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A sports media panel at the University of Maryland entitled, “Crisis at Maryland: Covering a Tragedy and the Fall Out,” began with the question: “Where were you on May 29th when the 9-1-1 call went out?”
That was the day 19-year-old offensive lineman Jordan McNair collapsed during a football workout. Fifteen days after an ambulance was called, McNair died. James Crabtree-Hannigan, who was in Pittsburgh interning with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when the first call went out said, remembers the red flags.
“In late July, it came out that it was heatstroke, when someone dies of heatstroke they just weren’t treated properly. It was pretty clear the University didn’t do something right.” says Crabtree-Hannigan, now the sports editor at the Maryland student newspaper, The Diamondback.
On Wednesday night, Crabtree-Hannigan and fellow panelists, Kevin Blackistone, Christine Brennan, Rick Maese, David Steele, and Dave Zirin, sat in high chairs in front of an audience of about 60 people at the event hosted by the Povich Center for Sports Journalism to share insights on how they have covered the controversy that has engulfed the Maryland athletics program. Despite limited resources and a staff of full-time students, Crabtree-Hannigan and The Diamondback have been an invaluable part of the conversation.
On August 10th, ESPN dropped a bombshell report that revealed a reportedly toxic culture within the Maryland football program, sending ripple effects through college football community. While the ESPN report blew the lid off the program, Crabtree-Hannigan, a senior, knew the water was already boiling, having listened closely to Maryland football head coach D.J. Durkin over his time in Maryland.
At an on-campus journalism event last spring, the football coach denied there was a link between concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
“I was at that event, I knew eventually this might become a story and eventually quotes about the heat that [Durkin has] given multiple times over the years, eventually that’s a story,” Crabtree-Hannigan says. “That’s not really a story you can write until people care. On its own it’s just a bad thing for him to have said but until there’s a pattern, established by ESPN essentially, then people can pay attention and we just had to be ready for that.”
Durkin and two trainers are on administrative leave and strength and conditioning coach Rick Court is no longer with the program. The school has launched two investigations, one specifically into McNair’s death and a second into the culture of the program.
The panelist agreed the culture surrounding college football programs in this country needs to be addressed and that, sadly, it takes a tragedy of this magnitude for people to start probing.
“There have been thirty football players who have died in non-contact football drills since 2000,” said Zirin, The Nation‘s sports correspondent. “Imagine if thirty football players died on the field, would there even be football? This merits a larger conversation about negligence beyond UMD and how we’re treating students who are members of this community.”
Beyond doing his job as for the student newspaper, that idea of community motivated Crabtree-Hannigan’s diligence.
“This was the third consecutive summer punctuated by grave injustice against African-Americans,” he said. “That’s something that people on campus are aware of and that’s incredibly troubling.”
In 2016, Maryland police officers used pepper spray to break up a black graduation party. In 2017, Richard Collins III, an Army lieutenant and Bowie State University student, was fatally stabbed to death by a white supremacist student. In 2018, McNair suffered a fatal heatstroke during an intense football workout that is now believed to be linked to an alleged toxic culture.
For whatever reason, the deaths of football players at collegiate programs don’t seem to garner more than a few days attention. The panelists mostly agreed it’s because of the culture surrounding them, the money, and the power structure.
“I don’t think that’s all right,” Crabtree-Hannigan said. “From the very start, a kid died, what could be worse? When this first started happening I kind of felt insane to an extent because I felt like, is there nobody else? Nobody else is going to do anything on this?”
He felt alone at first. The Diamondback continued to report on the tragedy, remaining true to the student body and holding the administration accountable even though it could not compete in terms of resources with professional, nationally-known organizations. But the campus saw their work. When President Wallace Loh announced that Maryland was accepting responsibility for the what happened to McNair, the reaction on campus and in alumni social media circles was, “The Diamondback already said that.”
In late August, the newspaper broke the news that former Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson intervened in a sexual misconduct case involving football players, and more recently,it published an article quoting boosters—on the record—defending Durkin, and essentially placing some blame on McNair for his own death.
“The Diamondback has shown the utter indispensability of student journalism,” Zirin tells City Paper. “They’ve been on campus, they’ve been at the heart of the story, and it’s because of them that we know so much that we otherwise would not know.”
As both a student and a journalist, Crabtree-Hannigan, has tried his best to remain somewhat detached, to do what was required of him by the craft he chose.
“If I tell somebody, ‘Yeah, I was at Maryland that year. I was the sports editor,’ you better have done something, you better have accomplished something because there was a lot to accomplish. I definitely did feel some pressure to live up to the tragic circumstances,” he says. “I knew there was a way to tell the story and get the truth out there.”
Photo by Hillel Steinberg on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.