Lt. Richard Collins III and Jordan McNair. Two ostensibly different stories, two tragedies that took place almost a year to the day apart, but also two shatteringly similar endings rooted in the grotesque negligence of one of the largest public universities in the United States.
Both Collins and McNair were young black men killed on the University of Maryland campus. Richard Collins III was a 23-year-old student and second lieutenant in the US Army about to graduate from Bowie State University when he was stabbed in the chest in May of 2017 by a University of Maryland student and member of the “alt-reich,” Stefan Urbanksi. He was killed brazenly, right on the College Park campus, in front of his friends.
Jordan McNair was a 19-year-old offensive lineman on the University of Maryland football team who died from heatstroke suffered during a UMD practice. McNair collapsed after a series of 110-yard sprints. As his body started to show distress, head strength and conditioning coach Rick Court allegedly yelled that teammates should “drag his ass across the field.” Only after an hour of McNair not being in full control of his own body did they finally call 911. At the hospital, his body was found to have a temperature of 106 degrees. Two weeks later, he died.
It took two months and a damning report from ESPN, but the school’s football program is now engulfed in scandal, with insider allegations of a “toxic coaching culture” under head coach D.J. Durkin. People inside the football program went public, speaking of an atmosphere of “intimidation, humiliation and verbal abuse that created a culture of fear for the players. The sources also reveal allegations of unhealthy eating habits and using food punitively against the players.” Now Court has resigned and Durkin has been placed on leave, but only after the ESPN story put the culture of the program under the brightest possible light.
The deaths of Lt. Richard Collins III and Jordan McNair are spoken about as separately, but they are linked by the university’s disregard for troubling, painfully obvious issues staring them right in the face. The school let the existence of “alt-reich” students fester—with posters going up around campus, racist chalkings, and the targeting of anti-racist campus organizations—despite the fact that student leaders warned that there could be a tragedy waiting to happen.
As for Jordan McNair’s death, this was a tragedy that felt predetermined. The school has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into its football program in order to cash in on the billions of dollars available to top-tier college-football teams, now available through television money, corporate sponsors, and boosters. It moved from its traditional conference the ACC into the Big 10 so they could match up against lucrative opponents with national followings such as Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan. Durkin himself was a coordinator at Michigan, until he was offered a $2.4 million annual salary to coach the Terps (this makes him the highest-paid person on campus and one of the lowest paid coaches in the Big 10).
Millions of dollars also went into practice facilities, uniforms, and stadium upgrades. College football ranks among the biggest sports businesses in the country; however, unlike in professional leagues, these players don’t have unions. Their health and safety is in the hands of autocratic coaches living out military fantasies and festering in a stew of toxic masculinity. The millions invested by UMD into the program only pays off if the team is a winner, therefore Durkin feels the pressure, a burden that is passed on to the players. The team is 11-15 under Durkin’s stewardship after two seasons. The financial stress on the team to win has been immense.
It is impossible to separate the social pressure of the state university to have big-time football and the culture of terror and bullying on the team itself. Players clearly need a damn union, but that’s only the first step. The next step should be amplified not only by the memory of Jordan McNair but Richard Collins III as well. There needs to be a struggle on campus to assert that black lives do in fact matter, whether on campus or on the playing field.
It is worth pointing out that the school president, Wallace D. Loh, never accepted any accountability for the murder of Richard Collins III. Yet he has met with the family of Jordan McNair and said in a press conference that the school took “legal and moral responsibility” for his death, again only after the media busted the story open. He is clearly trying to contain the scandal, and save the football program. But the real scandal is a neoliberal campus that sees black lives as expendable.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that Coach Rick Court had been fired. In fact, he resigned. The text has been updated.