Hundreds of University of Maryland students are expected to gather in the heart of campus Thursday to demand justice for Jordan McNair, the 19-year-old offensive lineman who died in June after suffering heatstroke during a football practice in College Park.
The protest is scheduled for two days after the University System of Maryland’s governing body announced that football coach DJ Durkin and athletic director Damon Evans will keep their jobs — despite McNair’s death, revelations about training staff’s failure to properly treat him and an investigation into the program’s problem-riddled culture. The only administrative fallout will be that that university President Wallace Loh will retire at the end of this school year.
Student Government Association President Jonathan Allen, one of the driving forces behind the rally, said the Board of Regents decision to support Durkin is “absolutely outrageous and shows a lack of courage.”
“A fellow student died,” Allen said. “For Jordan, and for his family, there needs to be some justice.”
McNair’s parents have for months been calling for Durkin to be fired, saying he should not be allowed to work with anyone else’s child.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach and somebody spit in my face,” McNair’s father, Marty, said about the decision to retain the coach.
Durkin on Tuesday released a statement saying he was grateful for the opportunity to rejoin the team. He will be on the sideline Saturday when the Terps play Michigan State.
Allen and some of his peers hope this reinstatement won’t be permanent, and are hoping to push the needle with a show of solidarity at Thursday’s protest. The student government body also plans to file emergency legislation calling for Durkin’s firing.
Board of Regents members decided during hours of deliberations over the past two weeks that their first priority was to return Durkin to the sideline, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. The coach has been on administrative leave since August. Loh expressed deep reservations about this, the source said, but regents made it clear that either he could put Durkin back on the field or they would act to replace him with someone who would.
“We couldn't even have fathomed this is something” the regents would do, Allen said.
Many students were surprised Loh plans to retire while Durkin will retain his job.
“It seems kind of backwards,” said Gabe Moses, a senior environmental science and technology major. “I don’t know why he is leaving and Coach staying. Think it should be the other way around.”
Sara Chernikoff shared his view. The sophomore journalism major said it was “heartbreaking” to see the Board of Regents disappoint McNair’s parents with its decision to reinstate Durkin and Evans.
More than 900 people have indicated on Facebook that they’re interested in attending Thursday’s rally, which is backed by the campus’ NAACP chapter, the Black Student Union and political university groups.
Several minority students said they were still upset not only about McNair’s death, but also about a number of race issues, including the stabbing death of Richard Collins III, a black senior from Bowie State University who was killed last year on campus. A former UMD student has been charged with a hate crime and murder in his death.
Andrew Tawiah, a senior political science major, said he sees Loh’s resignation as a culmination of racial problems the university has endured under his tenure.
“A lot of minorities don’t feel safe on this campus,” Tawiah said. “It’s not just the death but a lot of minorities feel like they are ignored.”
Bria Goode, a senior majoring in public health science, agreed.
"The fact that they pushed [McNair] that hard, and they knew he was sick but didn’t treat him the way it should have been treated, it’s very sad," Goode said. "Shows we don’t put minorities or health as a priority."
Mona Rezvani, assistant to the director of the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace, is a University of Maryland graduate. She said she gasped when she saw an email from Loh announcing his departure.
“Loh has always been a fair president who did well for the students,” Rezvani said. "I personally think the Board of Regents kind of failed the students, and student-athletes specifically."
It’s unclear whether any football players would attend Thursday’s rally. But already, some have come out against their reinstated coach. A few players walked out of a team meeting with Durkin on Tuesday afternoon.
Some student-athletes have used Twitter to express their dissatisfaction and outrage.
“Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate,” offensive guard Ellis McKennie wrote in a tweet. “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.”
Other players have tweeted, or retweeted, posts critical of the program and the regents’ choice.
A pair of investigations into the football program after McNair’s death revealed significant problems. One review, commissioned to analyze the athletic department’s protocols on the day McNair fell ill, found staff made a host of errors — including failing to immerse McNair in cold water, which experts say is the best practice and could have saved his life.
The second investigation was a response to an ESPN article that labeled the program “toxic.” The commission’s roughly 200-page report highlighted instances of the mental and physical abuse of players, and delved into two years’ worth of problems within the athletic department. The commission found that the department “lacked a culture of accountability” and was hindered by frequent turnover, dissension and infighting.
But it also included interviews with a number of players who remained supportive of Durkin and felt he was being unfairly blamed.
It remains to be seen whether Durkin, Evans and Loh can unite a fractured locker room and an outraged campus.
Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz contributed to this article from College Park.