After three tumultuous weeks, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said Friday that he has no regrets about the suspension of 10 student athletes that triggered an uproar on campus and led, this week, to the decision to fire Gophers football coach Tracy Claeys.
In his first extensive interview about the incident, Kaler said the university “did the right thing” when it suspended the football players for their role in an alleged sexual assault of a female student in September.
At the same time, he laid some of the blame for the turmoil that followed on Claeys, who was fired Tuesday.
Kaler said the coaches could have done more to address the concerns of other players, who threatened to boycott a Dec. 27 bowl game in anger over the suspensions.
“So much of what we can say is restricted by privacy laws,” Kaler said. “I think that there was an opportunity for the coaches to learn more and help the players understand why the suspensions were put in place. And I don’t think enough of that happened.”
Claeys also tweeted his support for the players during the threatened boycott, undercutting U officials who said Claeys had authorized the suspensions.
On Friday, the U named P.J. Fleck of Western Michigan University as the new head football coach. Kaler praised Fleck as a man of “high integrity” who “understands the consequences of player behavior.”
“It’s not going to be a hard decision for him to suspend a player who violates team rules,” he said.
Kaler, who has been roundly criticized by some Gophers fans for his handling of the situation, vigorously defended his actions, saying the university had a responsibility to investigate the report that Gophers football players were involved in an alleged gang rape on Sept. 2.
Although no criminal charges were filed in the case, the university’s own investigation concluded that 10 students had violated the student code of conduct. At that point, Kaler said, officials decided to suspend the players from the team.
“Players are suspended across the country and across all sports for a variety of reasons, for violating team rules,” Kaler said. “There’s no due process associated with athletic suspensions. You don’t have a constitutional right to play in a football game. It’s a privilege.”
He noted that the players dropped their boycott threat after a copy of the confidential investigative report was leaked to KSTP-TV and posted online Dec. 16. The report, which was partly censored, included graphic details of the alleged sexual assault.
“Ironically, [that] was helpful,” said Kaler. “Because frankly, when people read the report, they understood why we suspended players.”
Kaler noted that the accused students will have the right to a hearing and an appeal before any formal disciplinary action is taken. The university has recommended expelling some of the students, and lesser penalties for others.
Publicly, the debate has turned personal, with some praising Kaler for taking a tough stand and others calling for his ouster.
On Friday, Kaler appeared to shrug off the criticism.
“That comes with the territory,” he said. “If you don’t have thick skin and can’t weather a storm, then you can’t be an effective university president.
“In this particular case, we made all the right decisions,” he continued. “We wound up with a new football coach who will be tremendous. And we’ve stood up for the victims of sexual violence. If I get fired for standing up for victims of sexual violence, then so be it.”
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384