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Minnesota football coach Tracy Claeys says he risked job by backing players

Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys speaks during a news conference for the 2016 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. (Gregory Bull / AP)
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys said Sunday that he knew he was risking his job last week when he expressed support for players who boycotted practices and threatened to skip a bowl game if 10 teammates who were suspended after a sexual assault investigation weren’t reinstated.

Claeys also said in an interview on WCCO Radio that he plans to donate $50,000 to support victims of sexual assault.

The standoff with university administrators ended Saturday when the team backed down and said they would play in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Washington State in San Diego, even though officials declined to reinstate their suspended teammates. The players agreed after getting assurances that those accused will get a fair hearing next month.

After the entire team announced the boycott on Thursday, Claeys publicly backed his players.

“Have never been more proud of our kids,” Claeys tweeted at the time. “I respect their rights (and) support their effort to make a better world!”

On Sunday, Claeys told WCCO Radio that he and his team met before the players decided on the boycott. He said he told them “about all the different fallouts. One was that we they might not be able to play in the bowl game. Two is that we knew that there was going to be a group who took the stance that we were being pro-sexual assault, which we’re not. And then I told them there’s a great chance I could lose my job over this.”

Claeys said his players weren’t condoning sexual assault or harassment in any way. But they believed their suspended teammates were denied due process, he said, and that it was “pretty easy” to support them on that issue.

Officials announced the suspensions Tuesday after an internal investigation determined the 10 players violated school conduct codes in an encounter involving a woman and several players at an off-campus apartment Sept. 2. Many of the players who initially backed the boycott Thursday had not read the university’s 82-page report detailing the woman’s specific allegations. The school had kept those details private under federal law, but players saw it after KSTP-TV published the report Friday.

According to the police report, the woman told police she had consensual sex with two male that night, but that she did not consent to sexual contact with other men who were present, including players. According to university’s more detailed internal report, she told university investigators that she believed 10 to 20 men had sex with her that night, though she wasn’t sure because she had memory gaps from drinking. Prosecutors declined to press charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the university uses a lower bar in student discipline cases.

Linebacker Nick Rallis told the station the players believe the boycott succeeded, even though nobody was reinstated, because they believe it will ensure that athletes at Minnesota and other colleges who are accused of misconduct in the future get fair hearings.

The Gophers were scheduled to return to practice Sunday afternoon in preparation for facing Washington State without the 10 suspended players.

“We’ll go out there and whoever we have, we’ll play extremely hard,” Claeys said. “It’s all about now representing the team and the university, all our alums in a first-class manner.”