Maryland’s Firing of Football Coach DJ Durkin Marks a Watershed Moment for Athlete Activism

Once the players protested, the coach had no chance.

The University of Maryland’s board of regents tried to pull a fast one on campus on Tuesday, and boy, did that decision backfire. More than four months after offensive lineman Jordan McNair, 19, died after suffering heatstroke at a football practice, and after an explosive ESPN report unveiled signs of a toxic football coaching environment, Maryland’s leadership concluded that head coach DJ Durkin could return to the sidelines.

An investigative report released in September found that the football team’s trainers and medical staff failed to follow proper protocol in treating McNair; Maryland president Wallace Loh said the school accepts “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death. Another report found that Durkin, in an attempt to motivate his players, showed his players “disturbing” videos that included footage of “serial killers, drills entering eyeballs, bloody scenes with animals eating animals, [and] rams and bucks running at each other at full speed.” The report concluded that Durkin, who has a career 10-15 record at the school and was placed on administrative leave in August, also shared responsibility for failing to supervise a strength and conditioning coach accused of verbal abuse.

Still, Maryland gave Durkin his job back. But some players didn’t welcome his return with open arms. By Wednesday evening, a day after Durkin returned, the University reversed course and let him go.

After the board decided to keep Durkin, Maryland offensive lineman Ellis McKennie—who also played with McNair in high school—was reportedly one of three Terps who walked out of a team meeting. He took to Twitter to criticize his school.

“Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate,” McKennie wrote. “Yet a group of people do not have the courage to hold anyone accountable for his death. If only they could have the courage that Jordan had. It’s never the wrong time to do what’s right.”

A few other Terps chimed in, including offensive tackle Tyran Hunt. “At the end of the day, a YOUNG life was lost,” Hunt wrote. “My brother, teammate. And to boil it down to even horrific matters, a paycheck was chosen over that life. Through whatever and forever, I live for Jordan Martin McNair.”

Such a public callout of a college football coach, by his own players, is practically unprecedented. So often, college athletes are taught to conform to the rules. Get paid, lose your spot. Don’t talk to the press without permission. Respect your coach, or suffer the consequences. Stunt your expression.
These tweets revealed a rupture within the Maryland locker room. It was nearly impossible to picture Durkin coaching players who felt his presence dishonored their deceased friend. Durkin could no longer work in College Park.
“Pressure busts pipes, doesn’t it?” Hunt tweeted. “Don’t let anybody tell you your voice doesn’t matter,” McKinnie responded.
In announcing his decision to fire Dunkin, Loh cited other stakeholders who influenced his thinking: students organizations, as well as faculty and deans who objected to the original decision to retain Durkin. The reaction of McNair’s father, Martin, was also haunting.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach, and somebody spit in my face,” he said.
But don’t discount the power of the players. We’ve entered a golden age of athlete activism, where players taking a knee during the national anthem can shape the country’s political discourse, where calls for athletes to “shut up and dribble” spark an even more fervent response to injustice. Sure, these college students aren’t protesting politics. Instead, they are fighting for a fallen teammate and friend. And their words have power. Staying quiet never seemed so quaint.

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Taking Steps to Be an Athlete for Life

Kevin McManigal’s active lifestyle is measured by many milestones … starting from the time Bill Bowerman, the famed founder of Nike, specially made a pair of shoes for Kevin and his teammates on the South Eugene High School track team. (They won the state championship.)

In the years since, the now 60-year-old Kaiser Permanente nurse has summitted just about every Pacific Northwest peak, cycled and run tens of thousands of miles, and explored wilderness trails on horseback, cross country skis, and foot.

Bump in the road

Then came the proverbial “bump in the road.” He hiked deep into the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and came out a week later, hobbling in pain.

Over the next several months, he tried ignoring the pain. He ran less and cycled more. He saw an orthopedic surgeon at Kaiser Westside Medical Center, where an X-ray revealed that cartilage — the firm, rubbery material that serves as a “shock absorber” — had deteriorated in his right knee.

“The pain was constant and became more intense over time,” he says. “It felt like my knee would break, and I would collapse.” He thought that he was “too young and active” to be having joint issues, but he has since learned that it can happen to athletes and others at just about any age in their adult lives.

He wore a brace and walked with a cane.

“It was difficult, but you manage and adapt,” says Kevin, who works in the Medical Procedures Unit at Westside. But when it became too much to endure, he consulted with orthopedic specialists and scheduled surgery for last April.

Just do it

“My surgeon (Erik Kroger, MD), thought that I might only need a half-knee replacement, but he wouldn’t be sure until he actually began the operation. I was confident that he would take excellent care of me, so I told him to ‘Just do it.’”

After total joint replacement, Kevin spent one night in the hospital, and continued his recovery at home. He describes the entire experience from pre-op through recovery “as smooth as can be.” He credits the knee surgery, as well as two previous hand surgeries at Kaiser Permanente, with saving his career and ability to thrive: “I would be disabled now, if not for the excellent care I’ve received. I’d be working at a desk, instead of doing what I love – taking care of patients at the bedside,” said the 32-year Kaiser Permanente employee.

Riding high

Five months following surgery, Kevin experienced another milestone. He participated in Cycle Oregon, an ambitious bike ride that climbs 28,000 feet in elevation through northeastern Oregon. On the last day of the weeklong event, Kevin happened to chat with Eric Bosworth, MD, who cycled the course and months earlier, consulted on Kevin’s case.

Kevin’s conversation with the Kaiser Permanente orthopedic surgeon went like this:

Dr. Bosworth: “I saw you limping on the job all last year … and you’re here at Cycle Oregon?”
Kevin: “Yes, I completed all 400 miles!”
Dr. Bosworth: “You did the whole tour after having had knee replacement surgery in April?”
Kevin: “Yes, that’s right.”
Dr. Bosworth: “That’s great – but did you check with your ortho surgeon before you did this?”
Kevin: “No, because my knee was/is feeling great — and I needed the bicycle ride!”
Dr. Bosworth: “I can understand that. I’m an athlete, too.”

The next milestone for Kevin? He’s planning a multi-day canoeing and hiking trip in Canada and a dozen other adventures, thanks to his new knee and lifelong passion for staying active.

The post Taking Steps to Be an Athlete for Life appeared first on Kaiser Permanente.

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