Reflecting on what ‘toxic’ actually means

Published 2:40 pm Friday, August 17, 2018

What exactly constitutes a “toxic” culture in a football program?

I’m hearing that word thrown around like a hot potato in the news lately.

Ohio State is investigating a domestic abuse case with its now former wide receivers coach Zach Smith, and head coach Urban Meyer is facing suspension and a potential firing based on the allegation that he might have known and did nothing.

Email newsletter signup

Maryland player Jordan McNair died earlier this summer after collapsing during practice and suffering what his family described as a “heatstroke.” Now the media, administration and general public are probing into the program, peeling back the curtains to reveal what some are describing as an environment based on intimidation and fear.

I heard the word “toxic” used during Florida State’s 2017 season, where the team unraveled on the field before our very eyes week after week. Jimbo Fisher had jumped ship mentally before bitterly bailing for a job at Texas A&M.

We can look back even further than that.

In 2016, Baylor came under heavy fire in the wake of a sexual assault scandal that allegedly spanned from 2012 to 2016 under former coach Art Briles’s supervision. Coaches and administration looked the other way, and sometimes even promoted the sexual assaults, all in the name of recruiting the best players and winning.

We can even look as far back as the late 2000s, when Florida was making its National Championship runs under Meyer. Players on that team have been described as murderers, robbers and thugs, all oddly orbiting around a vocally Christian quarterback who could seem to do no wrong (for the record, I think Tim Tebow is genuine and a heck of an athlete). Coaches are still struggling to rebuild Florida to its former glory after Meyer abruptly left the program in flames.

The word toxic has been used to describe all these situations. Based on these examples, a toxic program is one that deviates from any traditional means of structure, expectations and decorum. Things get out of hand. Coaches let the players run the show, or coaches put their own best interests over the players, which eventually leads to a player mutiny. Either way, a disconnect is created that eventually leads to trouble.

Coaching and managing a college football team is likely one of toughest jobs in sports. You are responsible for more than a hundred young men at an age where they are most likely to make questionable decisions. You are expected to use the sport to shape them into strong members of our society, good fathers, hard workers and leaders. At the same time, you are expected to win. I don’t think any college football coach in the country would disagree.

But at what cost?

That’s the question that gets some of these programs in trouble.

What if a coach becomes so unhappy with how he is treated by the administration, the players and the fans? Or his personal life is stressful and unfulfilling?

Questions like these point to why coaches like Fisher mentally checked out halfway through the season and left to coach the Aggies.

Obviously, there’s still a lot to be revealed in the Ohio State and Maryland scandals, but reading the news just got me thinking.