Football players at the University of Minnesota have ended their two-day protest and dropped their threat to boycott the team’s postseason bowl game over concerns about the school’s treatment of 10 suspended teammates.
The players made the announcement Saturday morning with Gophers coach Tracy Claeys and other members of the coaching staff looking on.
“After many, many hours of discussion within our team and after speaking with President Eric Kaler, it became clear that our original request of having 10 suspensions overturned was not going to happen,” said Drew Wolitarsky, a senior wide receiver, reading from a prepared statement.
Wolitarsky said the team would immediately resume its preparations for the Holiday Bowl against Washington State, scheduled to be played Dec. 27 in San Diego.
“This is an educational moment,” Mark Coyle, the school’s athletic director, said Saturday. “The great thing about college campus is you can have different opinions. You can express those opinions. But you have to be respectful during that process. Again, this is a learning experience for all of us.”
The players boycotted football activities for two days and missed two days of practices, protesting the treatment of 10 teammates who were suspended and face further disciplinary action for their roles in an alleged sexual assault.
The protest stemmed from the athletics department’s decision to suspend 10 Gopher players indefinitely following an investigation by the school’s office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action into an incident from earlier in the semester. A female student said as many as a dozen men took part in a sexual assault Sept. 2 at the off-campus apartment of one of the football players, according to police reports. Five Gophers football players told police they had consensual sex with the woman.
Though the players ultimately faced no criminal charges, the school inquiry resulted in the recommendation of expulsion for five of the players, one-year suspensions for four of them and probation for a 10th. All were suspended pending hearings and an appeals process.
“We made a values-based decision,” Kaler said Saturday. “The athletic director made a decision. I supported that decision based on our values and what we think is right. That’s what we did. Part of the consequences of decisions is that sometimes people become unhappy.”
Players learned of the punishments last Tuesday and met with athletic department administrators Wednesday. Unhappy with the explanations they received, players announced a team-wide boycott of all football activities the following day and skipped practice Thursday and Friday.
“We are disappointed at the lack of communication from the administration and their unwillingness to share information about the decision under the cover of student privacy,” Wolitarsky said Saturday. “We also understand that they have requirements that they need to follow about sharing information. Yet at the same time, we observed our teammates’ names and pictures were shared with the world and their reputations were ruined.”
The players backed away from their initial demands, which included calling for the reinstatement of their teammates and for Kaler and Coyle to be “held accountable for their actions.”
Kaler made clear to them that reinstating the players was not an option.
“One of my jobs as President is to put our institutional values at the forefront of all we do and ensure our actions are aligned with those values,” he said in a statement on Friday night. “This principle is far more important than any football game and the University community as a whole, and it is more important than any single athletic team.”
Kaler was apparently prepared for the Gophers to skip the Holiday Bowl, saying the school would “not change our values or our code of conduct for the sake of a bowl game.”
The school president also said team declined his invitation for a meeting, but the players did finally meet with the school president and Coyle on Friday night. Kaler said it was a “frank and candid discussion.”
“I listened to their concerns,” he said. “I think I was able to explain our point of view around the actions that we took.”
Wolitarsky said Saturday the administration told players that their 10 suspended teammates would each receive a fair hearing, “which includes a diverse review panel.”
“I’ve learned a lot from these past couple of days. There are no right choices. There are no decisions that do not affect somebody else,” he said. “This process has been extremely difficult. I’m sure, as you all know, how stressful this has been for everybody involved.”
The Gophers could resume practices immediately. They’re scheduled to leave town next week for the Holiday Bowl, where they’ll face Washington State.
Wolitarsky said the entire experience reinforced what Gopher football means to the larger community.
“As a team we understand that what has occurred these past few days and playing football for the University of Minnesota is much larger than us,” he said. “So many people before us have given so much here and this football team – so many coaches, staff, administration, professors, alumni, fans and our community have invested heavily in the success of our program. We will not – and we recognize we must not – let those people down.”
The players said parts of their initial statement were misconstrued, and Saturday morning they made sure to condemn sexual violence against women.
“There is only one acceptable way to treat all women and that is with the utmost respect at all times,” Wolitarsky said.
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