Father says player safety is priority

Martin McNair's son Jordan died from heat stroke during a University of Maryland football workout. Now he's advocating for increased player safety measures.

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Sports

July 9, 2021 - 2:50 PM

Martin McNair, right, father of Jordan McNair and founder of The Jordan McNair Foundation, speaks to a group of parents and coaches at the foundation's health and wellness sports clinic on June 5. He and Jordan's mother, Tonya Wilson, see an opportunity to push for more comprehensive change. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE — Martin McNair has no quarrel with the new economic freedoms that have opened to college athletes in recent weeks.

It’s just that when he looks at the reforms sweeping the NCAA landscape, he wishes profit would fall behind health and safety on the priority list.

McNair can’t help but feel this way three years after he watched his 19-year-old son, Jordan, die from the effects of heat stroke suffered at a University of Maryland football workout. Sure, it would have been nice for Jordan McNair to make a few extra bucks off his status as an offensive lineman for the Terrapins, but his father would much rather have seen rules in place to protect his son from a preventable death.

It’s a message Martin McNair is sharing with federal legislators as they consider laws that would expand college athletes’ financial rights.

“This is the time right now,” he said. “I’m definitely for the economic freedom of student athletes, all day long. I just think it’s really gotten away from the player safety component, and everybody’s just focusing on: how do I compete with the next school recruitment-wise?”

The NCAA fundamentally changed its model of amateurism last week when it lifted restrictions on athletes’ rights to profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL). The move came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of college athletes who were seeking additional educational benefits and after a wave of states, including Maryland, passed NIL laws. A federal law outlining college athletes’ rights could come next, with several versions awaiting action in Congress.

McNair wants that legislation to place athletes’ health rights front and center, following the model Maryland lawmakers used in crafting their bill.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act into law in May. The legislation requires universities to create guidelines for preventing and treating serious injuries such as brain trauma and heat-related illnesses and to develop clear protocols for athletes returning from injuries or illnesses. Martin McNair helped develop that language.

Last month, McNair spoke before a U.S. Senate committee, describing the last call he shared with his son on May 28, 2018 and the shattering news he received the next day after Jordan McNair collapsed from heat stroke at an offseason workout. He died two weeks later.

“I never thought to ask about any safety, preventative, or overall protection of my student athlete on or off the field,” McNair testified, describing his outlook before the tragedy. “I just assumed like so many of us parents of collegiate athletes that the systems were in place in the event of. I never thought to ask what if Jordan got hurt or couldn’t play anymore, what would they do to protect him?”

The NCAA has shared health guidelines and best practices with its schools but hasn’t set requirements — not good enough for McNair.

He said federal legislators have been receptive to his message.

In their statement last week on the NCAA lifting NIL restrictions, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) explicitly mentioned the need for legislation guaranteeing athletes’ health and safety rights.

“The Supreme Court’s decision … the panoply of state laws about to take effect, and the powerful grassroots coalition of athletes are all pointing in one direction: it’s time for Congress to act,” Booker and Blumenthal said. “Athletes deserve enforceable health and safety standards, robust educational opportunities, and yes, fair compensation and full rights to their Name, Image, and Likeness.”

Booker and Blumenthal’s proposed legislation would require schools to contribute to medical trust funds that would help athletes cover out-of-pocket health expenses related to sports injuries for up to five years after their playing careers.

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