A Campus Divided

Maryland's student government organized a rally to encourage backing the football team. Many minority students and others said it was time to focus on the abuse of athletes and the death of a black player.

November 6, 2018
 
Jon Orbach

The rally was supposed to show support for the family of Jordan McNair, the University of Maryland at College Park football player who died from heatstroke after a summer practice.

It was supposed to express unity among students at the university, which has been shaken by an athletics scandal beginning with McNair’s death, and followed by revelations of coaching abuse in the football program and the exit of top higher education leaders in the state, including the College Park president and the chairman of the University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents.

The demonstration last week instead devolved into screams by some dissatisfied attendees, who were apparently irked by the suggestions by the rally’s sponsors -- student government leaders, the campus chapter of the NAACP and others -- that they back athletics and attend the football game on Saturday against Michigan State University. The student government especially was criticized as tone-deaf for trying to rally support for football and not advocating for true change for minority students on campus. McNair was black, as are many of the football players. Most of the fans at the game are white.

Another coalition of more than 20 student groups -- among them the university’s Black Student Union and the Latinx Student Union -- planned another protest on Monday, a “Fire the Liars” demonstration to demand the ouster of others responsible for the problems in the football program.

The turmoil began with McNair’s death in June. He collapsed at a practice in May from heatstroke, and a subsequent investigation, initially led by the university but taken over by the regents, revealed that athletics staffers had failed to follow their own procedures and did not treat McNair with a cold-immersion bath that would have assuredly saved his life. College Park president Wallace Loh publicly took “legal” and “moral” responsibility for McNair’s death, which was followed by explosive media reports of allegations of a “toxic” culture in Maryland football.

Another inquiry, the results of which were made public late last month, revealed that indeed a former strength and conditioning coach, Rick Court, would often belittle players with homophobic slurs, chucking food and weights around, and on one occasion, a trash can full of vomit. Court negotiated a settlement and left the university in August.

Fallout from the scandal was messy and public. McNair’s parents indicated they would sue for millions. Head football coach DJ Durkin, who had been on leave since August, charmed the regents, according to media reports -- the board pressured Loh to keep Durkin in his position and threatened to fire Loh instead. System-level officials do not have the purview to fire employees on individual campuses, which would be left to College Park administrators.

Loh initially complied, and announced his retirement last week. But after he met with students, administrators and professors who were adamant Durkin should not return, Loh defied the regents and dismissed Durkin.

The university’s fund-raising arm and state lawmakers, including Republican governor Larry Hogan, had also blasted the regents, and its chairman, James T. Brady, eventually stepped down.

Academic leaders and faculty have since asked Loh to reconsider his retirement, too. But this was not a sentiment shared by the student coalition that organized the protest outside McKeldin Library on Monday, which posted in a statement on Twitter that Loh had been a “abysmal” and “cowardly” leader who “abdicated … in the midst of extreme trauma, crisis and violence.”

It’s unclear whether these students were also those that disrupted the rally last week, organized by members of the University of Maryland Student Government Association.

Chants of “Black lives matter” and “Justice for Jordan” at times rose above remarks by College Democrats and Republicans, urging students to attend Saturday’s football game, video posted online shows.

The request was met with shouts to instead boycott it.

Akil Patterson, an activist and former football player at Maryland, yelled to the crowd they should call for Brady’s resignation (he had not yet stepped down) and that the regents needed to answer to the students. One request by the coalition was that the regent board members -- instead of being appointed by the governor -- be elected.

“You are the future, not them,” Patterson told the crowd.

In a column to the student newspaper, The Diamondback, sophomore Zachary Jablow wrote that the student government’s plea to attend football games “badly misses the mark.”

Jablow pointed out that Athletics Director Damon Evans remains employed at the university, despite his lack of oversight on the program, and that the institution will be paying Durkin millions of dollars to buy him out of his contract.

“The SGA has pushed the idea of attending games by framing it as supporting student-athletes,” Jablow wrote. “This wrongfully equates supporting the victims of abuse and those affected by tragedy with blindly supporting this football program and the sport in general.”

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