The University of Minnesota football team skipped practice for the second straight day Friday, a highly unusual case of college athletes unified in protest. The evening before, players huddled together on the field, most of them wearing their maroon jerseys and sweatpants. Drew Wolitarsky, a senior wide receiver, read from a sheet of paper.
“We, the united Gopher football team, issue the statement to take back the reputation and integrity of our program and our brothers that have faced an unjust Title IX investigation without due process,” he said.
And with that, the Gophers commenced a boycott of football activities, a high-profile stand that could culminate with the team sitting out the school’s postseason appearance in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 in San Diego. Among those standing behind Wolitarsky were 10 teammates who are accused of taking part in the sexual assault of a female student.
A criminal investigation resulted in no arrests and no charges, but each player was suspended indefinitely Tuesday following an investigation by the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
The players say they won’t resume football activities until the school meets their demands, which include the reinstatement of the suspended players and that the school’s president, Eric Kaler, and athletic director, Mark Coyle, be “held accountable for their actions.”
The case highlights the complications school administrators face in investigating allegations of sexual assault and meting out punishments. As the focus on campus sex crimes has intensified in recent years, universities across the country have struggled with striking a balance between protecting the rights of both the victim and the accused. The issue becomes even more delicate when it involves recognizable student-athletes who have been protected when they run afoul of the law or school rules in some cases and have been targets of false allegations in others.
“We want to make sure the student-athletes aren’t treated to favoritism because they’re athletes or subject to harsher penalties because of their high profile,” said Joseph Cohn, the legislative and policy director for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit dedicated to defending individual rights at colleges. “We want to make sure they are given fundamental fairness like everyone else. It’s nice to see players standing up for their teammates and insisting that due process can’t be set aside.”
In the Minnesota case, players did not understand why the school’s inquiry yielded a different outcome than the criminal investigation. They were unsatisfied with the explanation they received in a meeting with Kaler on Wednesday.
“We wanted answers but received misleading statements,” Wolitarsky said.
Kaler released a statement late Friday that said the team has declined his invitation to discuss the matter. He made clear the suspended players wouldn’t soon be reinstated and could not play in the bowl game.
“A bowl game is a wonderful reward for an excellent football season,” he said. “It is my hope that our eligible football players, marching band, spirit squad and loyal fans take advantage of this opportunity. However, the University of Minnesota will not change our values or our code of conduct for the sake of a bowl game.”
Kaler and Coyle also issued a letter addressed to student-athletes. While they said the administration couldn’t divulge details about the alleged incident or the investigative process, “we can tell you that certain behavior is simply unacceptable and antithetical to our institutional values.”
The gap between a law enforcement agency’s decision to prosecute and a school’s decision to discipline hinges on the different evidentiary standards and burdens of proof. While the criminal justice system requires a high certainty of guilt — “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the Education Department has argued that Title IX regulations call for a “preponderance of the evidence standard.”
“That’s 50.01 percent,” Cohn says. “That’s almost flipping a coin. Fifty percent plus a feather.”
At Minnesota, a female student said as many as a dozen men took part in a sexual assault that occurred at an off-campus apartment in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, according to police reports. Five Gophers football players told police they had sex with the woman but said it was consensual. Alcohol was involved, and there is video of some of the incident.
The players’ attorney, Lee Hutton III, has said the school recommended expulsion for five players — Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson — while four others face a one-year suspension from school — Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr. The university is seeking only probation for a 10th player, Antonio Shenault. The players are entitled to a hearing and have the right to appeal, but they remain suspended from the team in the interim.
Schools are required by Title IX regulations to investigate allegations of sexual assault, regardless of the findings of criminal investigations.
The issue has become increasingly fraught and complicated in recent years. The Obama administration has pushed colleges to deal more aggressively with sexual assaults on campus, and in 2011, the Education Department issued a letter that effectively lowered the evidentiary standards in such cases, upending the way most schools dealt with sexual assault complaints.
While the change was welcomed by victims advocates, others argue it infringes on the rights of the accused. This year, a University of Virginia law school student who was found responsible for sexual misconduct sued the federal government in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the Office of Civil Rights’ directive and saying the new evidentiary standards and required procedures were improperly imposed on universities.
“OCR has taken a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach,” the federal complaint states, “and it has managed to empty more than a few magazines before being challenged about whether it is even allowed to do so.”
One of the most high-profile recent cases involved the captain of the basketball team at Yale University. Jack Montague was expelled in February following a school investigation into a sexual assault complaint. He sued Yale and two of its Title IX coordinators. The Yale team similarly stood by Montague, wearing T-shirts bearing messages of support, and faced backlash from much of the campus community.
Laura Dunn, a victims advocate with SurvJustice, said the ability to suspend accused student-athletes during the course of an investigation or as the result of one is an invaluable tool available to school administrators.
“It’s important for survivors to feel safe on their campus and for other people to feel safe,” she said.
Dunn said too often athletes receive preferential treatment. At Baylor University, administrators failed to take appropriate action following incidents from 2012 to 2016. When an investigation revealed the years of inaction, school chancellor Ken Starr, athletic director Ian McCaw and football coach Art Briles, among others, lost their jobs.
On the other side, because athletes have higher profiles than regular students, any discipline taken against them while cases are being investigated becomes public, regardless of whether they’re ultimately cleared.
“The thing of it is, all these kids’ reputations are destroyed,” Gophers senior quarterback Mitch Leidner told reporters. “Their names are destroyed. And it’s extremely difficult to get back, and it’s very unfair for them. That’s why we’re sticking together through this thing.”
The Minnesota athletes huddled with a local attorney Friday, knowing that time was ticking on their ultimatum to the university. The team is scheduled to fly to San Diego next week to continue preparations for the bowl game against Washington State.
On Thursday night, Gophers Coach Tracy Claeys tweeted his support: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
Until a solution is found, Claeys is left with a bowl game on the schedule but no players willing to practice or play. When Wolitarsky had finished reading his statement Thursday, a reporter asked the senior receiver whether players are concerned about losing their scholarships as a result of their protest.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “What are they going to do — pull 120 guys off the team? They won’t have a team if that’s the case.”