Earlier in the day, Kaler said in a statement that the suspensions were the result of an “Athletics Department decision based on values” — and not a direct consequence of the 10 players’ violation of the university’s code of conduct.
“A bowl game is a wonderful reward for an excellent football season,” Kaler said. “It is my hope that our eligible football players, marching band, spirit squad and loyal fans take advantage of this opportunity. However, the University of Minnesota will not change our values or our code of conduct for the sake of a bowl game.”
The Golden Gophers are set to meet Washington State in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 27.
Also on Friday, several team leaders who had read statements to the news media on Thursday night were seen emerging from the office of the law firm representing the 10 players, according to news reports.
The players said Thursday that they were concerned that their teammates had been denied due process. Their protest highlighted a broad debate over how colleges dealing with sexual assault cases should balance ideals of fairness with their legal obligations to maintain safe and accessible campuses.
After a woman accused several men of sexual assault in September, a criminal investigation led to no prosecutions and a restraining order was dropped as part of a settlement, while four players served three-game suspensions. The accused have insisted that there was only consensual sex.
But the university announced Tuesday that its investigation had found violations of the university’s code of conduct. Such investigations into sexual assault allegations are typically required under Title IX, the federal law mandating equal access to higher education regardless of gender. Most universities, including Minnesota, follow federal guidelines articulated in 2011 that suggest using the “preponderance of the evidence” as the standard of proof, rather than the criminal justice system’s much higher burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Twin Cities TV station KSTP obtained the campus investigator’s report, with redacted names. Of 12 accused parties, the report found, despite conflicting accounts, that 10 players had violated university policy on sexual harassment and that four had violated sexual assault policies.
In a statement Thursday, Kaler and Athletic Director Mark Coyle said they would not comment on the details of the case, citing federal privacy laws for students, but said the decision had been “based on facts” and was “reflective of the university’s values.”
Coyle has been the university’s athletic director for only a few months since leaving Syracuse to replace Norwood Teague, who resigned in 2015 when an internal investigation found that he had sexually harassed two female university employees.
Coach Tracy Claeys, who led the Golden Gophers to an 8-4 record in his first full regular season, expressed his support for his players’ actions in a Twitter post on Thursday evening: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”
Spokesmen from the athletics department and from the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which handled the campus investigation, declined to comment on Friday. Lee A. Hutton III, the players’ lawyer, did not respond to inquiries via email and phone calls on Friday.
The players’ boycott pledge was the latest display of the power that big-time college athletes can assert. In particular, players on football and men’s basketball teams in top-tier conferences — Minnesota is a member of the Big Ten — have a level of prominence and influence on an athletic department’s bottom line that increases their leverage.
Last year, the University of Missouri football team threatened a boycott, drawing attention to what protesters had described as systemic racism on campus and helping force the university president’s resignation.
The Minnesota protest has drawn similar attention over the issue of campus sexual assault, which some activists have said has become an epidemic. While some contend that colleges fail to keep students safe, others argue that the understandable zeal to combat sexual assault has threatened protections for the accused.
“Just because they may not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt doesn’t mean a school can’t take action to uphold the standards of conduct,” Laura Dunn, the executive director and founder of SurvJustice, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault, said in an interview on Friday.
Dunn, who was not privy to the intimate details of this case, added, “Even if it’s not a crime, that doesn’t mean it’s not misconduct.”
But Joseph Cohn, the legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that focuses on civil liberties on campuses, said, “While schools have broad rights, due process needs not to be jettisoned.”
Cohn, who also said he was familiar only with the case’s outlines, added: “Although law enforcement’s determinations aren’t binding on institutions, it’s still potentially unwise for institutions to contradict law enforcement conclusions, especially when law enforcement professionals have better tools to evaluate complaints — subpoena power, for example — and better expertise in evaluating forensic evidence.”
With both sides in the Minnesota case at an apparent stalemate, the fate of the coming Holiday Bowl remains unclear. If the Golden Gophers withdraw, it would most likely be the first time in decades that a top-tier college football team bowed out of a game because of athlete protest.
“We are aware of the player boycott at the University of Minnesota and have been kept apprised on this ongoing situation,” Mark Neville, the Holiday Bowl’s executive director, said in a statement.
A Holiday Bowl spokesman declined to comment on potential replacements should Minnesota turn down the bid.
In 2012, Louisiana Tech turned down a bowl invitation in hopes of getting into a prestigious bowl after a 9-3 season but did not get another invitation and did not play in a bowl. Several teams that have finished 5-7 — which could be selected should there be too few “bowl-eligible” six-win teams to fill every slot — have said they would not accept bids.
“I think they are being smart in trying to hit the school where it hurts,” Dunn, of SurvJustice, said of the Minnesota players and the lucrative football program. “I think it would be very telling if the school bowed to that.”
Cohn, of the campus civil liberties foundation, also highlighted the players’ special status, but from a different angle. “Student-athletes should never be treated with favoritism,” he said, “nor be used to set an example.”