U football team will play in bowl game, pledges to bring more exposure to issue of sexual violence

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky
Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky reads a statement Saturday, Dec. 27 saying the Gopher football team boycott has come to an end.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Two days after announcing a boycott of all football activities, the University of Minnesota football team made another announcement: they are ending their boycott and returning to the practice field to prepare for the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27. Ten of their teammates remain suspended in connection with a sexual assault investigation.

At a press conference Saturday morning, senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky read a prepared statement at the university football facility, with teammates at his side and coaches watching from the back of the room.

"As a team, we understand that what has occurred these past few days, and playing football for the University of Minnesota, is larger than just us," he said.

Wolitarsky said the reversal came after internal team discussions and a meeting with university president Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle late Friday night.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

That meeting led to several agreements.

"That all ten of these players have a fair hearing -- which includes a diverse review panel," Wolitarsky said. "Number two, a showing of support for our team and the character shown by the great majority of our players. Finally, that we as a team will use our status as public figures to bring more exposure to the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women. We will have more details on our plans for that at a later time."

The initial boycott protested the suspensions of ten players who were allegedly present or involved in an incident, which a female student said included multiple sexual assaults .

The players were not charged criminally, but an internal, on-campus investigation found them guilty of violating the school conduct policy and recommended discipline ranging from probation to expulsion.

Kaler and Coyle firmly stood by the university's decision to suspend the ten students from the football team, saying "certain behavior is simply unacceptable and antithetical to our institutional values." Kaler echoed that Saturday morning when he spoke immediately following the team's announcement.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler
University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler speaks to media Saturday, Dec. 27 after Gopher football players announced they would end their boycott over the suspensions of ten players. Kaler said he was pleased with the decision to end the boycott and assured the team the suspended players would get fair hearings from the school in regards to a campus sexual assault investigation.
Peter Cox | MPR News

"We made a values-based decision," he said. "The athletic director made a decision, I supported that decision based on our values and what we think is right."

The boycott quickly became a national story. Governor Mark Dayton weighed in, saying the boycott of the bowl would be a black eye for the state. KSTP News released the 80-page university investigation into the events of the night in question.

That report says multiple men including some football players engaged in sex with a woman, with some sharing photos and video of their encounters. The report says in some cases there was no sexual consent. The report was shared widely on social media and led to a backlash against the boycott, with some accusing the team of supporting sexual assault.

Wolitarsky addressed those accusations in his statement Saturday.

"Sexual harassment and violence against women have no place on this campus, on our team, in our society, and at no time is it ever condoned," he said.

At the end of the team's statement, Wolitarsky said the team's thoughts and prayers are for the well-being of the woman involved in the original incident.

At a rally outside TCF Bank Stadium Saturday afternoon, people chanted "rape culture has got to go." Sarah Super, who leads the anti-sexual assault group Break the Silence, organized the rally.

She said the players will need to do more than offer thoughts and prayers to survivors of sexual assault to make a difference.

"I hope this has been a transformative experience for these young men," she said. "However, I would also just honor the fact that they are learning at the expense of thousands of survivors here in the Twin cities and that this has just been a painful story."

Kaler said he is happy the boycott has come to an end.

"I am very pleased that the football team has realized the opportunity to represent the University of Minnesota," he said. "And that they've come out strongly in support of the victims of sexual violence."

The University President said the student athletes will get a fair hearing if they appeal, which their attorney says they plan to do.