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The NCAA’s silence about the death of Jordan McNair is deafening

The NCAA is too busy defending amateurism in court to care about literal life-or-death situations.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29:  NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert speaks to the media during media day for the 2018 Men's NCAA Final Four at the Alamodome on March 29, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29: NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert speaks to the media during media day for the 2018 Men's NCAA Final Four at the Alamodome on March 29, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

In 1905, 18 college and amateur players died during football games. With some encouragement from President Theodore Roosevelt, safety guidelines for the sport were put into place, and, according to its official website, the NCAA was founded in 1906 “to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletics practices of the time.” 

Goodness, things sure do change a lot in 112 years.

These days, the NCAA still claims to be a “member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.” But, in reality, it’s a billion-dollar corporation masquerading as a non-profit whose main mission is to make sure “student” athletes don’t get paid.

Safety isn’t just an afterthought for the organization; it’s something it actively avoids taking any responsibility for.

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We saw this clearly earlier this year, when the NCAA said that Michigan State did not break any of its rules by enabling former gymnastics’ doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of students — many of them student-athletes — for decades. And now, we’re seeing it again with the organization’s (lack of) response to the death of Jordan McNair, a Maryland football player who died in June, just two weeks after suffering a heat stroke during a spring conditioning practice.

In August, University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh gave a press conference in which he announced that the school accepted “legal and moral” responsibility for McNair’s death, because the 19-year-old red-shirt freshman “did not receive proper medical care.” In September, the school released the findings of its first investigation into McNair’s death, which laid out in painstaking detail the many, many ways the football training staff failed to properly treat McNair when he began showing signs of heat stroke, “mistakes” which led directly to his death.

Currently, head football coach D.J. Durkin, football trainer Wes Robinson, and the associate athletic director for football performance, Steve Nordwall, are all on administrative leave. Rick Court, Maryland’s strength coach who was running McNair’s final workout, was placed on administrative leave as well, but has since reached a financial settlement with the school and stepped down.

In the meantime, Maryland’s football season continues, Durkin continues to collect his multi-million-dollar salary, and Loh continues to feign ignorance while waiting on the results of two other investigations — one commissioned by the school that is supposed to look into the football program’s culture, which ESPN and others have reported as “toxic;” and another overseen by the Maryland attorney general.

But the one organization that doesn’t seem to be looking into anything at Maryland? The NCAA. There has been a deafening silence coming from the self-imposed rulers of collegiate sport.

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Of course, its possible the NCAA is just busy. After all, it’s been a big month for the non-profit, as it’s currently involved in two extremely high-profile court battles — not over player safety, mind you, but rather over amateurism, and the under-the-table market the concept has created.

Last month in California, there was a 10-day bench trial in the federal case Alston vs. NCAA, a class action on behalf of former men’s and women’s college players against the NCAA and the 11 major athletic conferences. The players are essentially arguing that limiting compensation for NCAA student-athletes to scholarships is a violation of federal antitrust law, because it stunts competition and prevents laborers from earning their full value.

The NCAA, on the other hand, argues that getting rid of these scholarship caps would ruin college sports by further separating student-athletes from their peers, making the college sports landscape less competitive, and alienating fans who, in theory, only enjoy college sports because the athletes aren’t getting paid. The judge has not ruled yet, and likely won’t for months.

There’s another court battle though, currently unfolding in New York, which makes the Alston case look tiny. This one is seeking to expose what a sham the NCAA’s entire concept of amateurism already is, how many people in the college sports industrial complex are already making sure athletes get paid, and how, despite this being an open secret, fans are not turning away from college sports in record numbers.

The NCAA isn’t a plaintiff or defendant in this case, but it is at the heart of it.

The FBI spent years investigating the corrupt underbelly of college sports, and this is the first of three scheduled trials related to its investigation. This one is focused on former sports agent Christian Dawkins, former Amateur Athletic Union coach Merl Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto, who have all plead not guilty to charges that they conspired to pay $100,000 to the father of a top recruit in exchange for his son’s commitment to Louisville.

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Now, this whole case is absolutely ridiculous, as we have detailed before. The heart of the federal government’s argument is that Dawkins, Code, and Gatto all defrauded Louisville by paying this money to a recruit, because it was an NCAA violation, and therefore, they were defrauding the school by making the recruit ineligible and subjecting the university to NCAA punishment.

However, this trial made clear what was already obvious: These schools are not victims of the NCAA’s ridiculous bylaws and the resulting under-the-table compensation arrangements that exist in the system; they’re beneficiaries of it.

There’s no telling if the jury will believe that violating NCAA rules should be treated like breaking federal law. But no matter what happens in our criminal justice system, there are already cries for the NCAA to give Louisville the “death penalty” due to the revelations in the trial. It’s an unfortunate name for the concept in this context, but essentially it means that the NCAA could ban a school from competing in one sport (or more) for at least one year.

But if any program deserves such a punishment, it’s Maryland football.

Maryland had an Emergency Action Plan, but it didn’t train its staff how to administer it. Members of the training staff ignored McNair’s symptoms of heat stroke, pushed him unnecessarily when he was struggling, and failed to place him in an ice bath when his symptoms became severe, a move that would likely have saved his life.

From the onset of McNair’s symptoms until the call to 911, one hour and seven minutes elapsed. And the time from the onset of his symptoms to the departure in the ambulance enroute to the hospital was one hour, 39 minutes. People in charge at Maryland made the wrong decision every step of the way, someone died, and the NCAA doesn’t care. What’s even worse is that nobody even expects them to. Since 2000, 30 players have died as a result of college football workouts. The NCAA hasn’t done a thing about it. It has a similarly hands-off approach when it comes to concussion protocol enforcement.

As economist Andy Schwarz told ThinkProgress: “There’s a world in which the NCAA takes all the expense they put into making sure athletes don’t get discounts on tattoos, and put it instead into making sure athletes are being educated, and that when they are playing sports, the schools are using best practices for health and safety.”

That would be a much better world, indeed.

Instead, we’re left with a soulless organization that shouts when a school helps the parent of a top recruit pay bills, and shuts up when a school directly contributes to the death of a player.

I’m not sure this is what Roosevelt had in mind.