The University of Minnesota followed both the law and its own policy when it suspended 10 Gophers football players following allegations of sexual assault last fall, a review by two outside attorneys has found.
The report, released Wednesday, blamed much of the turmoil surrounding the high-profile case on “weak leadership” of the coaching staff and the influence of unnamed “third parties.”
Those factors, the report said, contributed to a “breakdown in trust” between the football team and university administrators and “helped foster a hostile atmosphere where meaningful dialogue was difficult.”
The Board of Regents commissioned an outside review in May after months of public debate about the university’s handling of the case, which began when a student reported that she was sexually assaulted at an off-campus party in September 2016.
The story dominated the headlines for months after news broke that 10 football players had been suspended from the team in connection with the alleged assault, and their teammates threatened to boycott a postseason bowl game in protest. Although no criminal charges were filed, the university conducted its own investigation, which led to the suspensions.
Critics, including some regents, had questioned whether the accused students were treated fairly.
But the outside review, by Minneapolis attorneys John Marti and Jillian Kornblatt, found no fault with the university’s decision to suspend the players, saying it was “consistent with University policy and the law.”
Five of the accused players eventually were expelled or suspended from the university for sexual misconduct. The other five were cleared through the U’s disciplinary process.
The report was presented Wednesday to a special oversight committee of the board.
Marti told the committee that much of the criticism stemmed from a misunderstanding of the university’s obligation to investigate sexual assault complaints, regardless of whether criminal charges are filed. “The university did not have a choice,” he said. “You were required by law to do so.”
The report concluded that football coaches and student athletes did not really understand the disciplinary process and that the confusion led to the boycott threat and ensuing uproar. The report placed some of the blame on interference from “third parties” outside the university. Marti declined to elaborate publicly but said they were identified in a confidential report given to the regents.
‘I think it’s wrong’
But attorney Ryan Pacyga, who represented one of the accused players, criticized what he called “finger-pointing from the leadership at the third parties,” and defended the boycott organizers. “I think it’s wrong to criticize the players for taking a stand,” he said. “All that does is chill free speech.”
Tracy Claeys, who was the head football coach at the time of the incident, declined to comment on the report. He was fired in January after publicly siding with team members who were protesting the suspensions.
But Jim Carter, a former Gophers football captain in the 1960s and frequent U critic, defended Claeys and his coaching staff. “There’s no way” they lacked leadership, he said. “That’s the horrific part. They are being thrown under the bus.” He also challenged the objectivity of the review because the two attorneys work for Dorsey & Whitney, a law firm with strong ties to the university.
U officials, however, say the lawyers were given complete autonomy to conduct the review. They said the two attorneys interviewed 26 witnesses, including current and former U employees, and had access to all the information they requested.
Their report also rebuffed criticism, raised by the players’ attorneys and others, that the university’s disciplinary process is unfair. The U provides “substantial due process protections,” it said, “including protections that far exceed” other Big Ten universities. They include the right to have students’ attorneys participate “in all stages” of the disciplinary process and cross-examine witnesses.
Lee Hutton III, the attorney representing nine of the accused players, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Mike Sherels, who was one of Claeys’ assistant coaches at the time, shrugged off the report’s criticism. “They found out what they did,” Sherels said. “There’s no animosity on my part toward the U. I wish them nothing but the best. We’ve all tried to move on from an unfortunate situation.”
‘We are pleased’
The U has insisted all along that it acted properly under federal Title IX guidelines, which require campuses to investigate reports of sexual misconduct. On Wednesday, it released a statement saying, “We are pleased with the conclusion that the University’s actions were consistent with University policies and federal law.”
Athletic director Mark Coyle, who was hired last year, was not available for comment Wednesday.
The report also rejected calls for the university to raise the standard of proof in sexual misconduct cases, saying, “As of now, this suggestion is not consistent” with federal rules.
The full report can be found on the regents’ website at regents.umn.edu.