The University of Minnesota football players’ boycott likely will force the school on Saturday to back out of its Holiday Bowl commitment.
A late-night summit on the U campus involving school President Eric Kaler, other school leaders and most Gophers football players failed to produce an agreement, putting the players’ boycott in position to wipe out their trip to San Diego for the bowl game.
Sources familiar with the discussions told the Star Tribune the players refused to back down from their demand that 10 teammates suspended from the team this week due to a sexual assault allegation be reinstated immediately.
Barring a surprise compromise by Kaler and the players, a replacement team will play Washington State on Dec. 27 in the Holiday Bowl. The U needs to decide by noon Saturday, according to sources, and as of late Friday, players were preparing to make a morning statement, forgoing the bowl.
Any movement from Kaler this weekend would be a departure from his position Friday, when he released a statement that said the University of Minnesota will not change its values “for the sake of a bowl game.”
Kaler’s statement, which seemingly intensified the standoff between U leaders and football players, emphasized campus safety and respect. Those principles, he wrote, are “far more important than any football game and … more important than any single athletic team.”
As snow fell outside the Gophers football complex around 9 p.m., players emerged from several hours of meetings mostly stoic and silent.
“It’s been a long day,” senior safety Damarius Travis said, declining to elaborate. Rodney Smith and Blake Cashman both declined to comment.
That scene ended hours of silence by the players, one day after their bold boycott announcement.
Earlier Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton loudly entered the fray, calling the U’s latest athletics controversy “a bad black eye” for Minnesota.
Dayton said that while he doesn’t have all the facts, he told Kaler he wanted him to meet with the players. The on-campus summit, which included athletic director Mark Coyle and at least two university regents, happened a few hours later.
Friday morning, Gophers team members met with a lawyer representing the 10 suspended players in downtown Minneapolis, plotting their strategy on how to move forward. Later, sources said the players were planning an evening meeting with some university regents. Regents Darrin Rosha and Michael Hsu were seen attending the Friday night meeting.
When Kaler issued his statement, shortly after 5 p.m., he noted that he and Coyle had offered to meet with the players, but “the players have thus far declined that offer.”
Two sources said Kaler wasn’t invited to Friday night’s meeting but arrived anyway. The Gophers’ senior leadership group of quarterback Mitch Leidner, linebacker Jack Lynn and others helped lead the conversations with Kaler. According to sources, one of the players’ goals was to have the hearings for the 10 suspended players moved up from January to early next week. But that goal wasn’t reached as of Friday night.
Bowl in jeopardy
Kaler wrote in his statement that he hopes eligible players will take advantage of the reward of going to the bowl game in San Diego, and Kaler added the decision on whether to play must happen soon “out of respect to the Holiday Bowl Committee.”
Mark Neville, the bowl’s executive director, issued a statement that said, “We are continuing to prepare for the [bowl game], however, we are aware of the situation at the University of Minnesota and are monitoring it closely.”
Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said through a spokesman that he would prefer not to discuss the boycott.
“We are focusing on ourselves and preparing for the 2016 National Funding Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27,” Moos added.
The boycott demands reinstatement of the 10 players suspended by university leaders, a result of a school investigation into a Sept. 2 sexual assault allegation by a U student. No arrests were made or charges were filed, but the school is required by federal law to investigate the allegation.
The five players initially implicated in the incident have said the sex was consensual. Hennepin County prosecutors did not bring charges against them, saying there was not enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman was forced to have sex or that she was incapacitated.
The university, as required by federal law, launched its own investigation. Its 80-page report, first obtained by KSTP-TV, depicts a chaotic scene that began shortly after 3 a.m. on Sept. 2 and involved up to a dozen players and an underage high school student who was making a recruiting visit that weekend.
The university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action interviewed 12 accused students and 16 other students it believed had information about what happened that night. The university didn’t face the same burden as prosecutors to determine guilt or innocence in these types of investigations. It just had to determine whether the “preponderance of evidence” indicated it was, according to the university policy, “more likely than not” that an assault occurred.
The U’s investigation concluded that the woman’s version of events was more credible. It found evidence that the accused students “deliberately attempted to impede the University’s fact-finding efforts” by deleting messages and videos from their phones and “engaging in a collective effort to conceal the identities of men” who were present in the apartment.
The 10 players face new sanctions from the EOAA office. Attorney Lee Hutton, who is representing all 10 players, said the EOAA recommended expulsion for Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson. The attorney said the EOAA recommended one-year suspensions from the university for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., and probation for Antonio Shenault.
Discussions all day
Shortly after noon Friday, Leidner and several other seniors emerged from Hutton’s Minneapolis office. Asked for comment, senior linebacker Nick Rallis said, “Not right now. We appreciate you guys standing behind us. We said what we needed to say [Thursday].”
Other players besides Leidner and Rallis who attended the meeting included Lynn, senior offensive lineman Jonah Pirsig, junior defensive end Gaelin Elmore and senior tight end Brandon Lingen.
Most of the players were wearing Gophers colors, but Lingen, who has a foot injury, was wearing a suit as he limped along in a walking boot.
“When the time is right, I’m sure we’ll have more to say,” Rallis said.
Dayton said it’s important for the university and the team to “defuse” the situation, and that a boycott of the bowl game would be problematic for the university and the state of Minnesota.
“It would be very, very serious, and I hope the players recognize that, for their sake and the sake of the program,” he said. “Once again, it’s how we make national news. We have so many successes in Minnesota that don’t get national attention and these are the things that do … it’s a bad black eye and it will get worse if it does not quickly resolve.”
Instead of practicing Thursday, the Gophers began their protest, standing before the media at the football complex and announcing they are boycotting all football activities — including the bowl if need be — in protest of the 10 suspensions.
Those 10 suspended players stood directly behind seniors Drew Wolitarsky, Leidner and Duke Anyanwu — with the rest of the team arrayed behind them in support — as Wolitarsky read from a typed, two-page statement, laying out the players’ demands.
“The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted,” Wolitarsky said.
Wolitarsky added the players want an apology from Kaler and Coyle, saying they “demand that these leaders are held accountable for their actions.”
Asked if the players were worried about losing their scholarships, Wolitarsky responded: “We’re all in this together. What are they going to do, pull 120 guys off the team? They won’t have a team if that’s the case.”
Kaler and Coyle issued a joint statement later Thursday that said, in part, “We want to continue an open dialogue with our players and will work to do that over the coming days.”
Late Thursday, Gophers coach Tracy Claeys expressed support for his players, tweeting, “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
Staff writers Erin Golden and Phil Miller contributed to this report.