Gregory is a TIME senior writer.
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.