Did Big 10 pressure play a role in McNair's death?

When the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents met to decide whether to accept an invitation to join the Big Ten Conference in 2012, the circumstances were unusual. So unusual, the meeting prompted an op-ed from former Maryland Representative and current LEAD1 Association CEO, C. Thomas McMillen. Mr. McMillen, a sitting member of the Board of Regents at that time, described the meeting like this:

“A change (in conferences, from the ACC to the Big Ten) of this magnitude should not be made over a weekend, with minimal documentation, little transparency and no input from anyone who might be opposed to it. The board did not hear from any of the constituencies that will be affected by this change — not the students, faculty, student-athletes or alumni.”

The regents were given a one-page document with the financials and told to sign a non-disclosure agreement, preventing them from having any discussions about the move with anyone outside the board. “We were further told that, under the terms of that agreement, Maryland could lose the offer and the university president could be held personally liable if details were divulged,” Mr. McMillen wrote. As he correctly surmised, the Big Ten Conference had “hijacked” the possibility of debate. Sign here or you lose the offer.

At the time, the only thing lost seemed to be a nearly 60-year relationship with the ACC. But those of us who have spent time working in big time college sports know that a transition like this has more pitfalls than the Grand Canyon.

Today, Maryland is still not a full-financial member of the Big Ten, a delay instituted by the other Big Ten presidents to make sure that the long-standing members of the conference didn’t have to further divide their combined revenues with the “new guys” until 2021. Maryland’s departure from the ACC cost the school $50 million; in year one of the Big Ten, they received a $24.5 million payment, plus and $11.6 million advance to minimize the cost of leaving the ACC, clearly not enough. Every year since, Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska have received about one third less than their peers. This was no surprise — all knew of this as part of the deal.

There is tremendous pressure inside of schools in Maryland’s financial situation to “close the gap” and be competitive right away to show they “belong.” And the Terps have had remarkable success in many sports, including women’s basketball. However, football is known as the bell cow in the Big Ten, and serious financial rewards come to those who win, go to high-profile bowl games and sell out their stadiums. The largest stadium in the ACC seats 82,000; the Big Ten has three stadiums that seat well over 100,000 fans. It's a different ball game playing in front of crowds that large consistently. That pressure to be competitive translates to everyone in the building “going hard or going home.” Strength coaches, athletic trainers, student managers, video managers and other support personnel are generally asked to do more and buy in. Student athletes are typically told they will play against the best and need to adjust their efforts accordingly.

This is the backdrop to the death of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.

Once the decision to join the Big Ten was made, did Maryland administrators really consider the additional spending necessary to be competitive in football while debating the merits of making a massive change? Or did the promise of millions in new media revenues become the only thing they discussed?

Maryland already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in this transition, including a nearly $200 million renovation to Cole Field House alone. Where it appears they did not spend money was in athlete care. Yes, in 2019, they will open a sports performance research center inside Cole Field House. But did the fact that the NCAA only recommended administrative health guidelines for student athletes, rather than require them, give financial bean counters the cover they needed not to make the investment? All indications suggest that Jordan McNair died of heatstroke in June, and the practice area lacked inexpensive ice tubs. Unintended consequences made manifest; it takes a tragedy to shine a light on that decision.

This pressure was predictable. The fact that the Big Ten Conference appears to have strong-armed Maryland into sharing a one-page financial document with their board in order to make such a monumental decision likely began the snowball to Jordan McNair’s death. And in that case, everyone has blood on their hands.

Karen Weaver (kew62@drexel.edu) is an associate professor at Drexel University. She was a former associate athletic director and head coach for 14 years in the Big Ten Conference.

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