The Gophers’ resolve to boycott the Holiday Bowl crumbled in the early hours of Saturday morning as University of Minnesota football players for the first time absorbed the painful details of a lengthy report on the sexual assault investigation that led to 10 player suspensions.
The team had left a meeting with University President Eric Kaler about 9 p.m. Friday set on carrying through on their protest of the player discipline.
Yet by 1:30 a.m., the Gophers seniors were ready to end their boycott. That’s when a group text went out: “Players-only meeting 6 a.m.” Many of them didn’t sleep.
At 9 a.m., bleary-eyed and exhausted, the Gophers’ senior leaders announced the walkout was over, even though they received no concessions from Kaler.
“As a team, we understand that what has occurred these past few days, and playing football for the University of Minnesota, is larger than just us,” senior receiver Drew Wolitarsky said, reading from a two-page, typed statement.
The Gophers had stopped just hours short of becoming the first college football team in over 50 years to back out of a bowl game in protest. The reversal came about early Saturday, several sources told the Star Tribune, because the details of the 80-page sexual assault investigation report — revealed to most players late Friday — “changed the narrative” of the situation.
Just the night before, most players had left the football facility along snow-clogged 15th Avenue defiant and convinced the bowl boycott would stand.
After some volatile meetings with Kaler, the players knew he wouldn’t accede to their demand to lift the suspensions of 10 players that stemmed from the alleged sexual assault. They were staring down a Saturday deadline to decide if they would back out of the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl in San Diego against Washington State.
But Wolitarsky, Gaelin Elmore, Mitch Leidner and the rest of the seniors remained cloistered inside the football facility, contemplating alternatives in the face of the “game-changing” investigative report on the incident that most players had just read.
The university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action report came into wide public view Friday afternoon when it was first obtained and published by KSTP-TV.
The EOAA report, the result of the school’s federally mandated investigation of the alleged sexual assault, described in deep detail how a female student and more than 10 men were involved in an incident in the early morning of Sept. 2, hours after the Gophers’ first game of the season.
Sources said the release of the report and the players getting a chance to read the results of the investigation were the biggest factors in the decision to end the boycott. “Once they read the report,” one source said, the “narrative” of the boycott changed.
Facing heavy national criticism, the Gophers players knew they were losing negotiating leverage.
When the players launched their boycott, they signaled their anger at Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle for not being more forthcoming with the reasons all 10 players had been suspended.
The EOAA recommended expulsion for five players who did have sexual contact with the victim — Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson; one-year suspensions from the university for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., and probation for Antonio Shenault.
Lee Hutton, the attorney for all 10 players, has already filed their appeals.
According to sources, the seniors tried getting Kaler to lift the penalties for Green, McCrary, Williams, Winfield and Shenault.
Late Friday night, the seniors felt like they were getting close to a compromise on that issue, but it was shot down in a vote before the whole team, sources said.
With the team at an impasse, one of the 10 suspended players spoke up in a meeting. According to one source, the suspended player said, “We appreciate all of you for standing up for us, and we still feel like we’ve been wronged [by the university]. But we don’t want 102 [players] to take the fall for us five.”
The motivation to end the boycott grew. Clarity had come for many in the form of the EOAA report, and some players’ parents had just read those Sept. 2 details, too.
A number of parents texted and called, making sure their sons understood what following through on their boycott could mean.
One of the players’ mothers wrote on Facebook: “I hope all of you are talking to your sons. … This cannot continue. They are giving up way too much. The wheels of justice can continue to turn without a boycott.”
By morning, the teamwide vote to lift the boycott passed overwhelmingly.
Man in the middle
At the announcement, Wolitarsky again found himself at center stage.
Before the players launched their boycott, they elected Wolitarsky as their spokesman. Besides being their leading receiver, he’s also wrapping up his English degree.
“You will have to bear with us,” Wolitarsky said. “We’ve been up for 30-plus hours — lot of caffeine.”
Wolitarsky also read the team’s original boycott announcement Thursday, and he drew much of the national criticism from those who felt the players’ stance was tone-deaf toward sexual violence.
According to people close to the situation, Wolitarsky was shaken by the criticism, stressed and crying at times. He was especially torn after reading the investigation report.
“I learned a lot from these past couple days,” Wolitarsky said. “There are no right choices. There are no decisions that do not affect somebody else. This process has been extremely difficult, and I’m sure you all know how stressful this has been for everybody involved.”
By Saturday, in words shaped by Wolitarsky’s writing touch, he made clear how the players feel about sexual violence.
“Let me first state so there is no misperception: 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,” he said. “There is only one acceptable way to treat all women and all men, and that is with the utmost respect at all times.”
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys will address the boycott lift when he meets the media after Sunday’s practice, a team spokesman said.
Claeys tweeted his feelings on the original boycott Thursday: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
Other Gophers coaches voiced their support for the players, too. Since that stance ran contrary to Kaler and Coyle’s, they were asked if those gestures might impact their future at the university.
“Coaches are in a challenging position,” Kaler said. “They need to support their players. At the same time, they need to be responsible for their actions, and there are times in which those two demands put coaches in very difficult positions. We’ll talk about that with them and try to improve both their understanding and our understanding.”
Coyle added: “This is an educational moment. The great thing about college campuses is you can have different opinions and can express those opinions. But you have to be respectful during that process. This was a learning experience for all of us.”