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Two years after Jordan McNair’s death, Maryland is back to putting football above student health | COMMENTARY

In this Sept. 16, 2016, file photo, McDonogh high school football lineman Jordan McNair watches from the sideline during a high school game. An independent investigation into the death of the University of Maryland football player determined that trainers on the scene did not follow proper procedures after he collapsed on the field in May 2018. He was hospitalized and died two weeks later. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun)
In this Sept. 16, 2016, file photo, McDonogh high school football lineman Jordan McNair watches from the sideline during a high school game. An independent investigation into the death of the University of Maryland football player determined that trainers on the scene did not follow proper procedures after he collapsed on the field in May 2018. He was hospitalized and died two weeks later. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/The Baltimore Sun) (arbara Haddock Taylor)

The death of Jordan McNair, the 19-year-old University of Maryland offensive lineman who died of heatstroke two years ago, hit College Park hard, and rightly so. It wasn’t just that the onetime McDonogh School football star died as a result of outdoor spring practices in the heat and humidity but that the event was so preventable. As medical experts noted at the time, exertional heat stroke has a 100% survival rate if the problem had simply been diagnosed and treated with something as simple as an ice bath. The young man had been failed not just by his coach, who subsequently lost his job, or team trainers but by a college football system that puts an extraordinary emphasis on performance on the field and not so much on academics and health.

That’s why it’s beyond disappointing to hear the Big Ten Conference, which looked so honorable and courageous just one month ago when it canceled the 2020 season, has reversed itself and decided that football can resume as soon as Oct. 23, albeit without any fans in the stands. League officials have insisted the decision was the result of further consultation with medical professionals and that extraordinary precautions will be instituted. But here’s another possibility: They caved under political and financial pressure because schools like Ohio State and Michigan couldn’t deal with remaining on the sidelines while other football powerhouses — including the Southeastern Conference’s Alabama and Florida, or the Big 12′s Texas and Baylor — took the field. It’s likely only a matter of time before the Pac-12 with its big stars at UCLA and USC capitulates, too.

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Yet it’s one thing for the National Football League to attempt to play professional football with its multibillion-dollar financial resources, its unabashed for-profit intent and ability to isolate players and staff, it’s quite another to take this gamble with student athletes. Football is unique not just in the amount of physical contact involved but in the amount of profits for schools. Ohio State football generates about $90 million per year for the athletic department, but its value to the university in generating interest in the school, in alumni donations and political support has sometimes been estimated to be 10 times that. And that’s just one school. Without ticket sales, profits will surely be diminished, but broadcast revenue and the less tangible support of alumni and other patrons will still be there.

It is also hard to dismiss the role of political pressure. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump was quick to tweet congratulations to the schools and take some credit for the move. “It is my great honor to have helped!!!” Mr. Trump tweeted along with wishes for a “FANTASTIC SEASON.” Officials deny that the president had anything to do with the reversal, but one has to wonder how the outlook on COVID-19 could seem so discouraging on Aug. 11, when the season was canceled, but so hopeful on Sept. 16, when it was restored. These same universities are conducting most classes online, and those cases where students are back on campus have seen a surge in positive test results as young men and women inevitably mingle. The New York Times reports there are 8,500 positive tests at Big Ten universities.

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So let’s get this straight. The same folks who think it’s too dangerous for college students to even take instruction in a well-ventilated classroom with desks spread apart think playing football where 300-pound linemen (weight representing a higher risk category, particularly given virus-related heart ailments) grapple for several hours at a time, panting, sweating and in some cases bleeding on each other pose an acceptable risk. Or perhaps, just perhaps, schools are willing to take this gamble because the threat of death or permanent injury is relatively low compared to the high financial returns.

How is this different from the kind of thinking that doomed Jordan McNair two years ago? Because schools are lining up M.R.I. exams and cardiologists to look for cardiac inflammation (myocarditis), a condition that can lead to heart failure? The answer is: It’s worse. While the ice bath could have saved the Maryland teen, it’s not clear exactly what’s happening with post-COVID-19 patients who suffer heart problems. Damage could prove permanent. And so once again, the risks are placed on these young student athletes while the bulk of rewards go to their schools and coaches making seven-figure salaries. Maryland should have refused to participate in this folly. And Big Ten university presidents, including Maryland’s Darryll Pines, will now have a lot of explaining to do should a single football player suffer serious harm as a result of this decision.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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