MINNEAPOLIS – One by one, the entire Minnesota football roster walked out of the locker room and onto the practice facility turf to face a waiting media gathering.
Wearing their maroon game jerseys with gold numbers, they lined up behind 10 of their teammates who were suspended earlier this week after an internal university investigation into an alleged sexual assault.
Three senior leaders stood in front of the group and delivered a defiant rebuke of the university’s policies, saying they would not participate in football activities until the school president and athletic director apologized and revoked the suspensions. If that meant they did not play in the upcoming Holiday Bowl against Washington State, they appeared poised to stand firm.
“All these kids’ reputations are destroyed,” senior quarterback Mitch Leidner said Thursday. “Their names are destroyed. 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.”
Two assistant coaches and former Minnesota Vikings star cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose son Antoine Winfield Jr. was one of the players suspended, were there watching while head coach Tracy Claeys tweeted his support. A program that has toiled in the bottom half of the Big Ten for decades was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight.
“I’m very proud of those young men,” Winfield Sr. said. “It took a lot. Everyone didn’t have to participate in that. But that’s what I love about football. It’s a team game. It’s a brotherhood and it shows you the support and love that all the players feel for each other.”
The Gophers voiced their displeasure with a lack of communication from President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle after the decision was made to suspend the players indefinitely. Four of those players were suspended earlier in the season for three games after becoming part of a sexual assault investigation. No arrests were made, no charges were filed and a restraining order put in place by the woman was removed after a settlement on Nov. 2.
But this week the school’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) recommended suspending those four players and six others, saying they violated the school’s standards for conduct. Ray Buford Jr., KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson and Carlton Djam were all recommended for expulsion.
Antoine Winfield Jr., Kobe McCrary, Seth Green and Mark Williams were recommended for one-year suspensions, and Antonio Shenault was recommended for probation by the EOAA.
“The actions of president Kaler have breached fiduciary duty not only to the 10 falsely accused, but to all of us,” receiver Drew Wolitarsky said.
The players asked the Holiday Bowl committee to remain patient while they worked through the situation, saying they viewed their boycott of football activities as “day-by-day.”
The decision does not come without risk for the players, who were asked about the possibility of the school revoking scholarships for their demonstration.
“We’re in this together,” Wolitarsky said. “What, are they going to pull 120 guys off the team? I mean, they’re not going to have a team if that’s the case.”
Kaler and Coyle issued a joint statement Thursday night saying the school’s decision was “based on facts and is reflective of the university’s values.”
“We understand that a lot of confusion and frustration exists as a result of this week’s suspension of ten Gopher football players from all team activities,” the statement read. “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.”
The players and Winfield Sr. fumed at the university’s adherence to the law preventing them from commenting.
“If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son, Antoine Winfield Jr., will not attend the University of Minnesota,” Winfield Sr. said.
The players say they were further frustrated by Coyle’s unwillingness to explain the university’s reasons for the suspensions in a meeting with the team on Wednesday.
“So that led us basically to believe that this is kind of unjust and he has the power to reverse this and he won’t,” Wolitarsky said.
Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville said they were “monitoring it closely.” A request for comment from the Big Ten was not immediately returned.
Washington State sold out its 7,000-ticket allotment in less than two days and has already requested more.
Getting a team to fill the bowl spot on short notice would be difficult, if not impossible. But the next team in line to receive a bid is Northern Illinois, which finished 5-7 but has the highest Academic Progress Rate among teams with that record.
“It became more than a game for me and I know it did, as you can see, for this whole team,” Wolitarsky said, nodding to more than 100 players standing behind him, “about the livelihood of these kids after football. Because that’s why we come here. We come here to get a degree. We come here to make a life for ourselves. And these kids’ reputations have been ruined.”