In Baylor's shadow, Minnesota administration takes strong stance against campus violence

Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via AP

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler took a swift and powerful stance against campus violence by suspending 10 football players for their alleged roles in a reported sexual assault.

The University of Minnesota football team has decided to drop its boycott of the Holiday Bowl, having threatened to sit out due to the suspension of 10 players following a sexual assault investigation. The logistical and optical nightmare of holding a bowl game without the cooperation of one team will be avoided, but as espnW's Jane McManus writes, football is the "least important part" of this case.

What makes the situation in Minnesota unique is that for once, a university's administration agrees. Perhaps Baylor is a reason why.

Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle suspended the players on the recommendation of the Office of Educational Opportunity and Affirmative Action. While prosecutors decided not to pursue charges, the university is required under federal law to conduct a Title IX investigation. In its 80-page report, the EOAA found four students in violation of the university policy's sexual assault provision and eight players in violation of its sexual harassment provision. It recommended five players be expelled, four players be suspended for a year, and one be placed on probation.

The rest of the team launched the boycott Thursday night "to take back the reputation and integrity of our program and our brothers that have faced unjust Title IX investigation without due process," according to a statement wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky read. The players, according to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg, specifically took issue with the suspensions being handed down before their Title IX appeal hearings, which would not have been scheduled until January, after the bowl.

The question of due process is an important one, especially in the NCAA, which affords little power to players to fight for their rights in a meaningful way. (Of course, concerns over players' rights were hardly found when a group of black Missouri players threatened to protest the school's handling of racial intimidation on campus.)

Yet it's perfectly within "due process" of university discipline, which exists separate from the legal system, to suspend players after an investigation has been conducted pending an appeal. Looking through the rest of Wolitarsky's statement, it's clear many players are conflating constitutional rights with rights under the student code, which carries a much lower burden of proof for punishment. So too, it seems, is head coach Tracy Claeys, who tweeted in support of the boycott Thursday night, breaking with the administration. But the university has remained consistent; Claeys himself suspended four players pending the criminal investigation, and now the administration has suspended them and six others following the Title IX investigation.

Due process is also important as we look toward navigating a future in a post-Baylor world. Last year's bombshell report exposing the rampant sexual assault and coverup in Baylor University athletics seemed to show those who were otherwise not paying attention just how widespread these crimes are in college football, and how thick the cloak of silence around them can be. Baylor served as a telescope for how things have always been done when players are accused of sexual violence, often marked by systemic protectionism by school administrators.

Put that in context of Baylor. We have to see this as an improvement, if nothing else.
Jessica Luther

What's remarkable about the action at Minnesota is that it came from the top, with the administration getting out in front with sanctions immediately following the investigation, rather than reacting to fan and media outrage over inaction. It was swift and impactful without being heavy handed (though probably not to those who are used to seeing such accusations go unanswered).

"I can't find fault with what the administration has done. Which is ... weird," said Jessica Luther, a freelance journalist who broke the Baylor story last year and whose book "Unsportsmanlike Conduct" exhaustively covers sexual assault in college football.

Baylor could be seen as a turning point relative to how schools, including Minnesota, failed to handle such cases in the past.

In October 2015, the Star Tribune obtained an email from the school's EOAA director to then-athletic director Norwood Teague that cited multiple complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment by players as well as concerns of retaliation by "a group of football players" during the 2014-15 academic year.

Then-head coach Jerry Kill said he had been aware of at least one accusation. "We turned it into the administration and it was handled by the administration," he said at the time. According to the email, some complaints were not investigated due to a lack of cooperation by the accusers.

Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP, File

The University of Minnesota football team dropped its boycott and will play in the Holiday Bowl following the suspension of 10 players.

Teague himself had been forced to resign last August after admitting to sexually harassing female university employees. In that same month, the school adopted a new "Yes means Yes" policy, establishing affirmative consent as the standard in sexual assault cases.

Now, in the shadow of Baylor and its own failure to pursue past accusations, Minnesota seems to be taking a hard line against campus violence. Following Teague's departure, Coyle was appointed athletic director in May. This is the first major sexual assault crisis he's had to deal with, and he seems to be making a clear statement that the new department won't be run like the old one. (It makes sense that it might not sit well with Claeys, who served as defensive coordinator under Kill before he became head coach.)

If the fallout from Baylor has finally signaled to schools the need to properly and transparently carry out sexual assault investigations, then Minnesota shows why we must keep educating players, administrators, coaches and fans on due process and what justice might look like in a post-Baylor world. The Gophers case is unique because it's so unprecedented. We're truly not used to seeing an administration take such a proactive stance. Is this what it looks like when the system works? The way future cases are handled will bear that out, but it's certainly more functional in Minnesota compared to one year ago.

"Put that in context of Baylor," Luther said. "We have to see this as an improvement, if nothing else."

Related Content