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Gopher football players end boycott, but suspensions stay

Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner (7) rushes with the football during the first quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team ended its boycott of all activities Saturday morning less than two days after it began, and the 10 players whose punishments sparked the protest will remain indefinitely suspended for their suspected roles in an alleged sexual assault in September.

Before announcing the end of the boycott, senior leader Drew Wolitarsky condemned sexual violence and harassment against women, a sentiment that was absent when the players announced the boycott Thursday. "They have no place on this campus, on our team, in society, and at no time should it ever be condoned," Wolitarsky said in a prepared statement.

"We understand that what has occurred ... these past few days, and playing football for the University of Minnesota, is much larger than us," Wolitarsky continued. "So many people before us have given so much here, this football team, so many coaches, staff, administrators, professors, alumni, fans, and our community have invested heavily in the success of our program. We will not, and we recognize that we must not, let those people down."

The players sought to have the 10 suspensions lifted before preparing to play Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, but meetings with members of the Board of Regents as well as a conference with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Athletics Director Mark Coyle on Friday didn't produce the concessions the players sought.

"We had a very frank and candid discussion," Kaler said. "I listened to their concerns. I was able to explain our point of view around the actions that we took."

Kaler addressed the blowback from the team to Coyle's decision to make the suspensions.

"I supported that decision based on our values and what we think is right," Kaler said. "Are there consequences of decisions that sometimes make people unhappy? Yeah, that happens."

Wolitarsky called the previous 30 hours caffeine-filled and educational. That included a team meeting that lasted until after 1 a.m. Saturday and another meeting at 6 a.m., according to a source. Doubt about whether the Gophers would go to the Holiday Bowl persisted into early Saturday morning, a source said.

"There are no decisions that do not affect somebody else," Wolitarsky said from the team meeting room at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. "This process has been extremely difficult, and I'm sure as you all know how stressful this has been for everybody involved."

The football team will resume practice Sunday in preparation to play in San Diego in less than 10 days. They plan to leave Dec. 23. The Holiday Bowl was exploring contingency plans if Gophers players refused to play, but Kaler said there are now no issues with their berth.

"No stipulations. No strings attached," he said.

The boycott began Thursday when the entire team gathered in their home jerseys in the indoor practice facility. Wolitarsky told the assembled media, "The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed, and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted."

The 10 suspended players will receive a hearing, "which includes a diverse review panel," Wolitarsky said. The team will also work to expose issues of sexual violence and harassment against women, with details to come at a later date, Wolitarsky said.

The suspensions stem from an 82-page report from the university's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office that recommends five players be expelled from school, four suspended for a year and one placed on probation, according to Lee Hutton, the players' attorney.

The players recommended for expulsion are defensive backs KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford and Dior Johnson; defensive lineman Tamarion Johnson and running back Carlton Djam, Hutton said. The players up for a one-year suspension are quarterbacks Seth Green and Mark Williams, running back Kobe McCrary and defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., with defensive back Antonio Shenault being considered for probation.

After the players spoke at about 9 a.m. Saturday, they didn't take questions. Before 10 a.m., Kaler and Coyle gave statements and answered questions.

"I am very pleased that the football team has realized the opportunity to represent the University of Minnesota," Kaler said. "They've come out strongly in support of the victims of sexual violence."

Kaler said the hearing for the suspended players will likely be in January, following next week's finals and the holiday break.

"I have promised a very fair hearing to the students involved and charged, and I intend to have that be true," Kaler said.

Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys and some of his assistants rallied in support of their players Thursday. After the boycott announcement, Claeys tweeted: "Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!"

Claeys' support of his players is in conflict with his superiors at the U. Claeys has two years remaining on his three-year, $4.5 million contract. Soon after the Gophers wrapped an 8-4 season, Coyle stood behind Claeys as Minnesota's football coach. Sources told the Pioneer Press a few weeks ago Claeys and staff were expected to be back in 2017, and contract extensions appeared to be in the works.

On Saturday, Kaler addressed how Claeys' stance on the boycott might affect his future at Minnesota.

"Coaches are in a challenging position," Kaler said. "They need to support their players. They need to motivate their players. At the same time, they need to be responsible for their actions, and there are times in which those two demands put coaches in very difficult positions, and I think some of our coaches around this issue were in that very difficult position. We'll talk about that with them and try to improve both their understanding and our understanding."

Fathers of two of two Gophers players have said they're considering having their sons transfer.

Former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr. said after the boycott announcement Thursday: "If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son Antoine Winfield Jr. will not attend the University of Minnesota."

On Friday night, Ray Buford Sr. said even if his son's expulsion is overturned, "transferring is a very real possibility."

With the team's boycott making national headlines, Kaler said he wanted to stress one point.

"I will continue to amplify the fact that the football team action was in support of their teammates, it was not in support of sexual violence," Kaler said. "The players are clear about their involvement in preventing sexual violence. Their values are in support of the victims of sexual violence. Here, they were in a position where they were supporting teammates, and I think the local and national media translated that into support of sexual violence, and their intent was to support their teammates."

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