A former University of Virginia football player is suing the school after claiming that teammates bullied and mocked him over a learning disability and forced him into a hazing ritual this summer that left him with a broken eye socket.
The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed Friday by Aidan Howard in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, alleged that the university "fostered a culture of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination." Howard, a freshman wide receiver, claimed he witnessed other football players coerce first-year teammates into "conduct which imitated and mimicked sexual acts," and that players were forced to participate in fights and wrestling matches while naked or partially naked, "an act referred to at UVA as 'ramming.'"
Howard asked for and was granted a release from the program in August. He transferred to Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, an FCS school.
Howard's suit claims that coaches knew about his injuries and what caused them, but did nothing to reprimand the football players who he says verbally and physically assaulted him, nor did they enforce school and NCAA rules against hazing, bullying and discrimination. The suit alleges that the university, administrators, coaches and fellow students violated aspects of federal Title IX gender equity laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and negligence laws, among others.
Howard states in the suit that the upperclassmen on the team began bullying and harassing him "because of his soft-spoken and mild-mannered nature" soon after he began taking classes at UVA this summer. The lawsuit alleges that teammates Doni Dowling and David Eldridge, also listed as defendants, perceived Howard "to be 'soft' and not 'manly' like other student athletes in the football program." Dowling, a junior, is Virginia's second-leading receiver in yards this season, and Eldridge, a sophomore pass-catcher, is fifth.
"[They] would question Aidan's 'toughness' and 'manliness' and would call him 'stupid,' 'dumb,' 'slow,' and 'retarded,'" the lawsuit states, alleging that the players would make fun of him because he didn't comprehend plays and routes as well as his teammates.
The suit also alleges that wide receivers coach Marques Hagans harassed and bullied Howard when he didn't understand something, which served to encourage similar discriminatory behavior among his teammates. Hagans is named as a defendant in the suit, though Bronco Mendenhall, in his first season as Virginia's head coach, is not.
Outside the Lines requested interviews with all the defendants in the lawsuit, including university president Teresa Sullivan, athletic director Craig Littlepage, Hagans, graduate assistant Famika Anae, and Dowling and Eldridge. University spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn wrote in an email that the school was aware of the allegations and "has made all of the required external notifications in accordance with state law." He continued, "The university has been actively investigating these reports consistent with its obligations under the law and university policy," but would not comment on ongoing litigation. The two football players did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A test at UVA diagnosed Howard with a learning disability, and he was receiving additional academic support, of which coaches and players were aware, according to the lawsuit. The suit also accused teammates of taking and sharing photos of Howard with their cellphones and writing captions or comments on them stating he was "dumb" while in the presence of Hagans and other coaches.
The lawsuit states that, on Aug. 12, Dowling and Eldridge forced Howard to fight another first-year football player after a team practice as part of an "initiation" into the football program to prove his "toughness and manliness." Howard did not want to fight but felt as though he had no choice, for fear of continued bullying and harassment, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit continues to describe the incident: Dowling and Eldridge taunted Howard during practice and used athletic tape to mark off a fighting area in the locker room. They forced Howard and the other football player to enter the ring to "flashing lights, loud music and announcement to simulate a 'prize fight.'"
Howard suffered severe eye injuries after being struck by the other football player, who was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit because, according to Howard's attorneys, he, too, was being forced and bullied by the older players to fight against his will. The suit states that Howard immediately experienced double-vision in his right eye and was in pain.
About 105 people, including Anae, watched the fight, and several other student athletes recorded or tried to record it on their cellphones, but no one attempted to stop it, the suit states. Howard says he heard Anae yell, "No phones," before the fight began, admonishing players not to record it.
According to UVA's website, Anae was in his first season with the Cavaliers and is the son of offensive coordinator Robert Anae. He was a lineman at BYU from 2010 to 2012 but did not graduate until 2015. On April 3, 2014, Famika Anae was convicted of misdemeanor assault after he allegedly punched a man in the face at a movie theater in Orem, Utah, after the man refused to give up his seat to him and his family. A civil lawsuit over the incident, in which the man claims he suffered permanent physical injuries as a result of being punched, is currently pending in a Utah court.
After the fight in the locker room, Howard went immediately to an athletic trainer and was diagnosed with a concussion and held out of practice. The lawsuit states that Hagans checked in on Howard while he was with the trainer.
No one else from the university reached out to Howard after the incident, according to the lawsuit. A week later, Howard's father called Hagans and asked for his son's release from the program, which was granted. In the national letter of intent release document, Howard and his father stated that he wanted to leave UVA due to "conduct of others within the university," with no further explanation. (In Howard's lawsuit, it incorrectly states that UVA added that language.)
"We want some accountability by the university and the student-athletes who were responsible for doing this to Aidan," said Howard's attorney, C. James Zeszutek. "Now these student-athletes are continuing to play their sport, continuing to attend classes, and there's been no ramifications to them whatsoever. Our client is a victim who has been injured, damaged and he's out of competition this year."
Zeszutek said there is an active internal Title IX investigation at UVA into the incident in question, and said, "we are fully participating." A request to UVA for more information regarding the internal investigation was not immediately answered.
Howard transferred to Robert Morris and intended to play football there this season. But a physician in Pittsburgh determined he had broken his orbital bone -- or eye socket -- and he had surgery in late September. He won't play this season, and it's unclear if he'll be able to play again, the lawsuit states.
Robert Morris SID Jim Duzyk confirmed to Outside the Lines that Aidan Howard is currently a football player for the team, and said that he will likely be redshirted this season. When asked about Howard's injuries, Dudzyk replied that he could not comment on any medical questions due to privacy laws.
Howard was a three-star recruit coming out of Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. His father, Verne, was a left tackle at West Virginia in the mid 1980s. Howard also played on the Gateway basketball team, where the coach was embroiled in a bullying controversy in the summer of 2014. A story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review quoted Howard's mother, Betty, as saying, "We don't talk to our kids that way, so I'm not going to allow a man we trust with them to talk that way." The coach, Mitch Adams, resigned in August after a confrontation with a neighbor resulted in Adams being charged with making terroristic threats and harassment.
Although Title IX lawsuits involving colleges generally stem from women who report being sexually assaulted by male students, the law covers all types of gender-based discrimination, which Howard's attorneys say applies to the insults questioning his manliness and the bullying they claim their client suffered. Howard's lawsuit against UVA cites a section of its football team rules that bans sexual abuse, bullying, fights, and abusive behavior related to anyone's race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Specifically, it says, "NO hazing or initiations. No Rookie Night."
Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.
Paula Lavigne can be reached at Paula.Lavigne@espn.com.
Nicole Noren can be reached at Nicole.K.Noren@espn.com.