Zoë Ferrara wondered what she should do when she received an email about a football ticket this summer.
The 19-year-old from Rhode Island attended the University of Maryland’s home football games last year. She likes the team spirit, the tailgating and the way the school comes together on gameday. But as controversy hangs over the Maryland football team, Ferrara wasn’t sure whether she should go this season.
“Do you want to support the athletic department, or the students? That’s the conflict,” said Ferrara, as she moved into her dorm for her sophomore year.
Much has happened here in College Park since University of Maryland students went on summer break. A 19-year-old football player died following a team workout, and investigations have begun. Maryland now faces tough questions about the culture of its football program and the decisions by its leadership.
Then, just hours after Ferrara spoke last week, news broke that Maryland’s former athletic director steered department funds for the legal defense of two student-athletes who were being investigated in a sexual misconduct case. In a text message, Ferrara called it “just another example of the dark side of college sports.”
This is what students have returned to at Maryland, a university that opens its football season Saturday against Texas at FedEx Field. The game was something that Maryland president Wallace Loh noted in a welcome message this August, telling students that their football team needs their support “more than ever.”
In late May, Maryland offensive lineman Jordan McNair suffered exertional heatstroke during a team workout, and died in a hospital days later. University officials have since acknowledged that team athletic trainers failed to diagnose and treat the condition. Loh said the school accepts “legal and moral responsibility” for the mistakes that staffers made.
In the aftermath of McNair’s death, concerns emerged about the culture of Maryland’s football program and its athletic department operations. The school has placed head coach DJ Durkin on administrative leave, and the governing board of Maryland’s public university system has taken control of the investigations into McNair’s death and the culture of the football program.
Last Thursday, Maryland’s marching band practiced its halftime routine on the school’s grounds, because scandal or not, the first home game was around the corner. The same day, across campus, Patrick O’Toole was moving into his residence hall as he began his freshman year.
O’Toole, who is from New Jersey, said he was still new, so he did not feel particularly affected by what occurred here over the summer. The “football thing,” O’Toole said, was “pretty bad.” He had read a bit about that.
“That was just — that’s unfortunate,” O’Toole said. “But, I don’t know. You’ve just got to get past it. Obviously, don’t forget it.”
For now, though, O’Toole was more focused on figuring out how to navigate Maryland’s sprawling campus. He said he would listen to what others were saying about the matter. But it had not changed the way he thought about his university.
“Sports is kind of its own world,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s affected the way I see anything.”
Maryland’s student body president, Jonathan Allen, attended a freshman brunch that morning, an event where he expected questions that he said never came. He noted an “entirely different energy” as Maryland’s newest class arrived in College Park. Freshmen had smiles on their faces, he said, and their eyes wandered across the campus.
“There’s so much good happening on this campus,” he said. “We sometimes only focus on a few negative aspects, but ultimately, it’s a campus that I love, that I know most students do. A university that all of us are proud of.”
Allen initially thought about calling for a boycott of football games, but after he spoke with students and met with administrators, he ultimately decided to take a different approach.
“We all should be at the game, supporting our fellow students,” he said. “The student-athletes — who are working really hard over the summer, despite everything happening in athletics — will be representing our university on Sept. 1. If anything, we should all be there, in support of the students on the field.”
The examination of athletic culture at the state’s flagship institution has garnered national attention. But this summer, there were also some administrative shifts that students might not have noticed, but still matter to those on this campus.
Maryland’s interim chief diversity officer, Roger Worthington, left the position in August and returned to the College of Education’s faculty, after being in the role for about a year. He was appointed shortly after the death of a 23-year-old Bowie State University student who had been killed on Maryland’s campus in May 2017.
Catherine Carroll, director of the university’s Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, also left in August for a new position with Fairfax County Public Schools. She was the founding member of the office, which dealt with sexual harassment and misconduct claims.
Returning students crossed the mall and flooded the student union as Maryland’s academic year began Monday. Among them was Annabelle Arnold, a 20-year-old from Baltimore County, who said she had followed the McNair case over the summer.
The Maryland junior is not a huge sports fan, and had only been to one football game. Now, though, she felt conflicted by the idea of watching Maryland play — but it went deeper than that.
“I think that what’s happening is unacceptable,” she said. “And I don’t really want to take part in it. But I am taking part in it by going here. I think that’s what makes it kind of hard, is I feel like I’m supporting this.”
Jordan Nicolette, a 20-year-old junior, who had a friend who went to high school with McNair, followed the news surrounding the football program “a little bit.” Nicolette said so many of his fellow students were drawn to Maryland because of athletics; they wanted to attend a Big Ten institution, or they were into the basketball team.
“It’s a college experience,” Nicolette said. “It’s part of that.”
The allegations surrounding the athletics department made Nicolette feel like there were “more shady things going on” than students actually hear about.
“Which is disappointing,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in our name and our school. It hurts to hear that.”