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Controversy leaves little time for Jordan McNair’s parents to grieve

And turmoil at University of Maryland continues amid student protests

For the last six months, Marty McNair and Tonya Wilson have been dealing with the unthinkable tragedy of losing a child. A tragedy complicated by the fact that the death of their son, University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair, has become a national story.

There has been little breathing room, little time to exhale, to be alone, to face reality.

“There hasn’t been a process to grieve due to the media attention and magnitude of the case,” Marty McNair told me during a recent phone interview. “Every day I see Jordan on TV, it’s painful. Some people lose a kid and they can be at peace with it. But this is a knife that keeps sticking you in your side. This is like a horrific train wreck you keep looking at. We can’t get away from it.

“The coaching staff broke its promise to the family. ‘I promise I will keep your son safe if he comes to the University of Maryland.’ Jordan delivered his end of the contract. The university did not.”

“There hasn’t been an opportunity for a scab to form on this wound, because it’s snatched off. Every day, something new comes out.”

Jordan McNair suffered heatstroke during a University of Maryland workout on May 29 and died two weeks later. The university’s training and coaching staff have been criticized for their handling of Jordan McNair’s heatstroke. Subsequent reports, including a university-led investigation into the program, cited carelessness and failure to react in a timely fashion in the face of classic symptoms of heatstroke.

According to witnesses, Jordan McNair was called derogatory names by members of the Maryland staff and had his toughness and masculinity challenged as his condition worsened on May 29. Witnesses say that Jordan McNair was pushed, chided and humiliated and had to be helped by two teammates to complete his final sprints.

University president Wallace Loh said as much in August when he issued an apology. According to a letter sent to the university community, the president apologized to the McNair family for “the mistakes made in Jordan’s care by our athletics trainers.”

Critics of intercollegiate sports have framed the McNair tragedy as yet another example of an institution exploiting free young labor for on-campus entertainment and to promulgate the university’s brand. One of Marty McNair’s attorneys, Hassan Murphy, cast the death as yet another instance of a staff — and, by extension, a university — putting success and winning ahead of the welfare of young athletes.

“It shows the lengths to which these guys will go to win and prosper,” Murphy said. “You’re so wrapped up in being the most conditioned team, the strongest, the most prepared, that you eliminate your own ability to sense that you have pushed a player past reasonable limits.”

Jordan McNair’s death triggered student demonstrations as recently as last week. Everyone is culpable, from the university president, who pushed Maryland into the hypercompetitive Big Ten conference, to the athletic director and the board of regents. Last month, Loh announced his retirement while accepting the board of regents’ recommendation to bring coach DJ Durkin back from administrative leave. A day later, faced with campuswide outrage from students and faculty, Loh fired Durkin.

The larger issue raised by Jordan McNair’s tragic and apparently unnecessary death is the role of parents who entrust their children to coaches who too often see players as pieces on a chessboard. This is not a new question, but it’s one that arises at these moments of profound tragedy: How do parents keep young college athletes from being crushed by the machinery of big-time intercollegiate athletics?

Parents generally are no match for coaches who, in too many cases, combine the most distasteful elements of preachers, politicians and car salesmen. This might seem on the surface like a sweeping generalization, but over the course of four decades covering intercollegiate athletics, I have seen too many otherwise honorable individuals lose their moral compass in order to keep pace.

Maryland’s problems have not prevented the school from landing a big-name recruit. On Tuesday, Dino Tomlin, son of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, announced his commitment to Maryland.

“Our children are bigger than some coach sitting at a table blowing smoke and telling you what they’re going to do for your kid,” McNair told me. “Coaches will tell you everything you want to hear,” he added. “In reality, it’s just a game.”

When we spoke last week, McNair suggested that he failed to ask Durkin the right questions when he made a home visit to recruit Jordan. McNair lamented that he never asked about the medical staff and training staff.

“I never thought to ask about information I had no clue about,” he said. “Who knew? I didn’t know to ask about the emergency action plan or what was the program’s best practices for injuries.”

He should not have had to ask those basic questions. Procedures and guidelines are stated plainly in the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook, whose preface begins:

The health and safety principle of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s constitution provides that it is the responsibility of each member institution to protect the health of, and provide a safe environment for, each of its participating student-athletes.

In the section under the heading “Heat Illness,” the manual advises: Practice or competition in hot and/or humid environmental conditions poses special problems for student-athletes. Heat stress and resulting heat illness is a primary concern in these conditions. Although deaths from heat illness are rare, exceptional heatstroke (EHS) is the third-leading cause of on-the-field sudden death in athletes. There have been more deaths from heatstroke in the recent five-year block from 2005 to 2009 than any other five-year block in the previous 30 years.

Asking the right question is only half the battle for parents whose daughters and sons are being recruited. McNair said there has to be a psychological shift, a realization by parents that the school is not doing the family a favor. The family is doing the university a favor by putting their child in the university’s care with full expectations that the child will come back alive.

“Closure for me will be to have my son not die in vain,” McNair said. “Closure means his honor will continue to be acknowledged, especially at this institution. I just don’t want him to be forgotten.”

“The coaching staff broke its promise to the family,” Murphy said. “ ‘I promise I will keep your son safe if he comes to the University of Maryland.’ Jordan delivered his end of the contract. The university did not.” President Loh said as much last August when he accepted moral and legal responsibility for Jordan McNair’s death.

Marty McNair does not believe that Loh should lose his job over this. “He has been a shining light to our family,” he said. “He is the only one who cared. He reached out and did the right thing.”

As the football season at Maryland mercifully gives way to basketball and news cycles move on, how will the university keep Jordan McNair’s memory alive? The offensive line room will be named after him. Perhaps the university will establish a lifetime scholarship in Jordan’s name. Maybe they will put him in the Hall of Fame.

“Closure for me will be to have my son not die in vain,” Marty McNair said. “Closure means his honor will continue to be acknowledged, especially at this institution. I just don’t want him to be forgotten.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.