James Crabtree-Hannigan is The Diamondback’s football columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If you watched Maryland football’s upset win over Texas on Fox Sports 1 or via the Terps’ social media pages, you saw plenty of touching footage of Maryland players paying tribute to Jordan McNair in a variety of ways, from carrying his jersey to midfield for the coin toss, to waving a flag with his number on it, to lining up with 10 men on the first play.
If you’re a student, you’ve heard university officials assert that McNair’s death is a reason you should attend football games and support the team. At the athletics kickoff Aug. 25, athletic director Damon Evans told incoming freshmen that “our football team needs you and our university needs you”; in his “Welcome!” email sent to all students last week, university President Wallace Loh expressed the same sentiment before promoting this university’s buses to FedEx Field.
What you didn’t hear was any meaningful engagement with how and why McNair died, or an explanation for why it took two months to acknowledge this university’s responsibility for it.
In recent weeks — and repeatedly on Saturday — the university and team officials have glossed over the details of McNair’s death and used his teammates’ reactions to strengthen the Maryland brand and drum up support for the program.
Though hardly surprising, it’s nevertheless an off-putting development that only serves the university and the athletic department — the ones who played a role in McNair’s death, tried for as long as they could to avoid admitting to it and are now hoping to use him to their advantage.
It’s the players’ prerogative to honor McNair through whatever means they deem appropriate. To its credit, Maryland has (to our knowledge) allowed them to do so, as interim head coach Matt Canada specified after the game.
The players were the ones who practiced with McNair, went to classes with him and were told to “drag his ass across the field” as he suffered heatstroke, which was made fatal through the negligence of the university employees tasked with protecting him. Obviously, those players don’t deserve to be condemned for the death of their teammate, and the actions they took Saturday were truly moving.
But statements from the university — such as the tweet from the Maryland team account on Saturday that proclaimed the win was not only “For Him” but also “For You,” accompanied by a clip of offensive lineman Ellis McKennie waving the No. 79 flag — nullify the team’s self-stated intentions of allowing players to control the narrative surrounding their tributes.
Given Evans’ previous actions, his co-opting of the players’ cause is particularly brazen. At the press conference two months after McNair’s death where Loh said the school accepted “legal and moral” responsibility for it, Evans did all he could to distance himself from the football program and the athletic department as a whole. He spoke as if his time at Maryland began when he took over as permanent athletic director in July, failing to mention that he’d been acting as athletic director since October and served as the football program’s administrative liaison before that.
After the win Saturday, Evans tweeted a picture of the celebratory Maryland locker room, featuring the players he allowed to continue practicing all summer under the same training staff that was responsible for the death of their teammate, the players he elected not to have speak to an independent investigator until the beginning of fall camp.
“This team came together,” Evans wrote, “and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Whether they’ve been transmitted online or in person, the tone-deafness and selfishness of this university’s statements has not been lost on their audiences.
“I’m still honestly not sure what to think about how [Loh] encouraged us to go support the team,” one freshman said after the kickoff event. “He’s right in the idea that we should be supporting the players. … But, on the other hand, I’m worried that supporting the team by going to the games will look more like we’re supporting the athletic department and their practices.”
Last year, Carlos Sanchez, a high school linebacker in Phoenix, died from a head injury he suffered during a game. After Sanchez’s death, his head coach Seth Millican said he was “in a weird spot” regarding how to honor him.
“I obviously want to remember him,” Millican told The Arizona Republic. “But I’m very cognizant or I’m very worried about exploiting it. … Every idea we have to honoring him, I want it sincerely vetted and make sure it’s done in the right way.”
The university has failed to meet that standard, just as it repeatedly failed McNair and his teammates over the summer. The school’s shameful attempts to use McNair to sell tickets, bolster school pride and cash in on social media shouldn’t fool anybody into forgetting who bears responsibility for his death.