McNair Case Reveals Institutional Failure

Sam Thomas ‘20

Sports editor

Jordan McNair, a freshman offensive lineman on the University of Maryland, College Park, football team, died of heatstroke on June 13, 2018, after collapsing in the midst of practice two weeks earlier. McNair had shown visible signs of exhaustion through sprints and his teammates had reportedly been told not to help him up when he first collapsed by strength and conditioning coach Rick Court. With the results of external investigation looming, head coach DJ Durkin was put on administrative leave on August 11, 2018, and Court resigned from his position on August 13.

On Tuesday, October 30, the University System of Maryland’s (USM) Board of Regents announced its recommendation to reinstate Durkin and keep Athletic Director Damon Evans, who had received the position during the June investigation into McNair’s death, on the university’s staff. In the same press conference, University of Maryland College Park President William Loh announced that he will retire at the end of the year. Per the USM Board of Regents website, the group is responsible for the oversight of “academic, administrative, and financial operations… and appoint presidents of the system’s 12 institutions.” On the day Loh announced his retirement, ESPN sources close to the University of Maryland reported that the Board of Regents told Loh that he would be fired if he did not reinstate Durkin.

On Wednesday, October 31, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan asked the Board of Regents and Loh to reconsider the recommendations made a day earlier. That afternoon, Loh informed Evans that Durkin would be fired independent of the Board of Regents. Evans has retained his position.

McNair’s death begs the question of the enforceable rights that athletes have against a program. At state universities, administrative bodies, like the USM’s Board of Regents, are appointed by the governor. For private institutions, these boards are not applicable to institutional administration. The University of Maryland, a member of the Big 10 conference, is also under the authority of the NCAA when it comes to athletic decisions.

Article 1.2 of the NCAA Constitution states that first purpose of the NCAA as an institution is “to initiate, stimulate and improve intercollegiate athletics programs for student-athletes and to promote and develop educational leadership, physical fitness, athletics excellence and athletics participation as a recreational pursuit.” Having what ESPN reported as a “toxic coaching culture” filled with “intimidation, humiliation, and verbal abuse” coupled with “using food punitively against players” contradicts many if not all clauses of the first purpose of the NCAA independent of McNair’s death. The NCAA has not released any official statements nor given any indication that they are to investigate either McNair’s death nor the way that the USM has handled the case.

Justice will never fully be provided for the McNair’s family. By allowing an athlete to fulfill their dream of competing at a Division 1 level, families place tremendous amount of trust in the institution. Had it not been for the pressure from Governor Hogan, Durkin may have been allowed to continue coaching at the University of Maryland, where several football players put their scholarships at risk by protesting practices upon his return to the school.

At a private institution, like Davidson, where the state government does not have power over decision making, trust in the institution itself is all the more important. Fortunately, Davidson Athletic Director Chris Clunie ‘06 has made a concerted and deliberate effort to emphasize the importance of multidimensional accountability from coaches to athletes and vice versa from his earliest interview as Athletic Director with The Davidsonian.

Lost within the institutional madness and headlines are the efforts put forth by the players. The football players at Maryland pay tribute to McNair before every game. The team started its first possession of the season by going onto the field with ten players, leaving a glaring hole open in the offensive line where McNair would have been positioned. Each player has a sticker with McNair’s number, 79, on the back of his helmet, and before the start of each game, the team waves a flag with McNair’s number as a tribute to his memory.

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