The University of Minnesota football team skipped practice for the second straight day Friday, a highly unusual case of college athletes unified in protest. The evening before, players huddled together on the field, most of them wearing their maroon jerseys and sweatpants. Drew Wolitarsky, a senior wide receiver, read from a sheet of paper.
“We, the united Gopher football team, issue the statement to take back the reputation and integrity of our program and our brothers that have faced an unjust Title IX investigation without due process,” he said.
And with that, the Gophers commenced a boycott of football activities, a high-profile stand that could culminate with the team sitting out the school’s postseason appearance in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 in San Diego. Among those standing behind Wolitarsky were 10 teammates who are accused of taking part in the sexual assault of a female student.
A criminal investigation resulted in no arrests and no charges, but each player was suspended indefinitely Tuesday following an investigation by the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.
The players say they won’t resume football activities until the school meets their demands, which include the reinstatement of the suspended players and that the school’s president, Eric Kaler, and athletic director, Mark Coyle, be “held accountable for their actions.”
The case highlights the complications that school administrators face in investigating allegations of sexual assault and meting out punishments. As the focus on campus sex crimes has intensified in recent years, universities across the country have struggled with striking a balance between protecting the rights of both the victim and the accused.
“We want to make sure the student-athletes aren’t treated to favoritism because they’re athletes or subject to harsher penalties because of their high profile,” said Joseph Cohn, the legislative and policy director for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit dedicated to defending individual rights at colleges.
In the Minnesota case, players did not understand why the school’s inquiry yielded a different outcome from the criminal investigation. They were unsatisfied with the explanation they received in a meeting with Kaler on Wednesday.
“We wanted answers but received misleading statements,” Wolitarsky said.
The gap between a law enforcement agency’s decision to prosecute and a school’s decision to discipline hinges on the different evidentiary standards and burdens of proof. While the criminal justice system requires a high certainty of guilt – “beyond a reasonable doubt” – the Education Department has argued that Title IX regulations call for a “preponderance of the evidence standard.”
“That’s 50.01 percent,” Cohn says. “That’s almost flipping a coin. Fifty percent plus a feather.”
Schools are required by Title IX regulations to investigate allegations of sexual assault, regardless of the findings of criminal investigations.
In a letter addressed to student-athletes, Kaler and Coyle said the administration couldn’t divulge details about the alleged incident or the investigative process, but “we can tell you that certain behavior is simply unacceptable and antithetical to our institutional values.”
A female student said as many as a dozen men took part in a sexual assault that occurred at an off-campus apartment in the early morning hours of Sept. 2, according to police reports. Five Gophers football players told police they had sex with the woman but said it was consensual. Alcohol was involved, and there is video of some of the incident.
The players’ attorney, Lee Hutton III, has said the school recommended expulsion for five players, while four others face a one-year suspension from school. The university is seeking only probation for a 10th player.
The players are entitled to a hearing and have the right to appeal, but they remain suspended from the team in the interim.