WASHINGTON — Ellis McKennie never thought of himself as an activist.
But the University of Maryland football player — who walked out of a meeting with his head coach in the aftermath of the death of his close friend Jordan McNair — told an Aspen Institute panel Monday that he now embraces that title and believes more student-athletes are beginning to speak out about social causes.
“I felt like I was standing up for my friend and doing right for his family, who deserved some kind of accountability for this loss of their son,” said McKennie, who grew up with McNair in Randallstown and helped recruit him to Maryland. “And I thought I was doing something on behalf of my teammates, who all believed that we should have a voice in the matter and felt like our voice was kind of silent in the process.”
McKennie was devastated when McNair died in June of heatstroke after falling ill during a team conditioning workout in May. The university has admitted it did not follow proper protocols to treat McNair at the workout, including immersing him immediately in an ice bath.
The University System of Maryland’s 17-member Board of Regents initially recommended in October that head coach DJ Durkin remain with the school. But Durkin was fired a day later by President Wallace Loh, and the school recently hired former Maryland offensive coordinator Michael Locksley to replace him.
McKennie wrestled with whether he could stomach attending a team meeting to reintroduce Durkin, who was at the helm of the program when his close friend died.
McKennie said Monday that he and two teammates — he did not name them — took a risk by walking out of the meeting. McKennie also tweeted his disapproval of the coach’s return.
“Once the social media spark happened, then people started to speak up and say, ‘Oh, so it’s OK to say something,’” McKennie said in an interview after Monday’s Aspen Institute program.
On Nov. 1, there was a “Justice for Jordan” rally on campus in which students delivered impassioned speeches and held signs depicting the player’s uniform number — 79.
But McKennie said there is particular risk for college athletes speaking out because coaches control their scholarships, playing time and other aspects of their lives.
As a graduate student, McKennie, a backup offensive lineman, said he had less to lose than underclassmen who could jeopardize their careers. The teammates who walked out with McKennie were both seniors.
“Our risk might be less than a freshman who doesn’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
McKennie said the events of the past few months showed “that our voice actually did matter.”
Professional athletes have become increasingly vocal in recent years about political and social causes. In September, Nike partnered with activist and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick in a marketing campaign. Kaepernick, who played quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, led a movement of players taking a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest racial inequity and police brutality.
“As college athletes, we still look up to professional athletes,” McKennie said.
He said aspiring younger athletes take notice when their heroes speak out.
“I see us getting to a time where it’s cool for them to stand for something you believe in, it’s cool to take a knee,” he said.
“Malcolm Jenkins made it cool again to put your fist in the air for something you believe in,” said McKennie, referring to the Philadelphia Eagles player’s protest of social injustice during the national anthem before games.
The increasing prominence of social media has provided players with a built-in platform, said Joe Briggs, the NFL Players Association public policy counsel who was one of the panelists.
“You will see a shift because more people will bring into the National Football League an audience that they built separate and apart from their association with their team or with the shield,” Briggs said. “You can’t tell me that a high school kid who has 100,000 followers is going to come into the NFL thinking that he has to now be restricted to whatever his coach wants him to say on a social media platform.”
The Aspen Institute event on the future of sports activism was part of its Sports and Society program.
McKennie, who is seeking a master's degree in public policy, said he hopes to run for elected office one day.