UPDATED: December 17, 2016 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Last year, football players at the University of Missouri recognized their collective power and went on strike, refusing to play until the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigned due to the mishandling of a series of racist incidents on campus. Wolfe stepped down two days later.
This year, it’s the football players at the University of Minnesota who are utilizing the power they have as high-profile athletes, only they’re boycotting for a different reason — to protest the suspension of 10 of their teammates over sexual assault allegations.
In a press conference Thursday night, all 120 players on the team, including the 10 suspended players, stood together behind seniors Drew Wolitarsky, Mitch Leidner, and Duke Anyanwu to announce the boycott was “effective immediately.”
“The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted,” Wolitarsky said, adding that they want to meet with university officials about how to “make our program great again.” (They have since reversed this decision, ending the boycott on Saturday morning, as noted in the update below.)
University of Minnesota football team just made a POWER move
— Barflaan Tedoe (@The_Barftender) December 16, 2016
Players also showed their solidarity on social media.
— road runner 〽️ (@TaiyonDevers) December 15, 2016
The team is scheduled to play against Washington State in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on December 27.
The suspensions, which were announced earlier this week, stem from a September 2 incident that occurred at an off-campus apartment building.
The alleged victim, whose account of the night is available through testimony and police reports, says that she remembers running back Carlton Djam inviting her up to his room, according to details provided by a Star Tribune report. She says the details are hazy because she had been drinking. But in a court hearing, she said that she panicked once she was in Djam’s room. “I felt scared, trapped, isolated with someone I felt had power over me,” she said.
She says she was in the room for an hour and a half, and testified that at least a dozen men lined up to take turns assaulting her.
“I was removing myself from my mind and my body to help myself from the pain and experience going on,” she testified. “I was shoving people off of me… They kept ignoring my pleas for help. Anything I said they laughed. They tried to cheer people on.”
She called her sister when it was over, and her sister urged her to go to the hospital immediately and get a rape exam, which she did. Her mother filed a police report, and the next morning she told her version of the events to the police. Ultimately, however, no charges were filed — in part because Djam showed investigators a short video clip that led them to conclude “the sexual contact appears entirely consensual.”
But University of Minnesota’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) conducted its own investigation, which led to the suspensions.
The EOAA recommended expulsion for five of the players, a one-year suspension for four others, and probation for one. The players said in the press conference Thursday that they had not read the EOAA’s findings.
There has been some confusion over who exactly handed down the suspensions this week. University President Eric Kaler originally announced in a letter to donors Wednesday that the suspensions were the idea of head coach Tracy Claeys, with athletic director Mark Coyle’s support. Claeys, however, has expressed full support for his players on social media.
Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world! 〽️🏈
— T Claeys (@t_claeys) December 16, 2016
Ultimately, the players seem most frustrated by the lack of transparency surrounding the EOAA’s investigation and the cloud it cast over their names.
“We got no answers to our questions about why these kids were suspended when they were just found [innocent] by the law,” Wolitarsky said. “[Kaler] basically told us that he didn’t have answers, and that led us to believe that this is kind of unjust. He has the power to reverse this, and he won’t.”
The school adopted a “yes means yes” consent policy on campus, and as Maura Lerner wrote for the Star Tribune, “the university is required to investigate reports of sexual assault, and take appropriate action, under federal guidelines that apply to all colleges and universities receiving government funds.” The standard for university investigations is “preponderance of evidence,” not “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
All players involved have told police that the sex was consensual, and a police investigation cited three separate videos from the night — showcasing 90 seconds of the alleged 90-minute assault — in a letter to the Hennepin County Attorney’s office that said “at no times does she indicate that she is in distress or that the contact is unwelcome or nonconsensual.”
Three of the players involved were initially suspended for three games, and the alleged victim later filed a restraining order against six of the players asking that they be kept from stadium. A judge granted that order, but upon appeal, a settlement was reached that permitted the players to go to the stadium, but required them to stay 20 feet away from the alleged victim and refrain from having any contact with her.
“I’m glad this is over,” the student read in a statement after the hearing. “This has never been about punishing anyone, I just wanted to feel safe. Because of this resolution that we came to, now I do.”
Following practice on Wednesday — the day before players announced their boycott — defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel suggested the team would use the alleged assault and ensuring scandal as a rallying cry.
“We are a resilient group,” Sawvel said, according to the Tribune. “We’ll bounce back. We’re under attack. We’ll be fine.”
Asked to clarify what he meant, Sawvel referred back to the initial fallout from the September 2 incident.
“I just think it’s more of the fact that we’ve been through tidal wave after tidal wave of the season,” he said. “You go through a suspension [three games apiece for four players], restraining order, you get players back and the next thing you know you are losing 10 of them.”
“There’s no cultural thing that’s broken in the program,” Sawvel added.
Aaron Rupar contributed to this story.
UPDATE: After a meeting with Wolfe and Coyle on Friday night, the players announced on Saturday morning that they would not be boycotting the bowl game after all and would resume football activities immediately.
The statement, which was read once again by Wolitarsky, began by saying that “sexual harassment and violence against women have no place on this campus, on our team, in society, and at no time should it ever be condoned.” Instead of demanding that the 10 suspended teammates have their suspensions dropped immediately, the Gophers football team is now asking that all 10 of those players “have a fair hearing — which includes a diverse review panel.”
Additionally, Wolitarsky said 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.”
This change of heart came hours after the 80-page EOAA report was released publicly. The report contained graphic information about the alleged assault, including that between 10–20 men were involved and often the crowd of men waiting their turn had their phones out to possibly take videos and were “chanting, laughing, cheering and jostling for a position in the line to have sex with [the alleged victim].”
According to the report, the alleged victim “repeatedly yelled,” “I can’t handle this many people” and “I don’t want this to happen.”