There’s been little justice in the year since Jordan McNair’s death

Jordan McNair. (Image via Anthony McFarland/Twitter)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Almost nothing surrounding Jordan McNair’s death was handled properly — that much is clear. The University of Maryland football player died of heatstroke after collapsing at a team workout, and the subsequent investigations revealed astounding dysfunction at every level of leadership. Before I look at the good and the bad of what’s happened since the scandal died down and everything returned to the new normal, it’s worth remembering just how disastrous the situation was.

The team’s athletic trainers failed to properly treat McNair; his death was entirely preventable. As the investigation into the culture of this university’s football program detailed, former head coach DJ Durkin didn’t exercise adequate supervision over former strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, who abused players and greatly contributed to an abusive culture that culminated in a player’s death. Athletic director Damon Evans also didn’t responsibly oversee the program and protect its players. His superior, university President Wallace Loh, neglected to scrutinize his athletics department, despite even receiving a tip that there was widespread abuse within the football program.

And after all of this, more chaos ensued when the Board of Regents made the inexcusable decision not to recommend any personnel changes to the university.

Now, it’s been almost a year since McNair died. There were finally some personnel changes at this university as well as on the Board of Regents, and new reforms have been implemented. But the changes have been a mixed bag.

For one, the athletic trainers who failed to treat McNair were fired. It took too long — the university administration was aware of their culpability well before they were released — but they were held responsible.

DJ Durkin, of course, is out as head coach. It took far too long for him to be fired as well — and even when he was, it didn’t feel like justice was served. Durkin walked away with a cool $5.1 million because the university fired him without cause. He didn’t deserve to leave this program with any more money and, considering the damage he inflicted on his players and the university community, it’s regrettable that the university elected to pay him out without a fight.

After next academic year, Loh will also no longer be at this university, yet his departure will be similarly dissatisfying. Far from being held accountable for his role in failing to supervise the athletics department, Loh initially planned to resign as a result of the regents’ directive to keep Durkin. The regents have since retained Loh, and by the time he actually leaves, his repeated failures in handling the scandal will be years in the past.  

As for the regents themselves, then-board chairman, James Brady, resigned amid the outrage surrounding the regents’ reinstating Durkin. Upon assuming the position, current chair Linda Gooden rightly apologized for the board’s decision and admitted it was wrong.

Perhaps the most striking continuity is Evans, who remains this university’s athletic director. He bears some responsibility for the toxicity of the football program, as the regents’ report detailed his complete lack of supervision over the team’s leadership. Clearly, he should not be the person leading the athletics department in its reform efforts. Yet that incongruity was on display just this Tuesday when Evans discussed changes to the department with the University Senate.  

Regardless of his role, the reforms deserve evaluation. The department has implemented most of the changes recommended in investigations into the football program. And it’s an improvement that there’s now an online platform for players to submit anonymous complaints to be reviewed by people outside the athletic department. Overall, however, it’s unclear if the underlying cultural problems within the program — the hypermasculinity and the pernicious, relentless pressure on players and coaches to succeed — have been addressed. 

The Maryland General Assembly has also passed reforms following the scandal, with Gov. Larry Hogan signing into law a bill that reforms the Board of Regents. The law increases the board’s transparency by requiring it to livestream its open meetings and allow the public time to comment before them. But the legislation makes the board only slightly more responsive to the public by requiring the state Senate confirm the chair, an awfully low bar for a democratic process.

This scandal and its aftermath revealed wrongdoing at almost every level in this university. There have been some major changes in leadership, and reforms of the athletics department and the Board of Regents address serious, previously neglected issues. Yet there continues to be a sense that some of those responsible are walking away largely unscathed, and it remains to be seen whether the instituted changes are sufficient to truly reform this university’s athletics department and system of governance.

Zachary Jablow, opinion editor, is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at zachjablow@gmail.com.

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