CHARLOTTESVILLE — As news of hazing allegations and a recently filed federal lawsuit swept over campus and a University of Virginia community that is becoming increasingly familiar with accusations of impropriety and abuse, the two football players at the center of the case returned to practice Thursday.
A former teammate has accused Virginia wide receivers David Eldridge and Doni Dowling of staging a gladiator-style locker room fight between two freshmen, which resulted in a concussion and career-threatening injury to one of them. In the wake of allegations, a school spokesman said neither of the accused players has been suspended and both continued their preparations for Saturday’s game against North Carolina.
No Virginia coaches and players were made available to reporters Thursday. Eldridge’s father, who is also named David, said in a brief interview that his son is still in classes and still practicing with the team.
“We have no idea what happened yet,” the elder Eldridge said. “I won’t be able to comment because I don’t know yet. . . . You’re always concerned when allegations like that exist. As far as I know, [we’ll] just have to see how the program handles it and go from there.”
Aidan Howard filed a federal complaint Oct. 14 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, charging the university with Title IX violations related to hazing he experienced shortly after arriving on campus this past summer. A school spokesman, Anthony P. de Bruyn, said Thursday that the university’s investigation was ongoing.
Just weeks into his freshman season at the Virginia, Howard said, he was hazed, bullied and ostracized by older members of the team. Following the team’s practice Aug. 12, Howard said Eldridge and Dowling forced him to fight fellow freshman Hasise Dubois “as a part of Aidan’s ‘initiation’ into the Football Program and to prove his toughness and manliness,” according to the court filing.
“Dowling and Eldridge and others took Aidan and [Dubois] to separate entrances to the Football Program’s locker room, and then forced Aidan and [Dubois] to ‘enter the ring’ to flashing lights, loud music, and announcements to simulate a ‘prize fight,’ ” Howard’s complaint states.
Howard suffered a concussion in the fight, according to his lawsuit, and later learned that he also broke an orbital bone that required surgery. He left Virginia in August and enrolled at Robert Morris University outside Pittsburgh and closer to his home in Monroeville, Pa. He was unable to resume playing football there because of the injuries suffered in the locker room fight, his complaint states.
A spokesman for Robert Morris confirmed that Howard will sit out this season.
Dowling, a junior, is Virginia’s second-leading receiver this season with 309 yards on 21 catches. Eldridge is a sophomore who has five catches on the year. Those who know Eldridge were surprised to see his name linked to any sort of hazing reports.
“This allegation is completely out of character for David Eldridge III,” said Jeff Lloyd, his former coach at Kettle Run High School in Nokesville, Va., who is now the head coach at Monticello High in Charlottesville, “and I have known this young man and his family for many years.”
The news spread quickly through Virginia’s vast network of alums, many still reeling from publicity surrounding unrelated accusations of assault on campus. In addition to a discredited 2014 Rolling Stone article concerning on-campus rape, in March five former members of the school’s men’s swim team settled a lawsuit that stemmed from allegations that they hazed freshman swimmers in 2014.
On Thursday a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department confirmed the school was still under investigation for Title IX violations related to sexual violence and issues of disability. That case was opened in July. The department could not release any details about the case or report whether there have been other Title IX complaints since then. It is the second time in the past five years that Virginia has been subject to a federal probe.
Still, news that members of the football program might have been involved in hazing surprised many. Luke Bowanko, a former offensive lineman at Virginia who now plays for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, said that although he has been away from Charlottesville for three years, “the allegations aren’t consistent with the culture that was in place while I was there.”
“I know the leadership in that locker room has a much greater respect for people than to be involved in hazing,” he said Thursday in a written message to The Washington Post. “They certainly weren’t forced/asked/pressured/convinced or whatever to do anything like that while I was there, so I’d be shocked to learn that these accusations turn out to be true. Not to say it is or isn’t, just that it would be a shock.”
While Bronco Mendenhall, the team’s first-year head coach, is not a defendant in the lawsuit, the complaint charges that leadership — including Teresa Sullivan, the school president, and the athletic director, Craig Littlepage — “fostered a culture of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.”
The complaint states that one member of the coaching staff, Famika Anae, a graduate assistant and the son of the team’s offensive coordinator, Robert Anae, was present for the fight. “Aidan heard Defendant Anae yell ‘No phones,’ and admonish the student-athletes to put their cell phones away and to not record videos of the fight,” the complaint states. “Defendant Anae, however, did nothing to stop the fight from proceeding.”
One other coach is named as a defendant in the lawsuit: wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, a former quarterback at the school who played wide receiver in the NFL. “Defendant Hagans would, from time to time, bully and harass Aidan when he did not grasp the Football Program’s ‘plays’ and ‘schemes,’ ” the complaint states.
Some former Virginia players took to social media to defend the program or address the situation. Canaan Severin, a former wide receiver who played the past four years at Virginia, noted that Hagans “loves his players like his own sons.” Severin tweeted: “he is a great example of a man, husband and father. Utmost love and respect for him.”
Ava Wallace in Blacksburg, Va., and Adam Kilgore in Monroeville, Pa., contributed to this report.