Athletics

Amid Lurid Allegations, Minnesota Football Team Drops Threatened Boycott

December 17, 2016

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune, AP Images
On Thursday, U. of Minnesota football players (pictured) threatened to boycott a bowl game if 10 of their teammates, suspended in a sexual-assault case, were not reinstated. But by Saturday, after lurid disclosures about the alleged gang rape, the players had dropped their threat.
University of Minnesota football players backed off on Saturday from their threat to boycott their coming Holiday Bowl game when it became clear the university wasn’t going to give in to their demands that it reinstate 10 players suspended for their alleged involvement in sexual assaults.

The decision, which the players announced at a 9 a.m. news conference, followed a late-night meeting with university leaders, including two regents and the university’s president, Eric W. Kaler.

The players, who faced a noon deadline on Saturday to decide whether to play in the December 27 bowl game, told reporters they had been up all night considering their options. They said they were still unhappy about what they considered a lack of due process in their teammates’ suspensions.

But the decision was also influenced by lurid details of the alleged assaults that emerged on Friday. A local television station, KSTP News in Minneapolis-St. Paul, published a copy it had obtained of an 80-page report outlining the findings in the case by the university’s equal-opportunity and affirmative-action office.

It detailed the varying accounts of what happened when a 22-year-old woman visited an off-campus apartment in the early hours of September 2, after the season-opening football game.

She told the police that after engaging in sex with a high-school recruit and a member of the university’s football team, who reportedly recorded the encounter, she was assaulted by at least eight other men who crowded into the room to watch.

The university concluded that her contact with the first two men may have been consensual, but that the acts that followed were not. The accused players have all said she was a willing participant.

The president and the athletic director, Mark Coyle, told reporters on ­­Saturday they were pleased by the decision to end the threatened boycott. Mr. Kaler said the players, in their statement, had made clear that their boycott threat had been intended to show support for their teammates, not for sexual violence. He said that he had assured the team that the players would get fair hearings, probably in January, but that he could not move those hearings up to next week, as the team had requested.

The equal-opportunity office found that four students had violated the university’s sexual-assault policy and eight had violated its sexual-harassment policy. It recommended expulsion for five of the suspended players, one-year suspensions for four, and probation for one.

‘Reckless Disregard’

The resolution capped a tumultuous week for the university. On Tuesday university officials announced the players’ suspensions, saying federal privacy laws prevented them from providing details. Two days later the entire team lined up to announce that it would refuse to participate in any football-related activities until the university reinstated the players.

In a statement read on Thursday by Drew Wolitarsky, a senior wide receiver, the players said they were "concerned that our brothers have been named publicly with reckless disregard without consideration of their constitutional rights." The players also demanded an apology from Mr. Kaler and Mr. Coyle.

The two administrators released a written response saying the suspension, which had been ordered by the athletic director and supported by the president, "was based on facts and is reflective of the university’s values."

Minnesota’s head football coach, Tracy Claeys, tweeted his support of the players on Thursday, but he was not available for comment on Saturday.

In the news conference on Saturday the players reaffirmed the team’s commitment to treating women with respect but reiterated their complaints about the university’s decision to publicly name the suspended athletes.

“Hold all of us accountable for ensuring that our teammates are treated fairly, along with any and all victims of sexual assault.”
"We now ask that you, the members of the media, our fans, and the general public hold all of us accountable for ensuring that our teammates are treated fairly, along with any and all victims of sexual assault," the statement, read by Mr. Wolitarsky, said. "We also ask that the public dialogue related to the apparent lack of due process in a university system is openly discussed and evaluated."

Lee A. Hutton, a lawyer for the suspended students, did not return phone calls on Friday or Saturday.

‘Affirmative Consent’

According to police reports, the alleged victim said she was drunk when she was sexually assaulted by at least 10 men, including several football players, in the off-campus apartment. A restraining order was issued against several football players and later lifted.

The university’s equal-opportunity and affirmative-action office investigated the incident, as required by federal law, and recommended suspending 10 players.

The Minneapolis police also investigated, but no charges were filed in the case. In a statement to KSTP, the Hennepin County attorney’s office cited "insufficient, admissible evidence for prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that either force was used or that the victim was physically helpless as defined by law in the sexual encounter."

The federal gender-equity law Title IX requires colleges and universities to pursue their own investigations, even if local authorities don’t file criminal charges.

The burden of proof used in criminal law is higher than what is required by Title IX; educational institutions rely on a "preponderance of the evidence" standard, meaning only that it is more likely than not that an assault occurred. Criminal law usually requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

“A lack of protest, the absence of resistance, and silence do not indicate consent.”
Last year the university approved an "affirmative consent" policy that requires that both partners give consent to sexual activity through "clear and unambiguous words and actions." The policy says that "a lack of protest, the absence of resistance, and silence do not indicate consent." It also states that consent can’t be given if someone is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.

The university’s report on the case found that alcohol consumption by the alleged victim, identified only as "RS," had not significantly impaired her ability to move or communicate effectively.

After the football game, the woman drank about five shots of 100-proof vodka, the report said. At about 2 a.m., she and some friends went to an apartment complex where several football players lived.

After hanging out with the group, a football player and a man, later identified as a high-school football recruit, invited her to check out the football player’s room. She said she had felt safe because she was going with two men and told her friends she’d be right back.

As the men started to take off her clothes and engage in sexual acts with her, which the football player recorded and shared with his friends, she said she had felt "confused, isolated, and trapped." She said she didn’t want to engage in sex with them but felt pressured to do so and afraid to resist.

She said she did, however, resist the assaults of the men who later crowded into the room to have sex with her. In all, she said, she had had sexual contact with 10 to 20 men. She wasn’t sure how many because some came back more than once, and at times more than one man was assaulting her, she said.

“The onlookers were chanting, laughing, cheering, and jostling for a position in the line to have sex with RS.”
"The onlookers were chanting, laughing, cheering, and jostling for a position in the line to have sex with RS," the report stated that she told investigators. "RS remembers that the men were arguing over whose ‘turn’ it was to have sex with her."

After leaving the apartment, the woman told a friend about the gang rape and went to the hospital. Her mother reported the incident to the Minneapolis police.

RS reported to investigators from the university’s equal-opportunity office that the police had led her to believe that her sexual contact with the first two men was consensual "because she never directly said ‘no’ and because she was not held at gunpoint or under some similar threat," the report said.

The report found her version of the events more reliable than that of the accused athletes.

‘Mob Justice’

This isn’t the first time concerns have been raised about football players’ behavior at Minnesota. In an email to athletics officials in 2015, the head of the equal-opportunity office cited a pattern of sexual misconduct by football players.

Also last year the athletic director of the Twin Cities campus, Norwood Teague, resigned after being accused of sending inappropriate text messages to two staff members.

Contacted on Friday, Laura L. Dunn, founder of the advocacy group SurvJustice, said the university should hold firm and let the Title IX process play out.

“The university should not be swayed by the boycott threat, as their duty is not to indulge the misconduct of athletes, but to be responsible to the broader campus community.”
"The university should not be swayed by the boycott threat, as their duty is not to indulge the misconduct of athletes, but to be responsible to the broader campus community and its safety," she wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Whenever sexual-abuse allegations are brought against student groups, whether sports teams or fraternities, there is an understandable tendency to rally behind the accused, even if all the facts aren’t known, she said.

An example was when the Yale University basketball team last winter publicly supported their expelled captain, Jack Montague, who had been accused of sexual assault.

But when that solidarity creates pressure for "mob justice," administrators should not only resist it but condemn it, Ms. Dunn said.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.