They didn’t even take his temperature.
University of Maryland president Wallace Loh and athletic director Damon Evans visited the home of the grieving parents of football player Jordan McNair on Tuesday and apologized for the school’s role in his death. They took moral and legal responsibility for the school’s failure. It was truly the least they could do.
“You entrusted Jordan to our care,” Loh said he told the parents, “and he is never returning home again.”
Details of what happened on the day McNair suffered severe heatstroke after practice in May are still scarce, but what we heard in a news conference on Tuesday afternoon was appalling. According to Loh and Evans, heat illness was not correctly identified, cold-water immersion was not used and McNair’s temperature was not taken.
“The emergency response plan was not appropriately followed,” Evans said, after becoming visibly emotional over McNair’s passing. “The care we provided was not consistent with best practices. The heat illness was not properly identified or treated.”
How could this happen? You can hardly fall down on an elementary school playground without being swarmed with attention, and here a 300-plus-pound college student was apparently misdiagnosed for the better part of an hour.
“There were multiple people that said, ‘Wow, Jordan looks f—d up, he doesn’t look all right,” one player told ESPN. “We knew he was really exhausted, but we didn’t know he was in danger of his life. But that doesn’t mean that a medical professional shouldn’t know to put him in an ice tub.”
Multiple sources told ESPN that after the final sprint finished, Maryland’s head football trainer yelled, “Drag his ass across the field!”
The only thing that can be said for Maryland is how the president and A.D. handled Tuesday’s events. Their language was emphatic and empathetic. They spoke of treating students with respect and dignity. It wasn’t the all-too-usual legalese to protect the bankroll.
“I’m committed to doing the right thing and nothing we can do can bring closure to their enormous loss,” Loh said of McNair’s parents. “I made this commitment – we both made this commitment. No Maryland student-athletes will ever be in the situation for his or her life and safety at risk. Especially when that risk is foreseeable.”
But that speech should be given at the beginning of every training camp, not after someone has died. We have had scandal after scandal on college campuses, from Penn State to Baylor to Michigan State to Ohio State and now this, and it comes down to mistreatment, a lack of transparency and a void of adults protecting the abused and neglected.
“What it is is a systemic problem that nobody ever deals with,” says Jimmy Stewart, a Colorado-based professional counselor who played in the NFL. “You never have a system shift.”
The system shift needs to put the football family above the football product. It sounds simple and even obvious, but it’s rarely followed when the carrot of winning and money is dangling just out of reach. The culture of toughness is cherished in our country, but you can build toughness without tearing down dignity and standards of safety.
“You can motivate and push them to the limit without inappropriate behavior,” Loh said.
Some way or another, every college sports program has to empower the people making less than six figures to speak up without fear of reprisal. And, even more importantly, when speaking up leads to no proper response, there should be another option for reporting. Too many student-athletes and staffers are keeping to themselves, not because they don’t care, but because they are worried about the consequences.
And too many training staffs are falling short, whether it’s about heat illness or concussion diagnosis. Is that because there is improper protocol? Panic in a trying moment? Or is it because there is a reluctance to take a player off the field? Whatever the case, any static in the channel has to vanish immediately. If that means taking the hiring power away from the football coach, so be it. Maryland has parted ways with its football strength coach, and his replacement shouldn’t be the choice of D.J. Durkin or whoever is in charge of the football team.
The biggest sentiment to be avoided in the aftermath of this tragedy is that it couldn’t happen here. Everyone wants to think the best of their own school and their own athletic department, but the culture of toughness and ends-justify-means is pervasive in college sports. It’s not new, and it’s not isolated. Presidents need to be asking difficult questions of their coaches and staffs immediately – not at the next staff retreat or after the next tragedy. Yes, it can happen “here.” What’s being done now to make sure it doesn’t?
Maryland will hopefully do its very best to honor Jordan McNair’s memory. But McNair’s legacy should be present on every single campus, not just one. If you are a school president, it’s time to demand accountability before there’s another mournful visit to bereft parents.
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