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Maryland Football Player's Death Raises Serious Questions


There are questions that need answering in the wake of the death last week of former University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair.

Some of those questions may not be resolved until an external review is conducted by the athletic department, but there’s one question that doesn’t need to wait for any review and ought to be the first one to be answered:

Exactly what was McNair or any of his teammates doing on a practice field on May 29?

Besides my late mother’s birthday, there’s nothing necessarily magical about the date May 29, except that it comes just after college graduations have been completed.

Many, if not, most college students I know take the time around and just after Memorial Day to chill, to decompress and enjoy having negotiated a long, tough semester.

College football teams are typically allowed under NCAA rules to conduct spring practices during April. Those sessions usually culminate in an intra-squad game.

Maryland’s spring sessions this year ran through March with the spring game taking place April 14. That, of course, leads one to wonder what was happening in the six weeks between the spring game and May 29.

When McNair was rushed to the hospital nearly three weeks ago, the team was involved in what was called an organized team workout.

What does that mean, you ask? Good question. On the face of it, the terminology seems innocuous, almost as if the players have a choice over whether to participate.

Answers from College Park about the nature of what McNair and others were doing have been fairly nebulous to this point, but I can tell you from having watched offseason organized team workouts at Western Kentucky four years ago, those activities are not voluntary.

Indeed, the school has said that those workouts have not been mandatory since McNair died last Wednesday.

The workouts I saw in August, 2014 in Kentucky were certainly organized and looked like drills, with coaches watching from the stadium press box, a nod to the idea that coaches are only permitted so much time with players during what is supposed to be the offseason.

And this kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink arrangement almost certainly goes on all over the country at colleges and universities of all sizes.

And not just in football, either. A lot of college athletes in a variety of sports give up their summers in the name of getting better.

Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except, the NCAA tries its damndest to convince us that these young people are students first, then athletes.

It’s the rationale for the NCAA’s rigid opposition for paying student-athletes. Under that logic, because they are students, their athletic scholarships should be sufficient.

And yet, beginning in August, NCAA schools will be allowed to have these student-athletes work, er, practice, for up to 24 days straight without a day off, if the school schedules three regular season games in a week and gives them time off in either the preceding or following week.

The NCAA is in desperate need of reform. Those changes will come too late to help Jordan McNair, but they may help some other young person have a pleasant May 29.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.