MINNEAPOLIS — Wearing their maroon and gold home jerseys, the Gophers football team stood in solidarity Thursday behind Drew Wolitarsky as their senior leader spoke with force.
"Effective immediately, we will boycott all football activities," Wolitarsky said to a large media throng in the University of Minnesota's indoor practice facility. "The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed, and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted."
Gophers players were furious when they heard Tuesday that 10 teammates would be suspended from all team activities leading up to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 27. The suspensions were the result of the school's office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action filing an 82-page report that recommended five players be expelled from school, four be suspended for a year and one be placed on probation.
The independent Title IX investigation was the result of Sept. 2 incident where a female student made accusations of sexual assault. Four players were "mentioned" in a Minneapolis Police report, but no arrests were made. On Oct. 3, the Hennepin County attorney's office declined to press charges and the players were reinstated to the team after missing three games.
The five players recommended for expulsion from school are KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford, Carlton Djam, Tamarion Johnson and Dior Johnson, said the players' attorney Lee Hutton said. The four players up for a one-year suspension are Kobe McCrary, Seth Green, Mark Williams and Antoine Winfield Jr., with Antonio Shenault being considered for probation.
After the Gophers players made their statement, University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and Athletics Director Mark Coyle issued a joint statement standing by the decision.
"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 statement read. "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," the statement continued. "It's important that we continue to work together as we move through this difficult time."
Wolitarsky said the players want to meet with the U's Board of Regents and not Kaler or Coyle.
Wolitarsky said the players' decision to boycott was made after a "disappointing meeting" with Coyle and the team after Wednesday's practice. The Gophers are preparing to play Washington State in less than two weeks.
"We wanted answers but received misleading statements," Wolitarsky said. "Moreover, the actions by President Kaler have breached fiduciary duty not only to the 10 falsely accused, but all of us."
The players are upset over how the suspended players could not be charged in the incident by the county attorney's office, but the university later deems their actions in need of reprimand.
Legal experts have told the Pioneer Press that a Title IX investigation has a lower threshold to determine accountability than police investigations and court proceedings. Instead of having to be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt," a Title IX investigation uses a "preponderance of evidence," which is supposed to favor the side with more convincing evidence and the probability of its truth and accuracy.
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys tweeted in support of his players after they spoke Thursday night.
"Have never been more proud of our kids," he wrote. "I respect their rights; support their effort to make a better world!"
On Wednesday, Kaler said it was Claeys' decision to suspend the players, with Coyle's support. After Wednesday's practice, Coyle told the media it was his decision, in consultation with Claeys.
But Claeys in no way authorized the decision, according to Hutton.
Antoine Winfield Sr., the former Vikings player, said his son, Antoine Jr., will look for another school if changes aren't made to U leadership.
"If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son Antoine Winfield Jr. will not attend the University of Minnesota," Winfield said.
Winfield, now a Texas resident, traveled north to Minnesota to receive answers. The former Pro Bowler with the Vikings in the 2000s was also upset with Claeys and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel.
"They didn't pick up the phone," Winfield said. "Those guys came to my house and looked me in my eye and I told them, 'take care of my son.' And this is what you show me. I don't respect it. I'm hot."
A number of players tweeted throughout Thursday, with the hashtag message attached.
"Nothing can separate this brotherhood," said Carter Coughlin, a Gophers linebacker from Eden Prairie. "Nothing. #WeHadEnough"
While Winfield Sr. called out the leaders, he said he was "very proud" of the players.
"It took a lot," he said. "Everyone didn't have to participate (Thursday). That is the one thing I love about football. It's a team game, and it's a brotherhood and it shows you the support and the love all these players have for each other."