A college football team finally has recognized its power and leverage over campus administrators but for a queasy-making cause: solidarity over an unprosecuted allegation of multiple sexual assaults. The Minnesota Gophers are demanding that 10 accused “brothers” who have been suspended by the university for misconduct be reinstated or they will sit out the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27. There is something jarring about this, some missing sensibility.
What’s missing is any recognition that campus officials have the right to hold students to a higher standard than simply being non-felons.
Anyone who follows news about sexual assaults on campuses is surely frustrated by the extreme pendulum swings between inaction and false accusation. The Florida State, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Baylor administrations reportedly discounted victims’ stories and sheltered athletes from consequences, while at Duke and Virginia false accusers and botched investigations tarred the innocent. It’s extraordinarily difficult to know where the Minnesota case falls, for the simple reason that these cases are a nightmare to adjudicate. On those grounds alone, the Gophers get an F in civics for their boycott.
What’s known is this: Police and prosecutors decided that the case did not meet the burden of criminal proof, but the campus Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigators nevertheless recommended discipline against 10 players for violating student conduct standards, and the players were suspended by Athletic Director Mark Coyle and President Eric Kaler.
According to a police report cited by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a female student claimed that after a night of drinking, she went to an apartment complex where she initially had sex with one player that “may have been consensual,” but she contended that subsequent sex with multiple other players was not. A brief recording taken by the first player showed her somewhat intoxicated as she engaged in sexual activity that did not appear to upset her. The police interviewed four other players who said the sex was consensual. The woman could not name the number of men because she said she had been drinking, and, per the report, “her description of the event is admittedly lacking due to her loss of memory.” After she left the apartment, she called her sister, who told her to go to the hospital, where she was given a rape exam, while her mother made a report to the police. The Hennepin County prosecutor declined to bring charges.
“We’re concerned that our brothers have been named publicly with reckless disregard in violation of their constitutional rights. We are now compelled to speak for our team and take back our program,” senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky told reporters. “. . . Moreover, the actions by President Kaler have breached fiduciary duty, not only to the 10 falsely accused but all of us. We demand a meeting with the Board of Regents, without the presence of Kaler and Coyle, to discuss how to make our program great again. We also want to discuss the unjust suspensions and other concerns in this closed-door meeting.”
Now, the Minnesota players undoubtedly believe that their “brothers” are innocent of any wrongdoing. But two things jump out. The first is that the demand for a meeting with administrators to discuss “how to take back our program” and “make the program great again” is weirdly discordant and jolting, off the far more serious subject and begs the question of what the players are actually protesting. Is it innocence or simply interference by campus authorities they resent? Second, Wolitarsky and his brethren show zero recognition that if you’re a high-profile football player concerned for your reputation, then perhaps it’s best if you don’t engage in sex with an inebriated woman whose recall and consent may be compromised.
What is the standard of conduct in Minnesota football, and what is their disciplinary code, exactly? The trouble with this boycott is that it suggests that both bars should be abysmally low. It suggests that unless something is a verifiable crime and prosecutable, then college authorities have no right to regulate their conduct at all. And that’s not a great precedent for college students.
In fact, college administrators might have every reason to find aspects of this episode objectionable and worthy of discipline under the student code of conduct, which contains provisions about respect and prohibits harming other students in any way or making them feel harassed or uncomfortable. They might well be concerned about the mixture of alcohol and the hazy issue of consent. They might well have found she was violated in some way when she was recorded. We can’t know because they haven’t shared the basis of the decision out of confidentiality concerns.
In a joint statement, Kaler and Coyle said: “The reality is that not everyone can have all of the facts, and unfortunately the University cannot share more information due to federal laws regarding student privacy. . . . We fully support our Gopher football players and all of our student athletes. Situations like this are always difficult. . . . The decision was based on facts and is reflective of the University’s values.”
All sexual assault claims are difficult, and those involving alcohol and athletes can be especially charged and fraught with dispute. The players’ statements offer no recognition of this terrible complexity, and that is what makes their boycott disappointing — and even objectionable. They don’t recognize that women on campuses face an epidemic of sexual crime and that both law enforcement and well-intentioned administrators are grappling for balance and answers in dealing with both false and true accusations. There’s no recognition that there might be an argument for campuses to adjudicate student sexual conduct outside the criminal justice system. No recognition that a misunderstanding could well have occurred between accuser and accused. No recognition, in fact, that women even exist on their campus. It’s a strange silence. And not one that inclines you to take their side and congratulate them for taking such a strong stand.
There are a million good social-justice causes over which a major college football team could boycott. This isn’t one.