In response to the scandal surrounding the death of football player Jordan McNair, the University of Maryland student body, led by its Student Government Association, might have been the prime mover in triggering the firing of coach D.J. Durkin, and the resignation of Regents chair Jim Brady. The courage of the SGA and the student body is commendable; it also helped expose one of the major, unrecognized structural defects in the governance of big-time college football.
Students Are Part-Owners of the Football Team
Because each of Maryland’s 30,000 students pays a mandated athletic fee of $406, the Athletic Department annually receives a total of $12 million dollars from them. Collectively, the students should be considered part owners of the football and other teams. Because of that financial support, and because the athletes are also SGA members, the SGA should have a permanent position in: 1) the Maryland athletic department; 2) football operations; and 3) any group assigned to consider and implement the recommendations set forth in the DLA Piper and Walters ‘McNair Reports.’
There is good precedent for the SGA to press for these structural changes. First, the Maryland systems’s Board of Regents has a student voting member (from UM-ES), whose presence there is most likely the result of the necessary and productive trend which developed after 1970, based upon the principle that students, as adults, should have a substantive voice and vote in governance of school operations. Second, publicly-held corporations must give shareholders a voice and vote and students, including those who perform on athletic teams, are much like shareholders, some of whom are also involved in production.
Exclusion of Students from Football Governance Helped Cause McNair’s Death
If there can be any good triggered by the McNair death — clearly the result of the gross negligence of athletic department personnel on May 29, and the absence of a ‘Safety First’ approach by the athletic department — it is that it has helped expose a major defect in governance of Big Ten (and other big-time) football and basketball: the exclusion of students from governance over football was a cause of McNair’s death. I make this conclusion based upon the notion that students empowered with a voice in the athletic department operations, (and assigned to regularly canvas football players about the safety issues which imperil them daily), would not have allowed the gonzo-coach mentality to take over the football program. (McNair’s death was ridiculously preventable: an 8-year old, equipped with a simple 4-point checklist, could have handled the May 29 events better than trainers and coaches did.)
The Maryland, MSU, and PSU Institutional Control Vacuum
The NCAA, conferences, and their members all purport to sanctify “Institutional Control” over athletics. But McNair’s death has shown that: 1) the Big Ten and NCAA want to have as little as possible to do with regulating safety-related issues (even deaths) caused by football, for one reason: to avoid liability; and 2) Maryland football, and the school itself, profoundly lacked Institutional Control; and 3) the resulting absence of Institutional Control was a proximate cause of McNair’s death. (The MSU-Nasser and PSU-Sandusky sexual assaults drew very similar lessons.)
The Institutional Control Vacuum Contributed to McNair’s Death
The unconscionable result, within this Institutional Control vacuum which recurs at Power 5 schools, is that no one is there, on behalf of the players, to insure that vigorous Institutional Control is imposed to protect them from the daily risk of significant injury which they encounter, and the risk of injury from win-at-all-cost coach behaviors which seem now much too common.
An excellent editorial in the Maryland student newspaper, by senior Joey Marcellino, (‘How Do You Support UMD Football Players Without Supporting the Program?) describes some conflict within the student body, as to whether students can show support for the student-players by boycotting games — or by attending more of them. Both alternatives have the same salutory impetus, which should be noted on other campuses: the need to do something to affirmatively support players who have chronically had little or no such support — or voice – in protecting their interests and bodies. The answer to his question is that structural, long-term changes in the students’ role is needed.
Institutional Control at All Power 5 Schools Must Include Student Control
It might be fair to state that the primary lesson from the McNair death (and MSU and PSU scandals) is one which the Maryland SGA (and Marcellino) have partially intuited, but not yet articulated – and one which both the Walters and DLA Piper investigative reports missed: Institutional Control at Power 5 schools must quickly be changed, to include structural changes empowering students to have a voice and vote on athletic department operations and issues.
The Maryland SGA should consider itself a $12 million per year owner-stakeholder, and demand a permanent position, voice, and vote in: 1) the Maryland athletic department; 2) football operations; and 3) any group assigned to consider and implement the recommendations of the DLA Piper and Walters ‘McNair Reports.’