Football players suing U: We were scapegoats in sex misconduct probe

University of Minnesota players speak to reporters.
University of Minnesota players speak to reporters in the Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis, Minn., Dec. 15, 2016.
Jeff Wheeler | Star Tribune via AP 2016

Updated: 8:02 p.m. | Posted: 11:21 a.m.

Nine former and current University of Minnesota football players involved in a 2016 sexual assault investigation by the school are suing the university for racial and gender discrimination.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court, alleges that the university conducted "intentional, willful and malicious" discrimination based on the players' race and gender during the school's investigation of an alleged gang rape of a female student.

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The football players, all black males, were accused of violating university sexual misconduct policy after a white female student reported the alleged rape in September 2016.

The university expelled or suspended five of the players. There were no criminal charges filed in the case.

Attorney David Madgett said all of the athletes were harmed by the release of a university report that named them.

"Having their names linked to that report and the various press stories, it's caused irreparable harm to the plaintiffs in the matter," he said. "They've lost scholarship opportunities, their potential careers in professional sports. The list of losses is extensive."

In a statement, the university said it is aware of the lawsuit:

"The University thoughtfully and thoroughly responds when faced with disturbing allegations, and provides extensive process to students accused of misconduct, including the opportunity to be heard during thorough investigations, panel hearings, and Provost review. Further, aggrieved students have a right to review by the Minnesota Court of Appeals."

Abby Honold, a University of Minnesota graduate and rape survivor, who is an advocate for victims of sexual assault, said the university followed the law in conducting its investigation, and the accused football players were given due process.

She pointed out that the standards for a Title IX investigation are lower than that of a criminal case, saying while the university can kick someone off campus or the football team, they can't send them to prison or charge them with a crime.

Honold also said the players' claims that their reputations were damaged are disingenuous, pointing to the fact the entire team staged a boycott over the suspensions, drawing attention to the issue. She said the attorneys for the players also made it a public story.

"The only reason that these players' names were released to media or known to media is that they were suspended from an athletics team," she said. "But the university did not ever publicly release details, which is a protection not even afforded to anyone in criminal court."

The lawsuit asserts that the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action and university president Eric Kaler discriminated against the players because of their gender "to quell public criticism and appease federal investigators concerned over the University's past transgressions."

The suit claims the school used the players as "scapegoats" because of their race.

"The prior instances of sexual misconduct by Athletics Department administrators and coaches involved perpetrators who were white," the lawsuit reads.

Lawyers hired by the university found that the school followed its own rules and the law when it suspended the players.

The plaintiffs seek to urge the school to reinstate the four expelled students and to expunge any records of charges, findings or disciplinary actions regarding the sexual misconduct case.

MPR News reporters Elizabeth Dunbar and Matt Sepic contributed reporting.