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The McNair Case: Legal Implications and Impact (Part I)

Updated: Oct 17, 2018

By Michael Horvath:

On June 13, 2018, Jordan McNair, a redshirt freshman football player at University of Maryland, passed away after suffering heatstroke-related symptoms during a team practice that was held two weeks earlier. McNair became ill during team sprints in eighty-degree weather. He collapsed, and had to be pulled off the field. [1] Although it was clear to coaches, players, and training staff that McNair was suffering from serious complications related to a heat-stroke, it would be an hour and seven minutes after McNair’s collapse before anyone decided to call 9-1-1. [2]


A death like McNair’s is tragic on all ends of the spectrum. His family, the Maryland football program, and the Maryland community lost an excellent young man and a highly-touted football star. However, the situation has brought a lot of attention to the Maryland football program, to the toxic coaching staff alleged by several members of its community, and to the NCAA in general. Here, in part one of my two-part series on this issue, I plan to discuss the legal implications pending in the McNair case.


A brief background on the day of McNair’s collapse goes like this: McNair was removed from the field thirty-four minutes after complaining of cramps. [3] Twenty-four minutes later, McNair began to receive medical attention by the Maryland training staff. [4] To no avail, the training staff called 9-1-1 nine minutes later. [5] A full one hour and thirty-nine minutes after his initial collapse, McNair arrived to the hospital with a 106-degree body temperature; he would pass away two weeks later. [6]


The legal implications pending here revolve around the negligence of the Maryland coaching and training staffs to properly treat McNair in a reasonable manner and time period. Why didn’t the coaching staff notice McNair’s struggle in running sprints? Why did they force him to continue to run? Why did it take so long for him to receive medical attention or to have someone call 9-1-1? Was this the proper protocol?


These are all important questions that the world is waiting to know and will most likely be answered in the light of the American court system.


The initial legal remedy that I see happening is McNair’s parents filing a wrongful death suit against University of Maryland. While no such action is pending, the parents’ attorney has notified Maryland that they plan to file a suit and seek damages for their son’s death. [7] Several defendants may end up being named later as well. The crux of the claim will likely revolve around how a court, or possibly a jury, views the reasonableness of the medical attention that McNair received. Additionally, the parents’ may also seek to establish that Maryland’s football program includes a hostile environment where the treatment and excessive workouts like the one to which McNair are pattern and practice. Recently, many Maryland football players have come forward to condemn the environment at Maryland, especially while under the helm of Coach DJ Durkin, who has been suspended by the school. [8] Therefore, the McNairs would have a valid claim here.


The question of possible damages is interesting, as well. A wrongful death verdict in favor of the plaintiff can often be quite high (in the millions or tens of millions) and the parents will need to compute what they believe they suffered in damages. Further, there may be a claim of future economic loss. While the damages of losing a child are bad enough, it is vital to remember that McNair was an outstanding football player at a division one program in the Big Ten conference. Although it will take a lot of speculation, McNair’s parents may try to prove that their son could have went on to make millions playing in the NFL, which would return an even larger sum of monetary compensation.


Regardless of what claims McNair’s family carries out, the pending litigation probably result in a settlement between the school and the family. McNair’s parents will most likely seek damages in the low tens of millions; meanwhile, University of Maryland reportedly has an endowment of $540 million. [9] It would also be in Maryland’s best interest to settle as it will save them a lot of time, money, and negative publicity from going to trial.


There is also some speculation going on that possible criminal liability could be brought against the school or the football program. However, I do not believe any criminal activity will come of this. That would generally require that a coach or staff member acted so recklessly that he/she intended such a result or should have been aware of one to occur. I don’t believe that to be the case here. Additionally, imposing criminal liability on coaches or programs would have a negative social impact on athletics in general. It would deter many qualified and aspiring coaches to not seek such a position in fear that a situation like this would occur. Holding coaches and programs criminally liable has never been the norm in America, nor should it be.


I do think that McNair’s case will find the American judicial system in the near future, and I do think that his parents will be successful at least on some of their claims. Meanwhile, criminal liability still has no place in an athletic context absent extreme recklessness. It will be intriguing to see how the legal implications all play out.

In part two of this discussion on the McNair case, I will be looking at how this situation may impact Maryland football and college athletics in general.



[1] Sallee, Barrett. “Former Maryland Players Rip the Football Program's Culture under Coach D.J. Durkin.” CBSSports.com, CBS Sports, 30 Sept. 2018, www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/former-maryland-players-rip-the-football-programs-culture-under-coach-d-j-durkin/.

[2] Pierce, Charles P., et al. “What McNair Investigation Findings Mean for Lawsuit, Durkin.” SI.com, www.si.com/college-football/2018/09/22/jordan-mcnair-death-investigation-findings-maryland-dj-durkin-lawsuit#.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Sallee, Barrett. “Former Maryland Players Rip the Football Program's Culture under Coach D.J. Durkin.” CBSSports.com, CBS Sports, 30 Sept. 2018, www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/former-maryland-players-rip-the-football-programs-culture-under-coach-d-j-durkin/.

[7] Pierce, Charles P., et al. “What McNair Investigation Findings Mean for Lawsuit, Durkin.” SI.com, www.si.com/college-football/2018/09/22/jordan-mcnair-death-investigation-findings-maryland-dj-durkin-lawsuit#

[8] Sallee, Barrett. “Former Maryland Players Rip the Football Program's Culture under Coach D.J. Durkin.” CBSSports.com, CBS Sports, 30 Sept. 2018, www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/former-maryland-players-rip-the-football-programs-culture-under-coach-d-j-durkin/.

[9] Pierce, Charles P., et al. “What McNair Investigation Findings Mean for Lawsuit, Durkin.” SI.com, www.si.com/college-football/2018/09/22/jordan-mcnair-death-investigation-findings-maryland-dj-durkin-lawsuit#

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