Nine Gophers football players involved in a 2016 sexual misconduct investigation are suing the University of Minnesota for racial and gender discrimination.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in federal court, asserts that the university trampled the civil rights of the accused football players, all black males, during an investigation into an alleged gang rape of a female student in 2016.

The lawsuit claims that the U "willfully and maliciously" turned the players into scapegoats through a biased investigation that deprived them "of the most basic due process and equal protection rights."

The U released a statement Friday saying it would "vigorously defend" its handling of the case.

"The University thoughtfully and thoroughly responds when faced with disturbing allegations, and provides extensive process to students accused of misconduct, including the opportunity to be heard during thorough investigations, panel hearings, and Provost review. Further, aggrieved students have a right to review by the Minnesota Court of Appeals," the statement said.

Although no criminal charges were filed, the university accused 10 Gophers football players of sexual misconduct after its own investigation. Five students were eventually expelled or suspended for violating the student conduct code, while the others were cleared on appeal.

The lawsuit says the young men suffered "severe emotional distress and financial damage" as a result of "being falsely cast as sex offenders." The plaintiffs are not identified by name in the lawsuit, which refers to them only as "John Does." But the accused players were publicly identified in news reports at the time.

"Once you're part of something like this, it doesn't go away," said David Madgett, their attorney. "You're certainly guilty in the eyes of the public, even if ultimately never charged."

Madgett said the lawsuit is an attempt to restore the reputations of the students, some of whom are still at the U. "Right now, it looks like some monsters did some terrible thing," he said.

He called the university's investigation "a masterful job of fact manipulation," saying it ignored evidence, like text messages and videos, that didn't support the allegations.

Legally, however, the men have a tough task ahead to prevail in court, according to Mitchell Hamline University School of Law Prof. Marie Failinger.

The lawsuit alleges that the men were treated differently from white administrators accused of misconduct. But Failinger said disparate treatment alone isn't enough. To win on a civil rights claim, the students will need to prove that the university "intentionally" treated them differently because of their race.

"That's a very high burden," she said.

Their claims of denial of due process may also prove difficult.

Failinger said the courts don't require universities to have "full-blown trials" and "they've given universities more leeway about what they're required to provide."

Abby Honold, who survived a rape at the University of Minnesota and has become a prominent victims' advocate, said the accused men have a right to file a lawsuit but "their outrage is misplaced."

In this case, Honold said the U "walked the line as best they could" in terms of handling the case — and an outside investigation affirmed that.

Lawsuit allegations

The players' version of the 2016 incident, as described in Friday's lawsuit, differs dramatically from the graphic account in the university's investigative report. That confidential report, which was leaked to the press in December 2016, described numerous men taking turns assaulting the woman as others watched and cheered during an off-campus party.

The lawsuit asserts that the woman initiated the sexual encounters, involving five Gophers players and an underage recruit, and that she changed her story multiple times after reporting that she had been raped. It said the university investigators excused "significant inconsistencies" in her accounts, and failed to talk to key witnesses.

"Race discrimination also played a central role," according to the lawsuit. It says that black players were used as scapegoats "to deflect criticism the University was facing for having previously turned a blind eye to charges of sexual harassment by white males in the University Athletics Department."

The lawsuit also says the U and top administrators, including President Eric Kaler, "were complicit in victimizing" the accused students.

Last summer, the U commissioned an outside review of its handling of the case. The review, by attorneys John Marti and Jillian Kornblatt, concluded that the U had followed both the law and its own policy in investigating the allegations and disciplining the students.

Honold was concerned about the new emotional damage to the victim because of the lawsuit.

"Gophers athletics has not made amends to this woman," she said, adding that the she doesn't think the athletic department has "made a genuine effort to end sexual assault."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747