Wednesday marks one year since Jordan McNair ran with his teammates at the direction of his coaches, a year since he left the field under duress, a year since officials failed to promptly diagnose and treat him for heatstroke, a year since he was taken from the University of Maryland campus by ambulance. He died.
So now the football coach is different, the athletic training staff is different, the structure of the school’s sports medicine model will be different. Change is good, and there has been much of it. But a year later, it’s also hard to escape a nagging question: Do you, parents of Maryland, trust the men and women who run your flagship university with the lives of your children?
Without rehashing the ways the university failed McNair, and there were many, it’s fair to continue to scrutinize the school’s handling of not only the events of May 29, 2018, but of the fallout. Last August, Wallace Loh, the school’s president, said at a news conference at which his institution took responsibility for McNair’s death, “We are guided by certain key values: accountability of all employees, of transparency, and yes, of fair process.”
And yet, the university isn’t being transparent with the public. Not about how it made the decisions it did in the moment. Not about how it handled the aftermath. And therefore, it’s trying to run out the clock on accountability.
Forgive a digression into sausage-making, but this is important. Beginning June 15, 2018 — a day after Damon Evans, then the acting athletic director, first addressed McNair’s death — reporters at The Washington Post began requesting communiques amongst Maryland officials regarding the circumstances of the May 29 workout. Maryland is a public institution, and such conversations — with some limits — are required to be available to the public through the Maryland Public Information Act.
Surely other media organizations made similar requests on or around that time. That’s the job: explain to the public how officials acted and reacted in a crisis so that those who failed can be held accountable.
Here’s the problem: It’s more than 11 months since that original request. We don’t have all the answers. Therefore the public doesn’t, either.
Now, in fairness, the university released roughly 800 pages of emails, and it has made public two reports: one on the events of May 29 and the athletic training practices, another on the culture of the football program. Kudos.
But there are shenanigans along the way that should continue to make the public suspicious. Know when Maryland first handed over emails to the Post? In February, seven months after the original request. That was after reporters were told their request would cost $5,791.91 — so they whittled the request down to just emails regarding McNair between Evans and DJ Durkin, then the football coach. The new total: $1,786.32, with a check in the mail in November.
Why this matters: Who knows what information about McNair’s death might have been included in other correspondence? Yes, there is a real administrative cost to going through emails, but the university, which has a $2 billion annual budget, also has the right to waive such fees. That might be seen as progress if we were to believe the school was interested in the actual story being told, in being held accountable for the death of a kid.
It’s scary, because information about public institutions is supposed to be available to private citizens, not just media organizations. What private citizen is going to cut checks of that size? And this isn’t just an issue about McNair’s case, or about the athletic department. Rather, when Post reporters sought information about why dozens of Maryland students became ill late last year, the tally was stunning: $63,646 — and change. The options: Pay, or narrow the focus. The reporters on the latter story — which involved the death of 18-year-old Olivia Paregol after a campus outbreak of adenovirus — chose the latter and paid less than $700. But at what cost to further sunshine on information that might have enlightened the public as to what transpired?
Put the money aside. There are legitimate reasons to withhold information. Students’ academic records are protected. Health records are protected. Some conversations can be protected as attorney-client privilege, and some information can be withheld because it is part of the decision-making process. The idea, in the last case, is that officials should be allowed to freely debate and deliberate without worrying about their questions becoming public.
But take one snippet of the McNair case that’s still befuddling: Why did Evans, a day after McNair’s death, provide the public with incorrect information regarding the circumstances of the May 29 workout? He said McNair had completed a set of 10 110-yard sprints with his teammates. Durkin, in a subsequent availability at Big Ten media days, reiterated that idea. In fact, as an independent report later concluded, McNair had pulled up with symptoms after seven such sprints.
Evans has since released a statement saying he got bad info, but not from who or how. Why does it matter now? Well, if you want to play grassy-knoll conspiracy theorist, were coaches and athletic trainers getting their stories straight to make it seem as if no one could have seen McNair’s perilous condition before it was too late? I’m of the mind that there’s no conspiracy that’s too wild to consider here.
What we know is that the University of Maryland elected to withhold 69 pages of Evans emails. A school attorney wrote that “the University finds that the disclosure of these materials, even in part, would be contrary to the public interest because disclosure would inhibit free and frank debate and discussion within the University, would chill governmental decision-making, and would impair the integrity of the University’s decision-making process.”
I’ll add: and could expose potentially egregious errors in judgment by several parties, many of whom are still employed in important jobs in the athletic department.
Unfair? With the school’s version of opaque transparency, how are we to know? Plus, there’s this: The state’s attorney general’s office, in its MPIA manual, actively argues for a “presumption of disclosure” in such cases: “In applying the deliberative process privilege, an agency should determine whether the disclosure of the requested information ‘would actually inhibit candor in the decision-making process if made available to the public.’”
In this case, the decisions already have been made. What candor is there to inhibit?
At his introductory news conference last June, when he was elevated from lieutenant to the athletic department’s top post, Evans spoke about his past, troubled enough that he lost his job of athletic director at Georgia, his alma mater.
“What you have to do is you have to get back and you have to learn,” he said then. “You have to grow. The journey is about growth.”
How is Maryland growing from this tragedy? A new football coach is a step. The new sports medicine system will be another. But we can’t stop asking for more detailed answers. To do that is failing McNair’s memory. To do that is failing the school’s current athletes and those who will follow.
On Wednesday, on the anniversary of the workout that led to their teammate’s death, the Terrapin football players are scheduled to gather for a similar offseason session. The players chose to do so, figuring it was best to honor McNair. In a couple weeks, they’ll face the anniversary of his death. Trust them to find the appropriate way to mark it.
The athletes have been remarkable in all of this turmoil: candid about their loss, courageous in their response, caring about every step. It is the adults who could use guidance about what transparency and accountability look like, what their value truly is.
A year after Jordan McNair went down, the University of Maryland is hiding behind the letter of the law rather than embracing the chance to lead. So we wonder, still: Can we entrust our children to these people?