Minnesota players' boycott could affect lead-up to Holiday Bowl

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Friday, December 16, 2016

Minnesota football players announced Thursday night that they were boycotting all football activities in the wake of the suspensions this week of 10 teammates.

The school did not specify the reasons for the suspensions in Tuesday's announcement. Ray Buford Sr., the father of defensive back Ray Buford Jr., one of the suspended players, said Wednesday the suspensions resulted from a Title IX investigation conducted by the university into an alleged sexual assault, which was separate from a police investigation into the alleged assault in the early hours of Sept. 2.

The other suspended players are sophomore running back Carlton Djam; freshman quarterback Seth Green; sophomore defensive back KiAnte Hardin; redshirt freshman defensive back Dior Johnson; freshman defensive lineman Tamarion Johnson; junior running back Kobe McCrary; sophomore defensive back Antonio Shenault; freshman quarterback Mark Williams; and freshman defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr.

According to police records, a woman told officers she was drunk when she was sexually assaulted in Djam's apartment by several men on Sept. 2, including some of the suspended players. She said her sexual contact with two men may have been consensual, but her contact with four of them was not. Several players told police it was consensual, and an investigator who watched a video Djam took of the incident wrote that "she does not appear to be upset by the sexual activity and does not indicate that she wants it to stop ... and the sexual contact appears entirely consensual."

In a statement read by senior wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, the players said: "The boycott will remain effective until due process is followed and suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted."

The statement said the players were forced to take action after an unsatisfactory meeting with athletic director Mark Coyle in which they "wanted answers but received misleading statements."

Coyle and university president Eric W. Kaler released a joint statement after the players' announcement that read: "We understand that a lot of confusion and frustration exists as a result of this week's suspension of 10 Gopher Football players from all team activities. 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. We want to continue an open dialogue with our players and will work to do that over the coming days. It's important that we continue to work together as we move through this difficult time."

There has been some confusion about whether or not Gophers coach Tracy Claeys backed the decision to suspend the players. Coyle and Kaler said Claeys was consulted, but the players said Thursday night they did not believe their coach had a say in the matter.

Claeys spoke out in support of his players on Twitter after their decision to boycott.

Former Minnesota Vikings star cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr. said his son did nothing wrong and blistered university leadership for what he said was a lack of communication.

"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 are demanding a closed-door meeting with members of the board of regents without the presence of Coyle or Kaler.

"We got no answers to our questions about why these kids are suspended, when they were just found not guilty by the law," Wolitarsky told reporters after reading the players' statement. "He [Coyle] basically told us that he didn't have answers, and that led us to believe that this is kind of unjust."

Minnesota faces Washington State on Dec. 27 in the National Funding Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville said, "We are continuing to prepare for the National Funding Holiday Bowl on December 27; however, we are aware of the situation at the University of Minnesota and are monitoring it closely."

Buford Jr., Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson were suspended for three games earlier this season when their names came up in the police investigation of the alleged sexual assault. A restraining order filed by the woman who made the allegations prevented the players from being at TCF Bank Stadium on game days because she was involved in game-day operations. But the players were not arrested, prosecutors decided not to press charges and the players returned to the team. The restraining order was lifted after a settlement on Nov. 2.

A source tells ESPN's Adam Rittenberg that the primary issue for the boycott was the school suspending the players before a hearing based on the Title IX investigation had been held. That hearing wouldn't have taken place until January, after the bowl game.

The source also said the Title IX investigation started at the same time as the police investigation.

Wolitarsky also asked that the Holiday Bowl committee "be patient" while the team waited for a resolution to the suspensions. The coaching staff is planning to come in on Friday, a source tells Rittenberg, but there isn't expected to be another team practice until players get their meeting.

"We are concerned that our brothers have been named publicly with reckless disregard in violation of their constitutional rights," Wolitarsky said. "We are now compelled to speak for our team and take back our program."

ESPN's Brian Bennett, Adam Rittenberg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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