You would have to go back 25 years to the Rodney King beating to find the time when as much attention was paid to justice for young black Americans as has taken place in the past year.
You could go back to 1837 and Oberlin College, the first coed college in the United States, and not find a time when colleges have gone to such lengths to define sexual exploitation and protect female students from all of its forms.
These are two mighty forces sweeping America as well as its college campuses, and when they collide, good luck to anyone caught in the middle.
Tracy Claeys is a giant of a man, “Big Country” in my terminology, but in this, the Gophers football coach might as well be the reincarnation of Tiny Tim … except these aren’t tulips through which you can tiptoe.
You are on one side or the other.
You are on the side of 10 football players, all black, who were exonerated of any sexual crime by trained police investigators.
Or, you are on the side of the female student who was at TCF Bank Stadium in an in-game role, went to a player’s room one night, and wound up being engaged in sex with four or five players.
“Consensual,” say the players. “It looked that way,” said the trained investigators.
“It was assault,” said the female student. “That’s the way we see it,” was the message from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), which has a staff of eight to look at such things.
The average hard-core Gophers fan is 65, a lifelong Minnesotan, Lutheran, and has been wearing the same maroon sweater to games for two decades. I’m a little older, a lifelong Minnesotan, a casual Catholic and make sure not to wear my 10-year-old maroon sweater if attending a Gophers game.
I’m confident that the average Gophers fan and I do have this common: not many sexual encounters with four friends and one woman.
So most of us are shocked when we hear that detail and then exclaim: “How can the rest of the players possibly support these louts as teammates? Throw them all out of school. Fire Claeys. Fire the athletic director … what’s his name? Fire Eric Kaler, the university president.”
I’m not endorsing anything. I’m just suggesting the shock level for millennials is much lower when hearing of such an encounter than it is for us baby boomers in our maroon sweaters.
We find it impossible for this to have been consensual; Hennepin County investigators did not.
So, we have these two forces colliding, justice for young black males and justice for exploited female students.
We have a football roster with numerous players who a year ago woke up on a mid-October morning to hear of a Star Tribune article claiming that some among them had been accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment and retaliation in the 2014-15 academic year.
The accusation had come from Kimberly Hewitt, the director of the aforementioned EOAA office, in an e-mail sent to then-athletic director Norwood Teague dated July 16, 2015. The Star Tribune had gained access to the e-mail months later through a records request.
Hewitt and her office had looked into the 2014-15 allegations and substantiated one case of sexual harassment. One.
A month after Hewitt sent the e-mail, Teague’s own issue with sexual harassment came to light and he wound up being fired.
I was told by a couple of university sources that Kill was very upset that Kaler sided with Hewitt internally on the original e-mail.
And don’t discount how much that mid-October revelation by the Star Tribune added to Kill’s level of angst as he unsuccessfully battled to control his epilepsy. He was beside himself when that story appeared.
The Gophers followed with a horrible performance vs. Nebraska one day after the Hewitt e-mail story. And 12 days after it was published, Kill retired as the football coach.
Why are the players — including senior leaders Mitch Leidner and Drew Wolitarsky — standing up for 10 teammates after these suspensions and calls for expulsions?
Relax, baby boomers. The players’ agenda here isn’t to support group sex or assaults.
I contend these football players felt as if they all were in Hewitt’s cross hairs from the time her e-mail — with its wide-ranging accusations based on little evidence — surfaced as a major news story.
The Gophers’ protest could be as simple as their conviction that 10 teammates never had a chance with Hewitt and her staff of advocates. There is e-mail evidence from July 2015 to support that theory.