On most large state-university campuses, football and student protest don’t overlap. But tomorrow at the University of Maryland they will collide in historic fashion. The Student Government Association—alongside a host of other student groups—has called for a protest against the decision by the school’s Board of Regents to recommend to school President Wallace Loh that he must reinstate head football coach D.J. Durkin after he was placed on administrative leave following the death of football player Jordan McNair. Loh wanted to give Durkin his walking papers following an extensive internal investigation into McNair’s death, but the Board of Regents made clear to Loh that they would fire him if he did not reinstate Durkin, described as a “bully coach” by a former player. Loh backed down and instead will “retire” and the end of the academic year. Not exactly a profile in courage.
When the decision was announced, Jordan McNair’s father, Marty McNair, said: “I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face.”
The McNair family’s attorney, Hassan Murphy said: “The university has an obligation to protect, to educate and to nurture every one of its students, yet today, the board ratified and validated the heartbreaking actions by Coach Durkin and his staff toward Jordan in May by continuing the employment of the man who failed in his primary responsibility to Jordan. That is callous and it is indefensible.”
The family does not stand alone in their outrage. According to Facebook, in less than a day, more than a thousand people have registered that they are going or are interested in going to a protest called “Justice for Jordan.”
Several members of the team recently walked out of a meeting with Durkin in disgust after the coach’s reinstatement. UMD offensive lineman Ellis McKennie then posted a tweet in which he wrote: “Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate. Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”
College football is designed to disempower players and keep them silent in the face of all manner of abuse. They have no union. They have no employment rights, despite the millions of dollars they produce for the university. And they have no recourse. The fact that these young people are risking their scholarships by posting notes of protest and walking out of meetings is a big deal. It speaks to the anger so many feel about a football culture that student-athletes and their family members have described as “toxic.” (The university’s Board of Regents seems scared to death of that word, going out of their way to disavow it in their final report.)
It’s not only football players, students, and the McNair family who are mystified by the decision of the Board. Sportswriters have pointed out, indelicately but truthfully, that Durkin is now radioactive, completely unable to do the most important job of any college coach—even more important than coaching: the recruitment of high-school players. It won’t take much for other schools to engage in “negative recruiting” against UMD by pointing out that the coach has Jordan McNair’s blood on his hands.
This raises the question then of why the Board of Regents would do something as immoral, short-sighted, and obviously counterproductive as bringing Durkin back. As one UMD alum said to me, “I guess they want to send a message that going forward nothing is going to be more important than football.” It’s an ugly lesson, but the students at UMD—and the team—are getting a hell of an education about money, power, and the priorities of the 21st-century neoliberal university.
UPDATE: On Thursday, University of Maryland president Wallace D. Loh fired Durkin one day after reinstating him. In a statement, Loh said “Since returning to campus after yesterday’s press conference, I have met with the leadership of the Student Government Association speaking on behalf of numerous student organizations; the Senate Executive Committee; Deans; department chairs; and campus leadership. The overwhelming majority of stakeholders expressed serious concerns about Coach DJ Durkin returning to the campus. The chair of the Board of Regents has publicly acknowledged that I had previously raised serious concerns about Coach Durkin’s return. This is not at all a reflection of my opinion of Coach Durkin as a person. However, a departure is in the best interest of the University, and this afternoon Coach Durkin was informed that the University will part ways.”