After refusing to practice Thursday, Gophers players donned their maroon game jerseys and announced that they are boycotting all football activities — even their Dec. 27 bowl game, if need be — in protest of the University of Minnesota's decision to suspend 10 teammates as a result of a September sexual assault allegation.
Those 10 suspended players stood directly behind seniors Drew Wolitarsky, Mitch Leidner and Duke Anyanwu — with the rest of the team arrayed behind them in support — as Wolitarsky read from a typed, two-page statement, laying out the players' demands.
"The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted," Wolitarsky said.
Wolitarsky said the players want an apology from university President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle, adding that the players "demand that these leaders are held accountable for their actions."
Asked if the players were worried about losing their scholarships, Wolitarsky responded: "We're all in this together. What are they going to do, pull 120 guys off the team? They won't have a team if that's the case."
Kaler and Coyle issued a joint statement that acceded to none of the players' demands but said, "We want to continue an open dialogue with our players and will work to do that over the coming days."
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys expressed support for his players, tweeting, "Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!"
On Tuesday, the school suspended 10 players indefinitely from all team activities, with those players facing new sanctions from the university's office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA).
According to the players' attorney, the EOAA recommended expulsion for Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson. The attorney said the EOAA recommended one-year suspensions from the university for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., and probation for Antonio Shenault.
Some of the players were directly accused by a female student in an alleged sexual assault in the early morning hours after the Gophers' Sept. 2 season opener; the involvement of others is unclear. The school discipline comes weeks after a criminal investigation resulted in no arrests or charges. The woman's allegations were documented through police reports and court testimony, and ultimately led to the EOAA investigation.
Wolitarsky said the team wants the players reinstated because they were punished "for things they didn't do." Attorney Lee Hutton, who is representing all 10 players, said he is working on their appeals.
Wolitarsky said the players were incensed after a brief meeting with Coyle following Wednesday's practice.
"We got no answers to our questions about why these kids were suspended when they were just found [innocent] by the law," Wolitarsky said. "He basically told us that he didn't have answers, and that led us to believe that this is kind of unjust. He has the power to reverse this, and he won't."
Instead of going through their scheduled Thursday afternoon practice, the players called a meeting and invited just one staff member — linebackers coach Mike Sherels, sources told the Star Tribune.
"All these kids' reputations are destroyed," Leidner said. "Their names are destroyed, and it's extremely difficult to get back, and it's very unfair for them and that's why we're sticking together through this thing."
With that unified voice, the players then invited Claeys to join their meeting. Sources told the Star Tribune that the head coach expressed reservations about the boycott at first but relented by meeting's end.
Claeys declined further comment through a team spokesman. The Gophers were scheduled to hold five practices over the next seven days before flying to San Diego on Dec. 23, four days before the Holiday Bowl game against Washington State.
"This decision for the players to take this stance is not easy, but important to preserve the integrity of our program and ourselves," Wolitarsky said. "We note that the Holiday Bowl Committee, Washington State and the fans are affected by that decision. To that end, we respectfully request that the Holiday Bowl Committee be patient during this time, while Mark Coyle considers his decision to suspend. We also want to request that Mark Coyle make his decision with due haste."
A source confirmed that Northern Illinois is next in line for a bowl game and a candidate to replace Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl. The decision on whether Minnesota will play likely needs to be made in the next few days, as a potential replacement team would need time to prepare.
Mark Neville, the bowl's executive director, issued a statement that said, "We are continuing to prepare for the [bowl game], however, we are aware of the situation at the University of Minnesota and are monitoring it closely."
Winfield's father, Antoine Winfield Sr., the former Vikings standout, stood to the side as the players spoke. Afterward, the elder Winfield was asked if his son will return to the U.
"If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son, Antoine Winfield Jr., will not attend the University of Minnesota," he said.
Kaler said in a letter Wednesday to university boosters that Claeys made the decision to suspend the players, with support from Coyle. Later in the evening, Coyle clarified that he made the decision in consultation with Claeys.
But two sources said Thursday that the decision was made above Claeys.
"Mark Coyle did it," Wolitarsky said. When told of Kaler's statement that Claeys made the decision, Wolitarsky said, "I don't believe that."
Kaler and Coyle's statement said: "We understand that a lot of confusion and frustration exists as a result of this week's suspension[s]. ... The reality is that not everyone can have all of the facts, and unfortunately the University cannot share more information due to federal laws regarding student privacy. We fully support our Gopher football players and all of our student-athletes. 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.
"... It's important that we continue to work together as we move through this difficult time."
Background on allegations
According to police reports and the student's testimony, the student, who is part of the gameday operations at TCF Bank Stadium, drank five to six shots of vodka on the night of Sept. 1 before heading out of her apartment with her roommates toward Dinkytown.
She then went with two football players to the Radius, an off-campus apartment building. Though she said her memory was spotty, she recalled Djam in a common area asking her to go up to his apartment. She would later testify that she had no intention of having sex.
She said she felt panicked when Djam walked her into his bedroom, but later testified that he never pushed her, prevented her from leaving or said anything threatening to her.
Asked during a court hearing why she didn't leave, she said, "I felt scared, trapped, isolated with someone I felt had power over me."
At some point, they began having sex. The police report said "she doesn't have a recall about how the sex acts started."
After Djam, others followed. She told police she saw a line of men waiting to take turns.
"I was removing myself from my mind and my body to help myself from the pain and experience going on," she testified.
She estimated there were at least a dozen men. "I was shoving people off of me," she testified. "They kept ignoring my pleas for help. Anything I said they laughed. They tried to cheer people on."
About an hour and a half later, she said, she was allowed to leave. She called her sister, who told her to go to the hospital immediately, where she was given a rape exam, while her mother made a report to Minneapolis police. The next day, an officer sat down with the student, who described her version of what happened.
On Sept. 8, police investigators Eric Faulconer and Matthew Wente interviewed Djam. He acknowledged having sex with the woman, but was adamant that it was consensual. As proof, he played them three separate videos, totaling about 90 seconds, taken that morning.
During an 8-second clip, the woman "appears lucid, alert, somewhat playful and fully conscious; she does not appear to be objecting to anything at this time," Wente wrote in his report. After viewing two additional videos, he wrote "the sexual contact appears entirely consensual."
Police later interviewed four other players, who each said the sex was consensual.
On Sept. 30, Wente sent the investigation to the Hennepin County Attorney's office for possible prosecution. In it, he wrote about the videos, "at no time does she indicate that she is in distress or that the contact is unwelcome or nonconsensual."
On Oct. 3 the attorney's office announced there would be no charges.
Afterward, the alleged victim filed a restraining order against six of the players, asking that they be made to stay away from the stadium. After a judge granted the orders, the woman dropped a petition against one of the players.
Hutton, the players' attorney, appealed, setting up a hearing where the woman testified for several hours. The hearing eventually ended in a settlement — the restraining order would be dropped, but the players still had to stay 20 feet away from the woman and have no contact with her. The two sides also agreed that neither would be able to file a lawsuit.
"I'm glad this is over," the student read in a statement after the hearing. "This has never been about punishing anyone, I just wanted to feel safe. Because of this resolution that we came to, now I do."