Sports

Maryland's football players found their voice as their university floundered

Jordan McNair’s teammates “assured their waving of a flag bearing his No. 79 jersey isn’t some meaningless act.” CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
Jordan McNair’s teammates “assured their waving of a flag bearing his No. 79 jersey isn’t some meaningless act.” CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

At the end, after the adults impersonating leaders had failed them, after their university had decided to let Jordan McNair’s death be in vain, several Maryland football players refused to accept inaction. They refused to accept a shoddy investigative process, refused to accept the tragedy as merely a mishap of playing big-time football, and refused to accept they were powerless, once more, against misguided authority.

At the end, those players provided the emotion and coherent thought that led to a revolt from students, faculty, frustrated alums and state lawmakers. At the end, their support gave University of Maryland President Wallace Loh the strength to do what he wanted to do - what he needed to do - and shun the forceful recommendation of the university system’s board of regents to reinstate coach DJ Durkin.

Don’t make Loh, who during this debacle announced he will retire in June, into a martyr. He ultimately did the right thing despite being told to do otherwise. But he was able to stand atop public outrage while acting in defiance. The players deserve the appreciation, and the praise shouldn’t be reserved solely for the ones who refused that initial judgment. As a unit, regardless of where they stood on the Durkin issue, these players have represented Maryland well during a devastating period.

They have honored McNair in a heartfelt manner and assured their waving of a flag bearing his No. 79 jersey isn’t some meaningless act. Through the pain, they have found a way to produce a 5-3 record that includes a victory over No. 15 Texas. They have taken the best of what Durkin taught them, embraced the style of interim coach Matt Canada and shown how mature and responsible they are on their own. Their performance this season proves that, while every coach needs to motivate and push athletes, it’s important to empower them as well.

These are developing adults who don’t need to be scared right. They need to be nudged from time to time. They need structure and discipline, for sure. But they also need to be encouraged and allowed to take ownership. There’s nothing good that comes out of an avoidable death. But it is reassuring to watch the players, who will be faced with plenty of hardship during their lives, exhibit their resilience, character and sense of mission.

In response to having their voices heard Wednesday, linebacker Tre Watson wrote on Twitter: “Pressure busts pipes doesn’t it??”

Offensive lineman Ellis McKennie, who also played with McNair in high school, quoted the tweet and added: “Most certainly does! Don’t let anyone tell you your voice doesn’t matter!”

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McKennie was one of three players who walked out of Durkin’s first meeting with the team after he had been reinstated. Offensive lineman Brendan Moore and tight end Avery Edwards were the others. Wide receiver Michael Cornwell and linebacker Bruce Miller were some of the other vocal players on Twitter. They made it easier for public disgust over Durkin’s reinstatement to morph into a protest that would have become quite a disturbance leading up to Saturday’s game against Michigan State. When the politicians started chiming in and making threats to scrutinize how the regents arrived at their recommendations, Loh had ample support.

It’s very appropriate for these times in sports and society that a few Terrapins decided to test the strength of their voices. This is an era of protest in athletics, and even though this issue isn’t tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, we are talking about students who are studying and living at this historical moment. So it’s no surprise that a few college football players, many of whom look at the NFL as the standard, decided to mimic their idols and push back against what they considered an injustice.

Harry Edwards, the sociologist, activist and founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights that inspired the 1968 Olympics protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, has said throughout this wave of athlete activism that the college students would be a major part of the next movement. You have seen isolated recent incidents, including the Missouri football team protest three years ago that forced the resignation of the state university system president for failing to act against racist incidents on campus. And on a larger level, the NCAA system is so flawed and exploitative that there’s always the potential for some bold, intelligent student-athletes to take a stand. They just have to recognize their power.

On the surface, there’s no connection between a student revolt against the NCAA and the Maryland players against Durkin. But it’s another indicator that college athletes aren’t voiceless.

“You don’t have to have numbers,” Edwards said during an interview before the Maryland players acted. “You have to have acts. You have to have activism. At some point, there’s going to be a national championship football game with $100 or $200 million on the line, and the kids are going to stay in the locker room and say, ‘We’ll take the field when somebody talks to us about money.’ There’s going to be a Final Four, and no one is going to be at center court for the jump ball because they’re tired of how they’re being treated. It’s inevitable.

“With college sports and the notion of amateurism, everything they do adds more links to the chains that are binding athletes in servitude. It’s not going to work. It’s going to spark a more profound rebellion. Every little empowering moment brings us one step closer to that ultimate moment.”

For now, at Maryland, the football players will settle for taking back what’s theirs. If the university is serious about permanent reform in the football program, the players’ voices had better continue to be a huge part of the process.

They may be young and in need of molding, but during a most trying time, we also learned that their minds are fresh, their hearts are beating, and they aren’t as easy to corrupt as some of the people pretending to serve them.

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