The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jordan McNair’s father hopes a bill named for his son gives athletes a greater voice

The late Jordan McNair's parents, Tonya Wilson and Martin McNair, shown in 2018 (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The death of University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair in 2018 devastated his parents and thrust his name into national conversations about the treatment of college athletes.

The loss inspired Martin McNair and Tonya Wilson to honor their son’s legacy by pursuing projects and partnerships that raise awareness about player safety. One of those pursuits helped shape recent state legislation that bears Jordan’s name. Similar versions of the bill, named the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act, were passed by the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates and are being reconciled before a bill can be presented to Gov. Larry Hogan (R).

“You want to honor your child, you want to honor his legacy — however, you want to honor his legacy [in a way] that’s consistent with the work that we do,” said Martin McNair, who with Wilson established the Jordan McNair Foundation to raise awareness about the signs and symptoms of heatstroke and heat-related illnesses. Martin McNair also wrote a memoir detailing the life and loss of his son.

“Our mission is to promote awareness, education and prevention of heat-related injuries but also to empower student-athletes,” he said.

The legislation would make Maryland the latest state to enable its college athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses while also implementing greater safety measures to prevent the failures that led to Jordan McNair’s death.

McNair, a 19-year-old offensive lineman, died in June 2018 after the Maryland medical staff failed to properly treat him after he suffered exertional heatstroke during a team workout. In January, state officials approved a $3.5 million settlement between the school and McNair’s family.

Maryland approves $3.5 million settlement over Jordan McNair’s death

The family became involved with the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act in 2019, when Martin McNair read a news story about then-Del. Shelly Hettleman’s legislation that sought to create an avenue through which college athletes could report concerns about their program to the administration — circumventing the athletic department in the process. It was meant to help avoid an outcome similar to Jordan’s.

McNair reached out to Hettleman (D), whose district included Jordan’s old high school. They started a conversation that came to include Del. Brooke Lierman (D), who in February 2019 had proposed a bill seeking to give athletes the right to unionize and collectively bargain over issues related to health and safety.

“This was the sort of story that every parent was talking about for some time if they were at all following college athletics,” Lierman said of McNair’s death. “As a legislator who has frequent interactions with the university system leadership, to see something like this be allowed to happen, everything went wrong. And as a parent, it was your worst nightmare.”

Lierman and Martin McNair continued to exchange ideas. She asked what he would like to add and what he thought about certain aspects of the bill. He twice testified at the Maryland State House.

Those conversations helped expand Maryland’s Safe and Fair Play Act, which would allow the state’s college athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses. It would compel colleges to implement guidelines to prevent and treat serious sports injuries, including brain trauma and heat-related illnesses. It also would require colleges to develop return-to-play protocols for players coming back from injury. Lierman said she expects it could be signed into law by the end of May.

While Maryland seeks to bolster athletes’ rights and protections, the NCAA has faced mounting pressure for the ways it has limited those very things.

The NCAA’s argument that it is protecting the integrity of amateur athletics by opposing greater compensation for players was met with skepticism at the Supreme Court on Wednesday. During this year’s NCAA tournaments, the organization has come under fire for the differences in how it treats men’s and women’s athletes. Its restrictions on players’ ability to monetize their names, images and likenesses already have been challenged by states such as California and Florida; the latter’s law allowing college athletes in the state to make money from endorsements goes into effect in July. And a group of men’s basketball players resurfaced those concerns last month while using the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty.

The blend between economic empowerment and player safety may seem a bit incongruent, but McNair saw a natural union when he reflected on his time with Jordan. During his son’s 19 years, McNair said he taught Jordan everything he knew. He taught him how to be coachable, how to defend himself and how to speak up around his peers. But he never taught him that “if you don’t feel comfortable doing something from an adult or a coach, don’t do it.”

Through its safety measures and expanded financial freedoms, he hopes the bill will empower other athletes to exercise that independence as universities are held more accountable.

“Those are the things we try to emphasize to student-athletes going forward,” he said of that sense of autonomy. “I think this bill just kind of empowers student athletes to say: ‘Hey, I have a voice here. You guys don’t own me.’ ”

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