As one of three juniors on a team with zero scholarship seniors, Maryland swingman Dez Wells will be one of the Terrapins’ leaders next season. It’s a role he handled well after transferring from Xavier last year, leading the Terrapins in scoring and helping them advance to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.
But Wells now must bear a different sort of burden: His federal lawsuit against Xavier University, the Cincinnati school that expelled him in 2012 after a university judicial board found him responsible for the rape of a classmate, even though local authorities declined to press charges against him and even advocated on his behalf.
Peter R. Ginsberg, Wells’s attorney, said Wednesday that he doesn’t think the lawsuit will interfere with Wells’s responsibilities at Maryland.
“We don’t anticipate any disruption in either his basketball or his academic obligations,” Ginsberg said in a telephone interview.
Through a spokesman, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, accuses Xavier of “conducting a flawed investigation and rushing to an irresponsible judgment following a clearly false and malicious allegation of sexual misconduct.” Wells is seeking unspecified compensation and a public apology from Xavier and its president, Father Michael J. Graham.
Xavier released a statement on behalf of Graham saying the allegations in the lawsuit “are unfounded and cannot be supported.”
“The university has never revealed the specific charge against Dez Wells other than to say he was found responsible for a violation of the Student Code of Conduct,” the statement said. “The university will vigorously defend the process and the decision.”
Any emotional distress Wells shouldered last season, in the aftermath of the events that brought him to College Park, rarely showed on the court. It was not uncommon to hear him barking in team huddles, shouting instructions from the sideline or bouncing around in the pregame dance mob, pumping up a team he had joined only three months earlier. He appeared on posters and banners and online popup messages encouraging Maryland fans to attend games.
“I can’t really change a program around,” Wells said on April 2. “I can be a piece that helps change the program around. Everybody who’s a fan has their own limited piece of helping us change this program around. There’s a lot of pressure in the beginning, but Coach Turgeon told me just to relax. It was around for a while. But I had to be comfortable in my own skin, just play and do what I can do.”
The lawsuit says Wells suffered extensive emotional trauma after he was expelled by Xavier. Ginsberg declined to elaborate, but cited several examples of opposing fans alluding to the alleged sexual assault by chanting “no means no” during road games.
The lawsuit also says Wells “could never rape a woman in light of the fact that his sister was a victim of rape.”
“To bring this lawsuit took a lot of courage,” Ginsberg said. “Dez doesn’t grab the spotlight, he doesn’t like to be the focus of attention. That’s an indication of how much this means to him and how important this is to him.”
According to the lawsuit, Wells engaged in consensual sex with his resident adviser, an upperclassman at Xavier, on July 7, 2012, following a particularly sexual game of truth-or-dare. Hours later, the woman reported Wells to campus police for sexual assault. On Aug. 3, the University Conduct Board found Wells responsible for rape and expelled him.
Not long after, Hamilton (Ohio) County prosecutor Joseph Deters deemed the charges unworthy of prosecution and condemned the school’s disciplinary process as “fundamentally unfair.”
Wells transferred to Maryland, where he was granted immediate eligibility three days before the season opener following a lengthy appeals process with the NCAA, which normally mandates that transfers sit out one season.
In light of the lawsuit, Wells will undoubtedly draw more attention to the program, which begins its season on Nov. 8 against Connecticut. Balancing the litigation and basketball might prove difficult, but Ginsberg expressed confidence in his client’s abilities to avoid distractions, just as he did last season.
“We certainly have talked about it,” Ginsberg said. “I think Dez is going to focus on his schoolwork and focus on playing basketball and not make himself available to the media as much as possible and let things proceed in the court.”