On Tuesday, October 30th, Maryland football player Ellis McKennie and two of his teammates—tight end Avery Edwardsand offensive lineman Brendan Moore—walked out of D.J. Durkin’s first team meeting after the former Terps head football coach was reinstated following an investigation into the death of Jordan McNair.
McKennie shared his disappointment with the school’s decision later that day via Twitter:
Every Saturday my teammates and I have to kneel before the memorial of our fallen teammate. 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.
The tweet went viral, and generated mostly positive feedback, including support from ESPN personalities like Sarah Spain and Dan Orlovsky. It sparked Maryland’s student body and campus community to rally behind McKennie, Edwards, and Moore, and helped launch a movement that ultimately led to Durkin’s dismissal.
He didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of McKennie’s activist journey.
The offensive lineman and current Maryland graduate student recently spoke at a panel on athlete activism at The Aspen Institute in Foggy Bottom, where he shared that he didn’t see his actions that day as activism at the time.
“I felt like I was standing up for my friend and doing right for his family, who deserved some kind of accountability for this loss of their son,” he said at the panel.“I thought I was doing something on behalf of my teammates, who all believed that we should have a voice in the matter and felt like our voice was kind of silent in the process.”
Unlike years past, where a player’s message can be filtered or muted, McKennie told his side of the story quickly and directly using social media. In addition to taking a stand, he was able to discuss his actions in a public forum and gain access to numerous circles of support as a result.
His message took hold and, in a way, activism chose him.
“It was kind of tough for us at the beginning, but when other people started to voice their opinion and agree with us and almost take our side, it made that a lot easier,” McKennie tells City Paper.
McKennie had an interest in politics from a young age. In addition to being a stellar student at McDonogh School in Owings Mill, Md., where McNair also attended, he was a Washington Post All-Met selection and a consensus three-star recruit. He chose Maryland for its proximity to D.C., where he has worked in the summers, and has also interned for Maryland Senator Ben Cardin in Baltimore.
“I thought it was amazing what he did, and the strength and the courage, especially being in college, to speak out for his friend,” says Etan Thomas, the former Washington Wizards player who was also a panelist at the Aspen Institute event.
While in the NBA, Thomas was one of the more vocal professional athletes about social issues. He’s been impressed with McKennie, but is hardly surprised.
“As I’m going speaking at different colleges and universities, young people are energized, young athletes are energized,” he says. “It’s no longer a conversation of ‘Is this right?’, ‘Is this okay?’ it’s ‘What can we do to change this?’”
Though athlete activism is gaining greater acceptance and athletes have increased control over their message, players, of all levels, can still receive criticism. It’s easier for those in power to control the message at the college level, where institutional leaders are more tied to the coach than the players. But those tides are changing.
“[There are] different ways to force the NCAA’s hand to change the policies that they have,” Thomas says. “You’re gonna see something big happen, and I’m really looking forward to it, honestly, because change always comes from the youth.”
McKennie has already completed his bachelor’s degree and is currently working on a master’s in public policy at College Park. He may pursue a law degree in the future and hopes to eventually be in politics. In addition to his classroom teachings, he’s earned some valuable experience in grassroots efforts over the past few months.
While it may be daunting to face backlash for weighing into controversial topics, McKennie wants college athletes to know that their voices can be heard.
“I would just say to know that you do have support, that there are good people out there who want to help you,” he says. “And you’ll find that support when you speak out.”