Minnesota coach Claeys says he risked job by backing players

Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys
Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys on Nov. 12, 2016.
Nati Harnik | AP file

Updated: 12 p.m., Dec. 19 | Posted: 1:58 p.m., Dec. 18

Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys said Sunday that he knew he was risking his job last week when he expressed support for players who boycotted practices and threatened to skip a bowl game if 10 teammates who were suspended after a sexual assault investigation weren't reinstated.

The standoff with university administrators ended Saturday when the team backed down and said they would play in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Washington State in San Diego, even though officials declined to reinstate their suspended teammates. The players agreed after getting assurances that those accused will get a fair hearing next month.

Claeys said that he and his team met before the players decided on the boycott. He said he told them "about all the different fallouts. One was that we they might not be able to play in the bowl game. Two is that we knew that there was going to be a group who took the stance that we were being pro-sexual assault, which we're not. And then I told them there's a great chance I could lose my job over this."

Claeys said his players weren't condoning sexual assault or harassment in any way. But they believed their suspended teammates were denied due process, he said, and that it was "pretty easy" to support them on that issue.

After the entire team announced the boycott on Thursday, Claeys publicly backed his players.

"Have never been more proud of our kids," Claeys tweeted at the time. "I respect their rights (and) support their effort to make a better world!"

This weekend, he said he "could have chose better words."

Claeys also promised to donate $50,000 to support victims of sexual assault, and said he expected players would have more to say in coming days about their protest and why they dropped it.

Officials announced the suspensions Tuesday after an internal investigation determined the 10 players violated school conduct codes in an encounter involving a woman and several players at an off-campus apartment Sept. 2.

Many of the players who initially backed the boycott Thursday had not read the university's 82-page report detailing the woman's specific allegations. The school had kept those details private under federal law, but players saw it after KSTP-TV published the report Friday.

According to the police report, the woman told police she had consensual sex with two males that night, but that she did not consent to sexual contact with other men who were present, including players.

Prosecutors declined to press charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the university uses a lower bar in student discipline cases.

Even as the team prepares the Holiday Bowl, the attorney for the suspended players told the Minnesota Daily that he's already appealing the U's action, and is contemplating lawsuits in the wake of the incident.

The student paper also reported the father of one player, Antoine Winfield, Jr., reasserted his son would leave the U if President Eric Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle keep their jobs, and that he expected other players would also seek transfers.

Attorney Lee Hutton told KSTP-TV that he is planning to file federal lawsuits this week, seeking to to reinstate the suspended players to the team, potentially including the trip to San Diego for the bowl game.

Editor's note (Dec. 19, 2016): An earlier version of this story incorrectly described what the victim told university investigators about her inability to recall all the details of what happened to her. To clarify, the report says the woman believed any memory gaps from that night came from "shock, pain and fear, rather than from intoxication."

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