Gophers football players end boycott over sexual assault suspensions

The team announced their decision at a Saturday morning news conference; they will play in the Holiday Bowl.

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, right, addresses reporters at a news conference, announcing the end of the Gophers football team's boycott on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. The team boycotted after 10 players were suspended in relation to a Sept. 2 alleged sexual assault.

Chris Dang / Minnesota Daily

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, right, addresses reporters at a news conference, announcing the end of the Gophers football team’s boycott on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016. The team boycotted after 10 players were suspended in relation to a Sept. 2 alleged sexual assault.

Mike Hendrickson and Jessie Bekker

The Gophers football team has ended its boycott on all football activities, maintaining their spot in the Dec. 27 Holiday bowl against Washington State, players announced at a news conference Saturday morning.

The decision comes after players, University of Minnesota regents, Athletics Director Mark Coyle and President Eric Kaler met on multiple occasions to discuss the team’s boycott.

The team announced their boycott Thursday evening, calling on Coyle to reverse the suspensions of 10 football players investigated by the schools’ Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action in relation to an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.

“There are no right choices, there are no decisions that do not affect somebody else,” senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky read off a prepared statement at a 9 a.m. news conference Saturday.

“Sexual harassment and violence against women have no place on this campus, on our team, in our society, and at no time is it ever condoned,” Wolitarsky said, adding that the team recognized a difference between a “legal threshold” and a “moral threshold.”

“After many hours of discussion within our team, and after speaking with President Kaler, it became clear that our original request of having the 10 suspensions overturned was not going to happen,” Wolitarsky read.

The team instead requested a hearing process for the 10 sanctioned players, including a “diverse” review panel.

The hearing will likely occur in January, Kaler said to reporters Saturday.

“Communication is always a challenge. It’s important for us to be clear about the process and the decision line, and part of our meeting last night was communicating that decision,” Kaler said, adding the discussion between himself, Coyle and the players Friday night was “frank and candid.” 

“I think that the players now understand the process more fully,” he said.

Despite conflicting reports, Coyle told reporters Saturday the decision to suspend the players was in fact made in consultation with head coach Tracey Claeys.

“Coaches are in a challenging position. They need to support their players, they need to motivate their players. At the same time they need to be responsible for their actions,” Kaler said. “There are times in which those two demands put coaches in very difficult positions. I think some of our coaches around this issue were in a very difficult position.”

Wolitarsky said the team plans to “use our status as public figure to bring more exposure” to sexual harassment and violence against women.

The Hennepin County attorney’s office decided Oct. 3 that it wouldn’t pursue charges against five players initially reported to be involved with the potential sexual assault, citing insufficient evidence.

But the University — which is required by federal law to investigate sexual assault allegations — recommended 10 football players be suspended, expelled or placed on probation in its EOAA investigation after interviewing 12 accused students. Both the September police report and the EOAA file were leaked by several local news outlets Friday.

The EOAA report recommended expulsion for five of the players — Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson and KiAnte Hardin — one-year suspensions for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., and probation for Antonio Shenault.

Kaler issued a statement Friday, reaffirming his decision to punish the 10 suspended players. 

“Every member of the University community deserves to be treated with respect,” Kaler wrote. “The University of Minnesota will not change our values or our code of conduct for the sake of a bowl game.” 

Coyle and Kaler also penned an open letter to student athletes, calling on them to “hold true to our values and hold each other accountable.”

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky announced the boycott in a Thursday news conference, reading from a prepared statement.

“We’re concerned that our brothers have been named publicly with reckless disregard in violation of their constitutional rights,” Wolitarsky said Thursday. “This effort is by players, and for players.”

The decision to boycott was met with immediate support from some of the team’s coaches, including head football coach Tracy Claeys.

Click here for a timeline of events leading up to the Gophers football team’s boycott.

This is breaking news, the Minnesota Daily’s report will be updated as news develops.