At Minnesota, a boycott is over but tensions are not

Drew Wolitarsky reads a statement.
University of Minnesota wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, flanked by quarterback Mitch Leidner, left, and tight end Duke Anyanwu stands in front of other team members as he reads a statement on behalf of the players in the Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis, on Dec. 15.
Jeff Wheeler | Star Tribune via AP file

Minnesota President Eric Kaler stepped behind the podium and began to speak, a crisis averted after seven Golden Gophers football players announced that the team would not boycott the upcoming Holiday Bowl against Washington State because 10 of their teammates had been suspended in a sexual assault case.

"I listened to their concerns," said Kaler, who had negotiated with the players. "I was able to explain our point of view around the actions that we took. It was a very frank and candid conversation. I'm glad it led to this resolution."

Listening from another room in the team's football building, players fumed. They thought Kaler was taking credit for solving an impasse even though he left the talks the previous night without a deal, a group of four that included players and other people involved in the talks told The Associated Press. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of a team-wide agreement not to speak publicly about the case to keep a focus on the bowl game in San Diego on Tuesday.

The interviews revealed a lingering divide between an administration trying to actively investigate allegations from a woman who says she was pressured into sex with multiple football players and a team that was concerned about the fairness of the process.

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Tensions ran so high that the players' decision to participate in the bowl nearly collapsed a day after it was made. Players, angered by Kaler's remarks, called an emergency meeting the next day as they returned to practice after some pushed to reinstate the boycott.

"Things were still very raw for them," Regent Darrin Rosha, who was asked to attend the meeting, said. "For some, the allegations and due process issues had somewhat taken a backseat to the way they felt team members who were not involved had been treated by the university."

Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle declined to be interviewed about the boycott talks, instead releasing a joint statement pledging to work "to address issues and concerns that have risen to the surface from across our University community, to make a difference and improve things moving forward." Federal laws written to protect the privacy of students involved in investigations like this one restrict their ability to comment directly on many of the details in the case -- with the media or the team.

Universities have been under pressure to more aggressively respond to sexual assault on campus, and high-profile cases at Florida State, Baylor and Stanford involving athletes in recent years have intensified concerns that the rules are bent for those playing a sport. At Minnesota, the president acted swiftly to address the case, and made it clear in statements the university was taking the allegations seriously.

Even if it meant sacrificing the bowl game — and the roughly $2.8 million it pays out.

The case started at the beginning of the season. Five of the players — Carlton Djam, Dior Johnson, KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford Jr. and Tamarion Johnson — told police they had consensual sex with the woman at an off-campus dorm. Four of them were suspended for three games early in the season, but reinstated in October.

Prosecutors cited a lack of evidence when they declined to press charges, but the university, which has a different standard of proof, conducted its own investigation. The school announced on Dec. 13 that those five players were suspended and Antoine Winfield Jr., Seth Green, Mark Williams, Kobe McCrary and Antonio Shenault were out for the bowl game as well.

A redacted copy of the university's 82-page investigation report published by a local television station quotes the woman as saying she believed 10 to 20 men had sex with her, though she was not certain. She told university investigators she was too traumatized to clearly remember events.

The team thought the case had ended when their four teammates returned to the field in October. They also were worried about due process for their teammates as the case played out in a school, not a court, those involved with the boycott told the AP. They questioned why the players did not have representation with them while being interviewed by university employees.

Coyle met with the team on Dec. 14, but players were frustrated that coach Tracy Claeys was alleged to be involved with the decision to suspend them and repeatedly invoked federal privacy laws, according to three people who were there. The team was also upset when he wouldn't discuss the timing of the suspensions, which left no time for an appeal before the bowl game, and punishing the five additional players, two of whom claimed to have not been in the apartment that night.

Lauren Wetzsteon participates in a rally
Lauren Wetzsteon, a journalism student at the University of Minnesota, participates in a rally to support the victim of an alleged sexual assault that led to the suspension of 10 football players, outside TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Dec. 17.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP file

Twenty-four hours later, the players took a vote and announced they would boycott all team activities unless the players were reinstated.

With a deadline fast approaching to participate in the bowl and talks with Kaler and Coyle going nowhere, players asked for a meeting with Rosha and Michael Hsu, two of the newest members of the board of regents, on Dec. 16. They reached out to them because they had been vocal about the school's sexual assault policies before.

In July of 2015, Hsu and Rosha called for the president to delay implementing a new affirmative consent policy that was designed to help prevent sexual assaults on campus. Concerns emerged on other campuses that the policy shifts the burden of proof to the accused in rape cases, and Hsu wanted the board to discuss the possible legal ramifications.

Kaler and Coyle tried to re-engage the players before Hsu and Rosha could meet with them that night. The president and athletic director offered to reinstate the second group of five players for the bowl, but pulled that back when the university said the woman who made the accusations would have to approve that, four people involved in the discussions told the AP.

Kaler and Coyle left talks with the players before 9 p.m. without an agreement and players prepared to skip the game. The players invited the regents in, according to three people who were there, and a marathon discussion lasted until dawn.

"We weren't negotiating," Hsu said. "We had nothing to give them. We were only there to talk to them, help understand them, help them understand us, the university, us as regents. Help them think through the ramifications."

They talked about criticism the team received after announcing the boycott with a statement that paid little attention to the allegations made by the woman. If they pulled out of the bowl game, would they look like they were defending sexual assault?

Would the coaching staff lose their jobs?

They talked about their legacies. Carrying through with the boycott would have made them the first team in college football history to pull out of a bowl game under protest. Did they want to be known for that?

"They appeared to really want to get it right for all involved: the reporting student, the public, the university, the team," Rosha said. "While they didn't seem sure about what the right approach was, they did conclude it wasn't maintaining the boycott."

The players voted around 6 a.m.

The boycott was done, but the hard feelings remained.

A few hours later, without inviting the school president or athletic director or making them aware of their decision, the players called a news conference and delivered a statement that said "sexual violence and violence against women have no place on campus, our team or in society."

They were playing, they said, because Kaler and Coyle had agreed to ensure that their teammates would get an appeals hearing before a diverse panel -- something they insisted on because all 10 accused in the case are black.

But even with the boycott rescinded, they didn't feel like they had a resolution, at least not with school leaders.

"I believe this could very well have been avoided," Rosha said. "The team appeared to appreciate having a respectful dialogue."