Editorial: In Maryland’s troubling football culture, praise for players’ gesture

Following the untimely death of the University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair (detailed in this week’s edition of Beyond the Bison), his team honored him by lining up for the first play of their season-opener against Texas with only 10 players, tangibly stressing the gaping hole with which McNair’s death has left the Maryland program. McNair died shortly after a suffering heat stroke at a practice session in May, and his death has been surrounded by questions regarding the toxic environment of Maryland’s football program ever since.

In the past, we have heard stories of severe abuse within athletic programs that had gone unnoticed because of the purposeful concealment of that abuse on the part of adults who had been responsible for the protection of young athletes who were vulnerable and under their care. Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar are just two examples of abusers whose crimes were known by some around them, but kept undercover in the interest of the continued success of the athletic programs under which they played crucial roles.

After news of McNair’s death reached the school’s administration, the school decided to place the football team’s coach D. J. Durkin on leave, but questions about the environment of the program to which student athletes were subjected remained. According to a report published by ESPN, former football players, current team members, and several individuals close to the program reported that players were under extreme duress regularly, as humiliation and fear were regular tactics used by Durkin to keep the players motivated. In some examples provided by the report, students had been shamed for their weight, mocked for passing out during a workout, and verbally abused with profanity.

The display of honor for McNair on the part of the team holds controversy as well, given that the common response from the media was praise of the football program for their symbolic gesture rather than a call for the implementation of institutional change. Though the honorable motion was an idea executed entirely by the players, the program itself received positive media attention as a result. It would seem at this point that McNair’s death is the responsibility of those in charge of the program, such as Durkin.

It is deeply unsettling that the only reaction thus far to McNair’s death on the part of the school has been the suspension of the coach whose reaction to McNair’s collapse was to “drag his ass off the field,” in place of following proper protocol for heat stroke distress. The obvious priority of an athletic administration should be the health and safety of its players, for without them, a team is nothing, much less than a winning season.

The dynamic of power that was abused in the case of Durkin is one we have seen before, in past cases such as those of Nassar and Sandusky. However, in this scenario, rather than shame, the program has received media praise for their mourning. The Bucknellian stands to give credit where credit is due: it goes to the players who have endured the loss of their comrade, and to condemn the abuse that led to his death.

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