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From the outside, it appeared to be an ordinary Maryland football game. Cars lined the streets on University Boulevard and Route 1. Fans in red drank beer and mingled with other tailgaters in parking lots and garages. The Maryland state flag was ever present in the form of T-shirts, scarves, leggings, and socks. Inside Maryland Stadium, a sizable chunk of the crowd wore the colors of the opposing team—this time, Michigan State green.
But the first Saturday of November was not another football game for the Maryland community. It came on the heels of a chaotic and emotional week.
Some students who decided to attend the game felt conflicted about how to show their support for their school in the wake of the death of football player Jordan McNair and the ensuing fallout from the mishandling of the tragic situation by the school’s leaders.
“I definitely debated” about going to the game, says senior mathematics major Jessica Gomes, who attended with her friend, senior mathematics and economics dual major Radhika Gupta. They arrived a few minutes late to the game and sat right behind the school’s marching band. “I think I thought us going would show support for our student-athletes.”
Support for their peers and classmates on the football team was a common sentiment at the game.
On Oct. 31, university president Wallace Loh fired head coach D.J. Durkin, just one day after the school reinstated the coach, who was placed on administrative leave following reports that he created a “toxic” environment within the football program. The move to reinstate Durkin was met with backlash among students, a few football players, the media, and politicians like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
A rally for McNair, dubbed “Justice for Jordan,” on Nov. 1 revealed fractures within the student body. Maryland Student Government Association President Jonathan Allen implored those gathered in front of McKeldin Library to fill the football stadium. “This student body should be there on Saturday to support the student-athletes,” Allen shouted over a megaphone. His calls were met by yells of “Boycott!”
Mary Murdock, a sophomore English major, told the university’s student newspaper, The Diamondback, that some students were “misled” about the intention of the rally. “This wasn’t supposed to be a pep rally,” she said. “This was supposed to be a protest of the administration.”
The anger toward the school’s leadership certainly kept some students away from the game on Saturday, which was attended by an announced crowd of 31,735. (The stadium’s capacity is 54,000.) But how much the controversy affected attendance depends on who you ask.
Gupta expected a larger crowd. “A lot of the student body is really upset,” she says.
But to others, the scene was no different than any other game on a campus where football receives lukewarm support. (The students instead get more excited for the men’s basketball team, as was the case when I attended Maryland about a decade ago.)
“Normally at half time, a majority of the student body leaves,” says Parker Meeks, who graduated with a computer science degree in May. He attended the game with his friend and former Maryland club swimming teammate Thomas Pitzel, a graduate student studying aerospace engineering. “When we came in a little later than normal, it looked about as crowded as it normally does. There was no change I’d say for the first half. But there’s normally not as strong of a student presence in the second half.”
For four years as an undergraduate, Meeks was one of the students in the Testudo mascot costume. He attended every football game, often times as a cheerful, dancing diamondback terrapin on the sidelines.
His school spirit would be hard to question. “But I did find it very hard for a little while to find pride,” Meeks says. Once he saw players tweeting for students to go to the game, he was convinced to show up.
Pitzel was more conflicted. He wondered if his presence could be construed as support for the “athletic administration in any way.” He concluded it wouldn’t. If the school had not finished making its decision on Durkin, it would have been different, he adds.
“I don’t think me being here is going to be that anybody can point to this and say, ‘Yes, more students came so it was a bad decision to fire Durkin,’ or, ‘They all showed up so we don’t need to make any changes.’ I don’t think anyone can realistically say that,” says Pitzel. “So I don’t have a problem with showing up.”
Pitzel believes that Loh made the right decision in firing Durkin, who is reportedly owed $5.5 million for the remainder of his contract. He was surprised that the board of regents even recommended that Durkin return. “Even if he did nothing wrong, I think he should’ve been let go, because he wouldn’t have been able to be an effective leader moving forward,” Pitzel says. “If he did something wrong, better the reason to let him go.”
The team did not address the turmoil or mention McNair during the game. Aside from a brief moment before the start when the players ran out of the tunnel and took a knee around McNair’s painted number 79 logo on the field, the game carried on in its usual fashion. The Terps eventually lost, 24-3, to the Spartans. At Maryland, nothing, and yet everything, appears to be the same.