More training for UMN football team necessary to combat sexual assault, admins say

Administrators are considering more training for Gophers football players to teach affirmative consent and sexual assault prevention.

Newly appointed Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck meets with the media on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Image by Carter Jones

Newly appointed Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck meets with the media on Friday, Jan. 6, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Ryan Faircloth

The Gophers football team sat through four presentations on sexual assault prevention, relationship violence, the University’s sexual assault policies and bystander intervention in 2016.

Just over two months after the last presentation, 10 players were accused of involvement in the alleged sexual assault of a game day employee.

Now, University of Minnesota administrators say the answer is more training.

The Gophers football team has been in the spotlight since it boycotted all team activities in December in protest of the suspensions against their 10 accused teammates.

When the team sat down with University Athletics Director Mark Coyle after the boycott, they agreed there was a need for “positive change” in team culture, he said in a Jan. 23 interview.

At the time, the team’s methods for pursuing change were still up in the air.

Newly-appointed head football coach P.J. Fleck has yet to meet with his team to talk about sexual assault prevention. He said he plans to discuss team-wide community outreach to tackle the issue.

The team will also engage in conversations with experts about consent, Fleck said. It’s the additional education, he said, that will help prevent sexual assault.

“[The players have] got to be able to do skits, they have to be able to role play,” Fleck said. “They have to be able to go through things and experience how it actually feels to talk through it.”

This isn’t the team’s first go-round with sexual assault and violence prevention training.

The team participated in a 2014 acting performance staged by GTC Dramatic Dialogues, a theater company that specializes in skit training on topics including sexual assault, racism and LGBTQ issues.

Audience members engaged in victim blaming, including football players, making it easy to pick team members out of the crowd, said Michael Agnew, owner and artistic director of GTC.

“…The football teams [nationally] tend to be the most vocal in those kinds of responses,” he said. “When we do a show where we know there’s going to be a large number of athletes, we know that we’re in for a wild ride. That’s pretty much just a given.”

Toussaint Morrison, who moderated the 2014 discussion, said he wasn’t surprised by the allegations of sexual assault based on his experiences training athletes nationwide.

“For me, the boycott was a sign that clearly the Gopher football team does not get it,” he said. “That they do not understand what the impacts of sexual assault are.”

By 2016, four presentations were scheduled after the University’s then-Title IX Director Kimberly Hewitt raised concerns about a pattern of alleged sexual misconduct among team members.

In emails sent to the athletics department in 2015, Hewitt detailed concerns of sexual assault, harassment and retaliation involving team members. In her email, Hewitt cited “a concerning pattern of football player conduct that we believe requires responsive action.”

Despite recurring attempts to educate players on sexual assault and consent through presentations, University President Eric Kaler said administrators will continue to consider how to fit additional training into their prevention efforts.

Kaler told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in a Jan. 13 interview that “an exceptional amount of training … didn’t seem to make the point” after the suspensions against 10 football players led to a less-than-48-hour boycott.

At the time of the boycott, the team said their “brothers” were treated unfairly by the University, which found the accused responsible through an Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action investigation.

Kaler recommended more bystander training for players to provide them with the “skillset to intervene” when they see “not correct behavior.”

“Everybody on the team needs to understand consent,” he said. “I haven’t interviewed each football player myself, but I’m pretty sure P.J. Fleck will have every member of his team understanding consent.”

Administrators’ ideas have yet to be formulated into plans.

When Gophers wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky announced the termination of the boycott, he promised the team would “use our status as public figures to bring more exposure to the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women.”

Several Gophers football players did not respond to the Minnesota Daily’s multiple requests for comment.

Wolitarsky said “there’s definitely some off-the-field stuff happening,” but declined to elaborate.

And when two University students and sexual assault victim-survivors reached out to a team member in early January to set up a public meeting, he stopped responding.

Kayla Pederson, a University graduate and sexual assault victim-survivor, and her friend asked one player to meet with “a neutral, trained moderator” to share “what this issue is like on our side of things.”

The player responded within 15 minutes, saying “I’d love to just meet with you guys in person” and “I can never have enough information or too many conversations.”

Nearly one month later, he has not responded to two separate attempts to continue the conversation — making the team’s pledge to address sexual assault appear to be “a bunch of false promises,” Pederson said

“They really need to follow through with what they’re saying, she said. “And right now, they’re not.”