The NCAA Isn’t Keeping Athletes Safe, and Martin McNair Wants To Do Something About It

Jordan McNair's father wants people to understand that even though college athletes can be paid, they're still not safe.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

What Martin McNair endured almost can’t even be described as every parent’s worst nightmare — because even the most paranoid, concerned parent rarely imagines their child dying a preventable death in the middle of playing a game. But his 19-year-old son Jordan McNair suffered exactly that tragic fate while playing football at the University of Maryland in 2018. (If you’re not already familiar with McNair’s story, I recommend Tyler Tynes’ piece on the subject for the Ringer.)

As McNair explained in this discussion with Fanbyte, though, it didn’t even occur to him that that might have been a possibility. There are few actual standardized safeguards for college athletes aside from NCAA “best practices”; instead, college coaches adopt the guise of being faux parents instead of professionals, trying to coax parents into trusting them to care for their kids in the absence of concrete regulations. The best recent example of this dynamic, as McNair points out here, is the NCAA’s completely bungled and dangerous COVID-19 response. 

Since his son’s death, McNair — through his Jordan McNair Foundation — has been working on the issue of college athlete health and safety from both ends: trying to encourage parents to ask tougher questions of college coaches, and pushing for legislation at the state and federal level that would make college athlete safety a legal issue as well as an ethical one. (The reason these kinds of regulations aren’t required in professional sports is that those players are paid and unionized, and thus able to collectively bargain for health and safety protections.)

Maryland’s name, image and likeness bill — called the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act — includes health and safety provisions thanks in part to McNair’s advocacy. Now, he’s working alongside Senators Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal on the College Athletes Bill Of Rights, which would mandate those protections at the federal level. McNair spoke with Fanbyte about his experience, and what kinds of changes he wants to see. 

It seems like college coaches make these promises to basically be proxy parents. What were you told about how Jordan would be looked after when coaches were coming to you and trying to recruit him?

It was always, “We’ll treat him like he’s one of our own.” I was like every parent in America. At that point, we only want to know two things when it comes to sports: Can my child play? And why isn’t my child playing? We don’t think to ask the laundry list of questions that should be asked before you even ask about playing time. The name of my book is, Can My Child Play? The Questions We Should Have Asked — because that’s all I asked. 

Like you said, you’re under the assumption that the [coaching] relationship is as a kind of proxy parent. And when that doesn’t happen, you know, that’s what really creates that distrust. In our situation, the worst thing that could happen did happen. When Jordan first got injured, I wanted to know exactly what happened — who did what. But then it was just like, “What did we miss while these coaches were sitting at our table, that could have maybe helped us make a better decision? Jordan had a lot of options, why did we choose that? Why were we so trusting?” It just makes you somewhat callous and more guarded in regards to the process.

In the context of the hubbub about name, image and likeness, and how everyone’s understandably excited about what it means for college athletes, what do you think people aren’t really understanding or paying attention to about the big picture around college athletes’ wellness?

We just came out of a pandemic. And the thing is, we still don’t know the effects on those student-athletes that got COVID — there’s not enough research out there. Is this something that will affect those that did catch it, all in service of playing another game for everybody’s entertainment? Player safety should be paramount — before we think about paying kids, anyway. Most football players in DI, they’re gonna be taken care of anyway. Whatever Jordan’s scholarship was, he was getting $1200 to $1500 per month at 19 years old. That was more than I was getting at that time. One of the things about being young is, that’s the best part about it: being young, enjoying all of it. Now, [college athletes are] out here trying to play business, and a lot of young people are definitely out of their depth. They’re going to get preyed upon. All they see is right now, when in reality as soon as they get hurt, guess what? They don’t have any value anymore. 

As a parent, you want security systems in place. That’s what my question should have been. That’s what we try to emphasize to parents: What are the security systems if your child can’t play anymore, if your child gets hurt? What systems do they have in place to save your child’s life, so they can even make it another day? I think that when young people can see that, when they can say, “Okay, cool, I want to get paid, but at the end of the day my life has a lot more value than 100,000 Instagram followers,” we’ll see a shift. You gotta have student athletes that can buy into that as well.

Look at all the places where you had student-athletes had to sign non-liability waivers [around the pandemic]. I was just talking to somebody in a barber shop the other day about a couple of players that played for, I believe, Penn State. They gave kids the option to opt out for the season, but then they turned around and called the kids the day before practice saying, “If you don’t show up for practice, we’re going to take your scholarship.” So again, “no pressure.” This is why this baseline standard of student safety should be put in place, because these are the things that you want to prevent. Their perception of the coaches is basically that this person is the God of their existence, for lack of a better term. “If I don’t do this, they can do this.” When coaches can start playing those manipulative mind games and things like that, I just think that’s a bad situation for everybody.

Like you’ve pointed out, the thing that I think many people are overlooking with the new name, image and likeness rights for college athletes is that it means more money is going to be in college sports, period — a rising tide lifts all boats, etc. That change, as you’re saying, makes the lack of regulation and infrastructure around athletes’ health and safety even more stark. When did you realize that the NCAA wasn’t going to take adequate steps to avoid preventable deaths like Jordan’s? Why did you decide to go through state and federal legislation?

I realized the NCAA wasn’t going to do anything when Jordan passed. One of the things that a lot of people don’t know is the NCAA, out of all the money that they make per year, they only have a $25,000 life insurance policy on every student athlete. This is the value of life of a student athlete, an athlete that’s playing while you’re making all this money.

Korey Stringer went down in the NFL in 2001. There hasn’t been another heat-related death in the NFL. He was the last person that died in the NFL from a heatstroke. Jordan was the 31st student-athlete that died, from 2000 to 2018. 31st! Jordan fell in line with predictable statistics. We were predicted to lose two to three kids every year in college football. And it’s like, wait a minute, you’re just saying kids are gonna die? We got the resources, what aren’t we doing? That’s why you need a baseline standard, all the way across the board. 

In 2020, we were advocating for the bill, and I really didn’t understand the magnitude of the whole legislation process. A young lady and I were walking around talking to the committee members about the bill; I was telling more of a personal story of Jordan, and then she was coming from more of a technical, legal perspective — [Dionne L. Koller] is the associate dean at University of Baltimore law school, and NCAA sports is her specialty. One of the things that she shared was, “The NCAA can’t trump state law.” And I literally almost fell out of my chair. A state can create whatever laws they want to create to protect their student athletes. You could have bought me for $2. That’s when I really started to see, wait a minute, a state can pretty much do what they want to do. 

I think we’ve waited long enough to see if the NCAA is going to put these things in place. And clearly, they haven’t really shown us that much. A lot of the states can take this upon themselves, but instead of us adding 52 different notable provisions around player safety, at the legislative level [with the College Athletes’ Bill of Rights] we’re trying to just have one that covers everything. 

Have you seen similar bills to the Jordan McNair Safe And Fair Play Act moving in other states? 

Maryland is still an outlier as far as the health and safety components. The health and safety component, for us, is really what you call a notable provision. So out of the 25 states or so that have passed [NIL legislation], nobody else has put a player safety component in there. The player safety component is really focused on heat-related injuries, brain injuries, health care, things like that. Basically, if a student athlete goes down, we have the right systems in place so a student athlete doesn’t have to worry about rushing back or playing injured out of fear of losing their positions, or most importantly, losing their scholarships. Maryland put those protections in place. [But because of the rushed way NIL regulations were put in place] if we don’t advocate for the health and wellness of college athletes, it will definitely fall by the wayside [nationally].

 

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