Over the last two weeks, as college athletes race hither and yon for endorsement deals in the name, image and likeness era, Martin McNair has wished he could tap the brakes.
He understands — and welcomes — the excitement in the wake of the NCAA‘s July 1 decision to allow athletes to use their star power to make money while still playing college sports. But as that excitement mounts, he’s noticed something else fall out of focus.
McNair, whose son Jordan died in 2018, two weeks after suffering heatstroke at a Maryland Terrapins football workout, has been pushing for the inclusion of health and safety guidelines in any forthcoming name, image and likeness legislation. But the NCAA’s decision to open a “free-for-all” market has made the possibility of progress on the state level with that kind of legislation more unlikely.
So McNair now is taking aim at the federal level, working with Sens. Cory Booker, New Jersey Democrat and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, to fine-tune the College Athletes Bill of Rights — a proposed bill to expand the rights and protection of college athletes.
McNair hopes lawmakers can help schools — and athletes themselves — balance the need for player safety against a tempting new influx of deals, endorsements and cash. Lots and lots of cash.
“Hey, that only looks shiny. But at the end of the day, you all need to be thinking about this,” McNair said. “I remember when Jordan chose Maryland. He was thinking football, but I was thinking life after football. And that’s where I think you’ve got to have that voice of reason talking to that 21-year-old, because at the end of the day, they’re just seeing right now. When in reality, we see tomorrow and life after football.”
McNair and Tonya Wilson, Jordan’s mother, had been looking forward to July 1 for some time. In May, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Jordan McNair Safe and Fair Play Act into law. The bill gave college athletes in the state the ability to profit off their names, images and likenesses, beginning in 2023, but it also put into place standardized procedures and safeguards for college athletes in Maryland. Measures that can help prevent what happened to their son, McNair and Wilson say, from happening to anyone else’s child.
Maryland’s health and safety guidelines are still in effect, but the NCAA rule changes have pushed any national discussion of safety in college sports to the side.
As of last week, of the 25 states that had passed name, image and likeness legislation, McNair said Maryland is the only one with a player safety component.
“What we were really hoping was that these other states would take advantage of that to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we focus on keeping a player safe before we think about economic freedom, in a sense?’” McNair said.
That didn’t happen, with universities racing to put in place name, image and likeness guidelines for athletes in response to the NCAA ruling.
Shortly after the announcement, Penn State advertised how it’s one of the few Power-5 schools within 250 miles of three top-10 media markets. Maryland tweeted a video hyping its athletes’ social media brands, with the caption, “No better place than here to capitalize.”
“I just think that the recruiting aspect of it has really taken precedent over the health and safety of a student-athlete,” McNair said, “and that’s really what we’re focusing on.”
McNair testified June 17 in front of the Senate Commerce Committee, advocating for health and safety guidelines to be included in any upcoming federal version of name, image and likeness legislation.
McNair supports Booker’s and Blumenthal’s College Athlete Bill of Rights, which includes name, image and likeness language but also emphasizes health and safety guidelines, targeting the main causes for student-athlete deaths: heat exhaustion, cardiac arrest and brain injury.
“You want to create a baseline standard all the way across the board, because what’s going to happen is, you’re going to have 50 states with all different notable provisions,” McNair said. “Everybody is focusing on everything but student safety, except for the state of Maryland.”
McNair said he hopes other families — parents, especially — can take a cautionary message away from the tragedy his family went through.
“At the end of the day, Jordan could’ve been anybody’s teammate or whatever,” McNair said. “I experienced this. I didn’t think to ask this, and these are the things you should be doing to keep yourself safe. So I think, really, that’s how you’ve got to talk to them. You’ve got to stay a parent.”