The University of Minnesota football team’s boycott started with a bold demand for apologies and a threat to skip a bowl game if 10 teammates suspended after a sexual assault investigation weren’t reinstated.
It ended less than 36 hours later, the university leadership never blinking, and the players backing down amid pressure from many who read details of the allegations.
The Golden Gophers players announced Saturday morning that they planned to play in the Holiday Bowl, rescinding their boycott after two exhausting days of meetings with attorneys, school President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle.
“As a team we understand that what has occurred these last few days and playing football for the University of Minnesota is larger than just us,” receiver Drew Wolitarsky said.
The school declined the players’ request to reinstate the suspended players. The team will now go ahead with its Dec. 27 game against Washington State in San Diego after getting assurances that those accused will get a fair hearing next month.
Wolitarsky, reading from a statement, said after many hours of team discussion and speaking with Kaler, “it became clear that our original request of having the 10 suspensions overturned was not going to happen.”
And many of the players who made the initial stand Thursday had not read the university’s 82-page report detailing the woman’s specific allegations. The university kept the details private under federal law, but players saw it after KSTP-TV published it Friday. The details fractured the group’s resolve, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly for the group.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis first reported how the report affected the group’s thinking.
Kaler and Coyle issued statements Friday, and reiterated to the players in a meeting late Friday night, that they had no intention of changing their decision after an internal investigation determined the suspended players violated school conduct codes in an encounter involving a woman and several players at an off-campus dorm Sept. 2.
“I’m very pleased that the football team has realized the opportunity to represent the university and come out strong in support of the victims of sexual violence,” Kaler said Saturday. “They’ve come out strongly in support of the victims of sexual violence. I have promised a very fair hearing to the students involved and charged and I attend to have that be true. We will judge them very fairly.”
The Holiday Bowl is one of the most lucrative and well-known of the second-tier bowl games. The payout to the school was $2.8 million last year. Not including the New Year’s Six bowls that are tied to the College Football Playoff, the Holiday Bowl’s distribution was the fifth largest of the other 34 postseason games.
Bowl revenue is pooled and shared by conferences. For the Big Ten, which distributed more than $30 million to each of its 14 members last season, Holiday Bowl revenue is a small piece of a large pie.
Four players were initially suspended for three games earlier this season while the police investigated allegations by a woman, who said several players pressured her into having sex with them after a season-opening win over Oregon State. No arrests or charges were made and the players, who maintained the sex was consensual, were reinstated after a judge lifted a restraining order.
“She described it as a line of people, like they were waiting for their turn … She recalls yelling for them to stop sending people in the room because she couldn’t handle it,” one of the reports said.
The university said it holds its students to higher standards than those applied by the law, and its announcement of the suspensions Tuesday caught the team off guard.
Wearing their maroon game jerseys, the entire team issued a statement Thursday saying they would boycott all football activities until Kaler and Coyle apologized for their lack of communication and reinstated the suspended players. But after hours of sometimes contentious meetings on Friday, a group of players gathered Saturday morning to denounce sexual assault and say there is no place for it on campus.
“There is only one acceptable way to treat all women and that is with the utmost respect at all times,” Wolitarsky said. “We are not here to judge nor defend their actions. That is for the authorities.”
The players also asked the university to show “support for the team and the character shown by the great majority of our players” and help them “use our status as public figures to bring more exposure to the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women.”
Players said Saturday they were most disappointed with the lack of communication and due process.
“As football players, we know that we represent this university and this state and that we are held to a higher standard,” Wolitarsky said. “We want to express our deepest gratitude to our coaching staff and so many others for their support during this difficult time, and we hope that our fans and community understand why we took the actions that we did.”
Dean Johnson, chairman of the university’s Board of Regents, said he supports the decision to end the boycott and to keep the 10 players under suspension.
He added that the situation has shown that while the university does not tolerate sexual violence, more must be done to ensure the campus is safe for all students. That change, he said, could come in stronger policies, enforcement or more educational opportunities and sensitivity training.
“It’s not been a good thing for the University of Minnesota, with donors, with ticket holders, with the administration, the regents – it’s not been a proud week,” Johnson said.