MINNEAPOLIS — Nine black former and current University of Minnesota football players who say their rights were violated in a sexual misconduct investigation sued the school on Friday, alleging they are victims of racial and gender discrimination.
The federal lawsuit stems from the university's investigation into an alleged gang rape of a female student in September 2016 that implicated 10 players for a range of alleged misconduct. Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges due to insufficient evidence, but five students were ultimately expelled or suspended, while five others were cleared.
The lawsuit alleges the university treated the plaintiffs as "scapegoats to appease federal authorities and to deflect public scrutiny" over the school's handling of sexual harassment allegations against white men in the athletics department, including former athletics director Norwood Teague. Teague resigned in 2015 after two high-ranking administrators said he sexually harassed them at a senior leadership retreat.
The school's equal opportunity office conducted a biased investigation that was "bent on finding sexual misconduct by as many male football players as possible," according to the lawsuit, which doesn't name the nine plaintiffs.
The university issued a statement saying it will "vigorously defend" its handling of the 2016 case. The school said students accused of misconduct are provided with an "extensive process" that allows them the opportunity to be heard and appeal.
The nine plaintiffs include four current players at Minnesota and one individual who is playing football elsewhere, said their attorney, David Madgett. The lawsuit said all the plaintiffs, even those cleared during the school's disciplinary process, "were greatly damaged by being falsely cast as sex offenders, a very public stigma they will never be able to escape."
The lawsuit refers to the plaintiffs as "John Does," though they've been publicly identified in the past. Given that the lawsuit protects the name of the woman, Madgett said, the names of the men should be protected, too.
Madgett called the university's internal report on the investigation "a masterful job of fact manipulation" that doesn't accurately describe what happened the night of the alleged assault in an apartment near campus after a season-opening Minnesota victory.
The lawsuit lays out a narrative asserting that the woman consented to having sex with five of the plaintiffs plus a prospective recruit that night. That contrasts with the university's report, which said the woman told school investigators she was pressured into having sex with multiple players. The report concluded that the five violated the student conduct code.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and the removal of the allegations from the plaintiffs' student records. Four of the plaintiffs also seek reinstatement as students in good standing.
A review by outside lawyers that was commissioned by the university found that the school properly followed the law and its own policies. But the review said the school could have better managed the initial suspensions of the 10 players, which sparked a threat by the remaining players to boycott the Holiday Bowl that season.