The University of Minnesota won a dismissal Tuesday of a federal race and gender discrimination case filed by 10 Gophers football players during the investigation that followed a 2016 sexual assault allegation against them.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said the players offered “no factual support for their allegations of disparate treatment” based on race, gender or their sport’s reputation. He dismissed the suit with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.
There were nine players initially in the lawsuit, but a 10th was added in recent months. The lawsuit identifies the players only as numbered John Does.
In a written statement, U officials said they welcomed the decision, “which confirms our belief that the claims brought in this case were without merit.”
The lawsuit was filed in June 2018, some 20 months after a Jane Doe reported a sexual assault to the U’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA). A graphic investigative report was eventually leaked to the media.
She alleged that as many as a dozen football players had gang-raped her or watched and cheered as others did so at an off-campus party. In their defense, the players claimed the woman initiated sexual encounters with five Gophers and an underage recruit.
After interviews of Jane Doe and the alleged attackers, the EOAA in December 2016 found it “more likely than not” that 10 players had violated the U’s student code of conduct.
No criminal charges were filed. But the players claimed the investigation was flawed at the outset because the U began “with a preconceived belief that male football players have a heightened propensity for assaulting women.”
The players also claimed they were subject to “extreme gender bias” because of extensive media coverage, “pressure to crack down on alleged sexual offenders” and an ongoing U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation into the U’s “failure to properly address charges of sexual harassment by white men in the athletics department.”
To support their claim, the players argued that their scholarships were threatened when they didn’t promptly respond to interview requests during the U’s investigation. In contrast, they said the girlfriend of one of the John Does didn’t respond to an interview request, but no further attempt to compel her was made. The players also claimed that white U athletes and staff were treated differently when accused of harassment or assault.
Frank’s 29-page order said the comparisons failed because U staff members would not be subject to the student code, and that claims of sexual harassment differ from assault.
The 10 men claimed they had suffered “severe emotional distress and financial damage” as a result of “being falsely cast as sex offenders.”
The U successfully countered that the players suffered no deprivation of rights or discrimination. It had moved to dismiss the suit last November, saying that “the process discriminated among the student-athletes, not against them, by carefully determining who had violated the student conduct code and who had not.”
The U’s process concluded with the players appealing the EOAA’s finding to the Student Sexual Misconduct Subcommittee and some to the provost.
In the end, five students were expelled or suspended for violating the conduct code. Antoine Winfield Jr. and Seth Green both had their suspensions overturned and remain with the team. Three players got their suspensions overturned but are no longer at the U: Antonio Shenault, Kobe McCrary and Mark Williams.
Carlton Djam was suspended for a year but left the program. Those expelled were KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford Jr., Tamarion Johnson and Dior Johnson.