Gophers players boycott football activities over sexual assault investigation

10 players were suspended Tuesday in relation to an alleged September sexual assault.

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky addresses reporters at a news conference as his teammates fill the background Thursday, Dec. 15 at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis.

Chris Dang

Senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky addresses reporters at a news conference as his teammates fill the background Thursday, Dec. 15 at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis.

Mike Hendrickson and Jessie Bekker

The Gophers football team plans to boycott the team’s appearance in a Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl game and all team activities and practices, following the suspension of 10 players Tuesday over a sexual assault investigation.

The entire team congregated at the University of Minnesota Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex for a 6:30 p.m. news conference Thursday, where they requested a private meeting with Board of Regent members Michael Hsu and Darrin Rosha, and a reversal of the suspension from athletics director Mark Coyle.

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

A players-only meeting was held Thursday and teammates informed head football coach Tracy Claeys of their decision to boycott, Wolitarsky confirmed at the news conference.

The player’s attorney, Lee Hutton, confirmed Wednesday that the ten players were investigated by the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action because of an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault. Hutton said five players face expulsion.

EOAA investigates complaints of sexual assault and harassment, stalking, relationship violence and retaliation, according to their website. After investigating a report, EOAA decides if a violation “more likely than not” occurred. Findings are sent to the University’s Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, which informs both parties of proposed sanctions.

Both the reporter and the accused can appeal the proposed sanctions to enter into a hearing process. Sanctions range from a warning to expulsion, depending on the determined violation.

The suspended players include: Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, Seth Green, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson, Kobe McCrary, Antonio Shenault, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., according to an emailed University statement Tuesday night. The suspensions come weeks after a separate investigation that ended with no charges against the players.

A woman reported to police that she was sexually assaulted after midnight Sept. 2, on the same night after the Gophers beat Oregon State in the home-opener. Claeys suspended four of the players — Buford, Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson — on Sept. 10 for three games for team rule violations. 

The Minneapolis Police Department investigated the four players’ involvement in the alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault, but the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office later declined to pursue charges against the players on Oct. 3. No player was arrested, and Claeys lifted the suspensions the following day. 

Amy Isenor, the attorney who represented the potential victim-survivor, could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday evening. A voicemail recording on her cell phone number said she was no longer affiliated with law firm Hunter Martin, PLLC, or with Civil Society — a nonprofit providing legal services to victims of crime and human trafficking.

Victim-survivors of sexual assault and advocates voiced their support of the potential victim on social media Thursday. A rally in support of survivors was planned before Thursday’s announcement at TCF Bank Stadium Saturday.

At the conference Thursday, Wolitarsky called the Title IX investigation “unjust.”

“We got no answers to our questions about why these kids were suspended when they were just found not guilty by the law,” Wolitarsky said. “So when we had questions for [Coyle] he basically told us that he didn’t have answers and that led us to believe that this is unjust. He has the power to reverse this, and he won’t.”

In a statement emailed to boosters Wednesday afternoon, University President Eric Kaler said Claeys and Coyle made the decision to suspend the 10 players. Coyle confirmed his joint role with Claeys Wednesday night.

But Wolitarsky said Thursday night that Claeys doesn’t have the power to do that, and the decision was not made by him.

“Mark Coyle has the power to do that, and Mark Coyle did it,” he said.

Coyle and Kaler released a statement Thursday evening, backing up their decision to suspend the 10 players. Claeys was not included in the statement.

“Situations like this are always difficult and the decision was made in consultation with and has the full support of President Eric Kaler. The decision was based on facts and is reflective of the University’s values,” the statement read.

Freshman cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr.’s father, Antoine Winfield Sr., said Thursday his son will leave the University if Kaler and Coyle are not removed from their positions.

“I think it was injustice how they took this young lady’s acquisition, her statement, came to this conclusion to suspend these 10 young men,” Winfield Sr. said.

Claeys, along with defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel and linebacker coach Mike Sherels, tweeted their support after Thursday’s news conference. “I have always been proud of our players at Minnesota – and forever will be !!!!” Sawvel said.

On Thursday afternoon, multiple Gophers football players and fans also tweeted out the hashtag — #WeHadEnough — in response to news of the suspensions, including junior linebacker Jonathan Celestin, who will be a captain for the 2017 season.

Winfield Sr. said he was “disgusted” by the EOAA investigation file.

“Those guys [University coaches] came to my house and looked me in my eye and I told them, take care of my son. And this is what you show me,” he said. “I don’t respect it. I’m hot.”

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