Evans Vows to Protect Player Safety, Defends Value of College Sports
By Liam Farrell
Photo by John T. Consoli
Coming off the Terps’ 34–29 upset victory over Texas in Saturday’s football season opener, Athletics Director Damon Evans yesterday said he’s focused most on players’ safety and health and urged fans to keep supporting all student-athletes.
Maryland's athletics department awaits the results of two investigations surrounding the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who struggled to recover from a spring workout and died 15 days later of complications from heatstroke. University President Wallace D. Loh accepted "moral and legal responsibility" for the mistakes made in treating McNair, and investigations into his death and the football program's climate are under way. Evans said in an interview with Maryland Today that his main goal now is to bring about change.
“We’re going to be a very fluid and dynamic department that will do what is necessary to make sure that the experience for our student-athletes is the one that we promised them,” Evans said in a Tuesday conversation with Maryland Today. “That is sacred to me.”
Below is more of the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
MT: This is the second year that the football team beat Texas to begin the season, but obviously under very different circumstances this time. Can you encapsulate the meaning of that win both for you and the team?
Evans: It’s more about our players. They showed a lot of resiliency. These young men have been through a very, very difficult time. They were playing for Jordan. For our student-athletes, for all the football and coaching staff and support staff, it was a significant victory, but for our program as a whole, too. Jordan touched more than just the football team. His life impacted many other student-athletes and staff members.
What have you been hearing from football players and other athletes? What message are you trying to tell them if they are concerned or have questions?
First and foremost, I wanted to make sure that we are providing our student-athletes with the support they needed as it relates to grief. Everyone deals with grief in a different manner. Then, also, to be around—I think sometimes just to be around, so the student-athletes and staff can see you, so they know you are there and present with them. I’ve been reiterating to them that we are going to makes sure that we provide an environment that is one that looks out for the overall student-athlete well-being.
Then just making sure they know that we are listening. That’s why we implemented this new online portal called Terps Feedback, so in real time and on an on-going basis, they have a manner in which they can connect to us.
What are the concrete steps taken so far to address student-athlete safety across the Athletic Department?
We’ve changed the way that we train and practice. We’re more aware of heat index—for example, our head person in that area sent out an alert this past weekend to all of our coaches so they were taking even more precautions.
In football, we have more trainers on the field than we had in the past. We have more doctors on the field than in the past. We’ve put in cooling stations, we’ve implemented more breaks for our student-athletes and things of that nature. There will be other things that come from the Walters report when its concluded.
Prior to the start of the fall season, we did an in-service training for all of our trainers and strength and conditioning staff to go over different things such as heat illness and heat stroke, just as a refresher course.
Is there any update you can provide on how those investigations are going? Is the plan still to release the Walters report by Sept. 15?
The Board of Regents took over that process, which I welcome. But as they are now leading it, I am not sure the date of when it will be released. What is most important is that Rod Walters has the time to do a report that’s thorough and that provides us details from which we can learn and move forward.
Athletes are honoring Jordan, but the university is still wrestling with the questions and controversy surrounding his death. How do you manage that situation?
I and all of our staff are staying focused on student-athletes. Our student-athletes are the backbone of what we do. We recruit those young men and women here so they can get an education from a great university, have a chance to compete at the highest level and then prepare them to go out and be successful in any endeavor they so choose. While they are here, part of that experience is making sure that we provide a safe environment. There is a lot going on right now, but what we have to do is stay focused on the reason why we are here and that is the young men and women who attend this university and play sports for us.
To focus on football, there’s been a lot of concerns about safety and the future of the sport. Between Jordan’s death and a number of other things, there’s people advocating for the elimination of football, the elimination of college athletics or a whole scale of reforms. How would you respond to someone who says, at this point, it’s time to start eliminating sports?
I think the value of college athletics is significant. It gives some the opportunity they may not otherwise have to earn an education. I’ve always seen athletics as a vehicle for individuals to earn a degree and to attend institutions of higher learning.
I also believe that within sports there are a lot of lessons that are taught. When I am looking for a coach, I am looking for someone who is an educator and a teacher, who can help these young men and women grow and develop not only on the field, but more importantly, off the field. Sports teach us a lot of life lessons. We have to deal with certain challenges and adversity. It teaches us about teamwork and working together. You have so many different people, from different backgrounds—socioeconomic, ethnic, religion, diversity of thought—but they are all able to come together and set their differences aside for one common goal, and I think that’s significant.
For anyone who remains skeptical, they won’t change their mind just because of success on the field. So what would you say to them?
Continue to support our kids. Continue to support this great institution. That should be what our focus is, and that’s what my focus will continue to be. I believe if we stay true to that, then the investigations will take care of themselves. We can’t lose sight of why we’re here.
This story has been updated to include additional details about the university's response to McNair's death.
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