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As financial reform sweeps college sports, Jordan McNair’s father says health and safety must remain priorities

Martin McNair has no quarrel with the new economic freedoms that have opened to college athletes in recent weeks.

It’s just that when he looks at the reforms sweeping the NCAA landscape, he wishes profit would fall behind health and safety on the priority list.

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McNair can’t help but feel this way three years after he watched his 19-year-old son, Jordan, die from the effects of heatstroke suffered at a University of Maryland football workout. Sure, it would have been nice for Jordan McNair to make a few extra bucks off his status as an offensive lineman for the Terrapins, but his father would much rather have seen rules in place to protect his son from a preventable death.

It’s a message Martin McNair is sharing with federal legislators as they consider laws that would expand college athletes’ financial rights.

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“This is the time right now,” he said. “I’m definitely for the economic freedom of student-athletes, all day long. I just think it’s really gotten away from the player safety component, and everybody’s just focusing on: how do I compete with the next school recruitment-wise?”

The NCAA fundamentally changed its model of amateurism last week when it lifted restrictions on athletes’ rights to profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL). The move came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of college athletes who were seeking additional educational benefits and after a wave of states, including Maryland, passed NIL laws. A federal law outlining college athletes’ rights could come next, with several versions awaiting action in Congress.

McNair wants that legislation to place athletes’ health rights front and center, following the model Maryland lawmakers used in crafting their bill.

Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act into law in May. The legislation requires universities to create guidelines for preventing and treating serious injuries such as brain trauma and heat-related illnesses and to develop clear protocols for athletes returning from injuries or illnesses. Martin McNair helped develop that language.

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Last month, McNair spoke before a U.S. Senate committee, describing the last call he shared with his son on May 28, 2018, and the shattering news he received the next day after Jordan McNair collapsed from heatstroke at an offseason workout. The former McDonogh star died two weeks later.

“I never thought to ask about any safety, preventative, or overall protection of my student-athlete on or off the field,” McNair testified, describing his outlook before the tragedy. “I just assumed like so many of us parents of collegiate athletes that the systems were in place in the event of. I never thought to ask what if Jordan got hurt or couldn’t play anymore, what would they do to protect him?”

The NCAA has shared health guidelines and best practices with its schools but hasn’t set requirements — not good enough for McNair.

He said federal legislators have been receptive to his message.

Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, parents of Jordan McNair, stand with the McDonogh football team during a ceremony in which the school officially retired jersey No. 70, which Jordan McNair wore in high school.
Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, parents of Jordan McNair, stand with the McDonogh football team during a ceremony in which the school officially retired jersey No. 70, which Jordan McNair wore in high school. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

In their statement last week on the NCAA lifting NIL restrictions, Sens. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, explicitly mentioned the need for legislation guaranteeing athletes’ health and safety rights.

“The Supreme Court’s decision … the panoply of state laws about to take effect, and the powerful grassroots coalition of athletes are all pointing in one direction: it’s time for Congress to act,” Booker and Blumenthal said. “Athletes deserve enforceable health and safety standards, robust educational opportunities, and yes, fair compensation and full rights to their Name, Image, and Likeness.”

Booker and Blumenthal’s proposed legislation would require schools to contribute to medical trust funds that would help athletes cover out-of-pocket health expenses related to sports injuries for up to five years after their playing careers.

Martin McNair said he’s cautiously optimistic about federal legislation, which he sees as the cleanest way to address all issues at hand. For now, he’s also urging anyone who cares about college athletes to contact their state legislators and demand that health protections be added to NIL bills.

He and Jordan’s mother, Tonya Wilson, have devoted their lives to raising awareness of heatstroke and heat-related illnesses through the Jordan McNair Foundation. Now, with so much focus on NIL rights and the NCAA’s changing definition of amateurism, they see an opportunity to push for more comprehensive change.

“Student-athletes just need more assurances that, ‘Hey, I don’t have to worry about these things,’” Martin McNair said. “Everybody can see the level of empowerment. Now, let’s focus on keeping these kids safe.”

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