The threatened boycott by the University of Minnesota football team of a nationally televised bowl game shows that events surrounding the suspension of 10 players are spiraling rapidly out of control.
The players are accused of sexually assaulting a female student in a September incident that was investigated but, for a variety of reasons, not prosecuted by the Hennepin County Attorney. For those unclear on this point, the decision not to arrest or prosecute does not mean the players were absolved; it simply means the county attorney's office did not believe it could prove guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt."
What seems to have escaped the would-be boycotters, or what they have chosen to ignore, is that universities have higher standards of conduct for their students. When infractions occur, federal law requires a university to find only a "preponderance of evidence," showing the violation was more likely than not to have occurred. There can be discussion over whether that is the correct standard and over the high level of secrecy involved in the disciplinary process at the U. There has been pushback in other high-profile incidents across the country over the current system and the way standards are applied.
But under no circumstance should student-athletes be permitted to dictate terms of play, to shut down the football program, or to further damage the university's reputation. The team's display of "brotherhood" should be reserved for more noble causes than for fellow players involved in behavior that apparently violated the U's student-conduct policies. University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, who finally met with the team Friday, should give them one final chance to end the boycott on the university's terms. If they refuse, inform the Holiday Bowl that the Gophers will be staying home.
Kaler should have taken more effective charge of this situation from the start. The university is within its rights to discipline students it believes have violated standards. And it is understood that federal law prohibits the release of details, in order to protect student privacy. But the decision to identify the 10 players changed the trajectory of a typical discipline proceeding. The names and faces of those men, along with the salacious details of the police report and the words "sexual assault," are now in the public realm and forever linked, even though no criminal charges were filed. Responsible leadership required that Kaler publicly explain his decision as fully as possible, within the confines of the law.
Instead, he sent a misleading letter to donors that pinned the decision to suspend the players on head coach Tracy Claeys. Athletic Director Mark Coyle later said he made the decision in consultation with Claeys. Then in a statement, Kaler and Coyle said they made the decision jointly. And in a remarkable development, Claeys now appears to be siding with his players over the administration, tweeting after a player boycott meeting that he had "never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights and support their effort to make a better world!"
The disunity and botched messaging here is an embarrassment to Minnesotans, who have invested heavily in the U's athletic programs and who have a right to expect a higher standard of behavior for players and more forthrightness from administrators.
Gov. Mark Dayton, in a meeting with the Editorial Board on Friday, expressed grief over the original incident, calling it "horrible." But, he said, the university had "very badly handled" the aftermath. Poor communication left teammates feeling blindsided, donors misled and the public in the dark. "Now," Dayton said, "they have a huge mess on their hands."
Indeed they do.