The University of Maryland football squad is currently 3-2. Impressive, given the fact that their coach, D.J. Durkin, is on administrative leave and the team is in mourning. In the off-season, their teammate Jordan McNair died in non-contact drills from heatstroke—one of more than 30 college football players to die in such a manner since 2000—setting off a firestorm that has extended beyond the team and onto campus.
The negligence that led McNair’s death speaks to the worst of college football, as exposed by the extensive reporting from the school newspaper The Diamondback, as well as ESPN and The Washington Post. He was bullied and dragged around the field when already showing the effects of organ failure. The team “head strength and conditioning coach,” Rick Court, allegedly yelled that teammates should “drag his ass across the field,” as he was dying. Court left the program with a $315,000 settlement on his contract.
McNair’s death called attention to what’s been described as Durkin’s “toxic” football culture by current and former players as well as parents. Their stories also highlight a persistent feature of big-time, revenue-producing college athletics: the powerlessness of players when faced with abusive and even life-threatening coaching. Players have no recourse, no union, no job protections. And yet, amid all this pain, we saw last week that rebellion is still possible.
On Friday, the players stood up and refused to fly to Michigan when they saw the passenger manifest and realized they would be accompanied on the flight by Rick Jaklitch, a lawyer and prominent team booster who has gone above and beyond in defending Durkin during these troubled times. In fact, speaking to The Diamondback, Jaklitsch blamed Jordan McNair for his own death.
“As much as we hate to say this, Jordan didn’t do what Jordan was supposed to do,” Jaklitsch said. “A trainer like Wes Robinson thinks a kid’s properly hydrated and runs a drill set up for kids that are properly hydrated, and when the kid didn’t drink the gallon he knew he had to drink, that’s going to send the wrong signal to the person running the drill.”
This was too much for the players who refused to fly with Jaklitsch on the plane.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Jaklitsch blamed the media for their rebellion, saying:
“I understand how much these kids have been through. They lose one of their best friends and a great kid—Jordan. It’s amazing what the coaches have been through. We need to all support each other, and it should be ‘Go Terps’ all the time. And the media keeps picking at a scab, and there are raw feelings there from a lot of people at Maryland. And you can understand when you lose someone as loved as Jordan that there are going to be raw feelings. I certainly understand that.”
Yes, he believes that it’s “the media picking at a scab,” not Jaklitsch for casting blame on McNair for being run to death. In addition, as long as there is no justice or accountability for the death of Jordan McNair, the idea that it should be “go Terps all the time” is an obscenity.
One person who does not think it should be “go Terps all the time” is Jordan McNair’s father, Martin. In a statement issued on Monday afternoon, he said:
“It has been over 100 days since Jordan died, and President Wallace Loh accepted moral and legal responsibility for the death of our son. Our nightmare continues. Words can’t describe the added anguish and new hardship we now are experiencing as we listen to and watch the University of Maryland and surrogates of the University continue to blame our son for his own death during a football practice conducted by adult coaches who should have known better.”
As for Jaklitsch, he was fine staying home but was also wistful following Maryland’s 42-21 loss at Michigan. “I’ve been on trips for 20 years. I’ll be on trips for another 20 years, hopefully,” he said. “They could have used me. I’m still undefeated when I’m on the sidelines.”
He still doesn’t see that right now it’s not about wins and losses. It’s not about protecting the coach. It’s not about, as Jaklitsch also said, “the media putting heads on pikes.” It’s about Jordan McNair, and if the school isn’t going to ensure a degree of accountability, it looks like the players will have no choice but to do it for them.