly dangerous practices, a toxic bullying culture and single-minded, abusive coaches.

But one allegation in the news reports following the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair seemed to come out of nowhere: The use of food to humiliate and punish athletes.

It’s the kind of detail that might have gone overlooked a generation ago. But in a society that better understands the long-term consequences and damage caused by eating disorders, the image of a player forced to eat to the point of vomiting was going to set off alarms.

And it should, experts say.

“As the story came out and more information came out, what you really start to notice is this idea of a culture,” said Brent Walker, former president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “And I think in athletics, unfortunately, it still does happen where there are cultures where the athletes are afraid to speak out for fear of retribution or repercussion of what’s going to happen to them.”

Among the allegations in the ESPN report were three instances related to food and players’ weight. Strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who has since resigned and received a severance package of $315,000, allegedly knocked a plate of food out of the hands of a player rushing from a meal to a team meeting.

A coach chaperoned an underweight player to make sure he ate extra meals, once making him vomit, the player claimed.

“Once, I was sitting down eating with a coach, and he basically made me sit there until I threw up,” the anonymous player told ESPN. “He said to eat until I threw up. I was doing what they asked me to do, trying to gain the weight, but at the time I just couldn’t gain the weight, and I guess they weren’t understanding that.”

And one overweight player was humiliated by coaches who made him eat candy bars while watching his teammates practice from the sideline, according to the report.

The mentality behind coaches’ reported actions used to be called “the acid test,” Walker said.

“‘I’m going to basically pour acid on the athlete. I’m gonna try and break him down,’” he explained. “‘If I do, then they weren’t worthy anyway. If they don’t break, then I know they’re strong and I can trust them.’”

The problem with that philosophy, Walker said, is that it’s akin to “throwing away valuable people” when such a result can be avoided. That approach can take hold within Division I football, where teams often carry 100 athletes but only need to play around half of them during the course of the season.

“Really what happens in many of those cases is, rather than helping the athletes thrive, you’re looking for those who can survive,” Walker said.

Angela Sarah Guarda, the director of Johns Hopkins Hospital’s eating disorders program, said that while there isn’t definitive data yet, some studies have shown increased incidence of disordered eating in male college athletes. It is often found in sports where maintaining a certain weight is crucial to be allowed to compete, such as wrestlers, lightweight rowers and jockeys.

There is also a key distinction between disordered eating habits and a diagnosed disorder.

“It’s important to realize disordered eating has become normative in our population. Some level of disordered eating is more common than not,” Guarda said. “However, that’s different from a clinical eating disorder. In a clinical eating disorder, that disorder’s really impairing, usually physically, psychologically and socially.”

Some people are at greater genetic risk of developing a disorder based on family history, and if a vulnerable athlete begins to have disordered eating behaviors in the course of their sport, they are more likely to continue those habits after their playing days are over, Guarda said.

Complicating matters for male athletes is the stigma that eating disorders are a typically “female” problem, and a hypermasculine culture can make players less likely to admit they have a problem.

But the sports world is beginning to open up about mental health matters. Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon shared his struggle with an eating disorder he used to have. ESPN just wrapped up a week’s worth of stories about mental health in the NBA. Even in college , former Penn State kicker Joey Julius was open about his fight with binge eating disorder.

Guarda recommended the National Eating Disorders Association coaches’ toolkit to aid in identifying and dealing with athletes’ eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Parents can also turn to feast-ed.org and maudsleyparents.org as resources, she said.

At Maryland, meanwhile, players will have an opportunity to speak anonymously to a commission investigating the program’s culture. It was created by university president Wallace D. Loh, but the University System of Maryland Board of Regents assumed control days later.

Last Friday, the regents added five more members to the commission, including a sports medicine professor from the University of Tennessee-Campbell, as well as Doug Williams, the Washington Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel and former head coach at Grambling State University.

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