How White Supremacy Shaped Our Reaction to Football Player Deaths at UMD, Morgan State

Two college football players have died from complications from heat exhaustion in the last four years in two of Maryland’s public universities. Jordan McNair and Marquese Meadow were freshmen offensive and defensive linemen at the flagship University of Maryland-College Park, and the state’s historically black flagship Morgan State University.

Both showed signs of overheating during practice or workouts, received medical attention too late, and died tragically as result of the complications and response.

But as the Baltimore Sun writes, the administrative response to both of these cases has been dramatically different.

The University System of Maryland’s governing body has been actively involved in overseeing the two investigations into the Terps’ football program. Board of Regents Chair James Brady spoke at a news conference last month, during which sports medicine consultant Dr. Rod Walters presented the findings from his review of the athletic department’s safety protocols.

Brady said the university system was “anxious” to learn from McNair’s death. He said Walters’ recommendations would be implemented not just in College Park, but at all other system institutions with football programs.

“We can and must learn from what happened,” he said, “and make any appropriate and necessary changes to make sure it never happens again.”

While Morgan State is not a member of the University System of Maryland, it is a public institution which receives funding and under the public purview of the state’s higher education commission. Maryland’s Chancellor Wallace Loh has faced nearly non-stop media scrutiny, and public calls for his his firing.

From Washington Post sports columnist Rick Snider in August:

Loh shouldn’t get a pass, either. He has micromanaged sports throughout his eight-year tenure, selling the school’s athletics to the Big Ten for more TV money. If leaving the ACC was such a good deal, why did Loh do it in secret? Because alumni would have objected. Loh has done a good job elevating Maryland’s education status, but any goodwill is lost after a student-athlete’s death. Maryland’s board of regents should fire Loh or force him to resign.

He continued:

Coaches always say they’re educators in charge of helping young men create better lives, not just getting them to the NFL. Durkin and his staff failed miserably. Loh allowed the environment to fester. Now it’s time for both to get out.

But Meadow’s death in 2014 didn’t yield the same outrage from media or alumni. It was universally regarded as a tragedy and a call for greater measures in player safety, but it didn’t earn even half of the public administrative inquiry yielded at College Park.

Such a disparity in interest from state higher ed stakeholders and public observers is not surprising. Maryland is a bigger school with a more visible football program and circulating millions in and around the university which can grow or retract based on the success of the program or turnover among its coaching staff and players.

Opinions on what Maryland could and should do in the wake of a controversy are, by the nature of what UMD is, expected to be plentiful and pointed.

But death is more than controversy. And because one death is not more tragic than another, two schools with two different missions and brands should have not have different expectations of accountability.

So while the Terrapin public from the campus to the state capital seems to be divided on what to do about its football coaches and university president this year, Morgan State stakeholders have proceeded with business as usual in the years following Meadow’s death.

And the MSU Board of Regents has followed their lead. While the athletic department has changed required cool down breaks for players during practice, the university has never produced a report on the circumstances leading to Meadow’s death, and no disciplinary action was ever levied against coaches, trainers or administrators.

In February, Morgan State President David Wilson received a five-year contract extension.

Have all of us looked at two tragedies and in the purest outcome that white supremacy can so harmfully distill, made them different based upon one university being predominantly white and the other being historically black? Two young black men died under seemingly preventable circumstances associated with unusually punishing football practices. Both schools failed to take steps to administer timely care, and the families of both athletes are permanently shattered.

But only one school, and perhaps unexpectedly, is being dragged in public by a wide range of stakeholders, while the other has been seemingly disassociated with the nightmare of a fallen teammate and classmate. In a state facing a federal lawsuit for creating a dual system of education for black and white students, the optics on the reaction and the administrative response of both schools couldn’t be more in keeping with why the state lost this litigation and will likely owe billions as a result.

The powers that be in the State of Maryland are using public opinion and leadership influence to use the UMD tragedy as a litmus on what to do when the world is watching, and treated the Morgan State tragedy four years ago as a case study on what to do when no one gives a damn.

But perhaps Meadow’s mother said it best about why the regents, presidents and coaches at Morgan and the University of Maryland should be held to a similar account as their counterparts at Maryland.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening again,” she said in an interview. “The University of Maryland and Morgan State are like sister schools. It scared me and it made me angry — how is this still happening, so close and in the same way?

“This can’t be swept under the rug. … There has to be a change now.”

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