MINNEAPOLIS – The entire Minnesota football team said Thursday that it is boycotting all football activities, which could include its bowl game, until it gets satisfactory answers from the university about the suspension of 10 players.
The school suspended the players Tuesday after an internal investigation into a sexual assault case. Police declined to arrest or charge any of the players, but the school suspended them based on its own standards for conduct.
The team's players said they haven't ruled out skipping the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27 against Washington State in San Diego. They asked the bowl's committee to be patient while they work through the situation.
"The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed and the suspensions for all 10 players are lifted," senior receiver Drew Wolitarsky said, reading from a prepared statement while flanked by all of his teammates. "We further request that (President Eric) Kaler and (athletic director Mark) Coyle (apologize) and demand that these leaders are held accountable for their actions. This decision for the players to take this stance is not easy, but important to preserve the integrity of the program and ourselves."
The university announced the suspensions Tuesday night without disclosing why. The incident at an off-campus apartment in September led to three-game suspensions of four of the players earlier this season. Another six were added to that list this week after the internal investigation for reasons that remain unclear.
A joint statement issued by Kaler and Coyle on Thursday night said the school's decision was "based on facts and is reflective of the university's values."
"We understand that a lot of confusion and frustration exists as a result of this week's suspension of ten Gopher football players from all team activities," the statement read. "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."
Kaler and Coyle said they want to "continue an open dialogue with our players."
Ray Buford Sr., the father of defensive back Ray Buford Jr., said the new suspensions resulted from an investigation by the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action that was separate from earlier investigations into the alleged assault in the early hours of Sept. 3.
Buford Jr., KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson were suspended for three games when their names came up in the police investigation. The players were not arrested, prosecutors decided not to press charges and the players returned to the team. The restraining order was lifted after a settlement on Nov. 2.
The other six players are defensive backs Antonio Shenault and Antoine Winfield Jr., running backs Carlton Djam and Kobe McCrary, and quarterbacks Seth Green and Mark Williams. Hardin and Winfield are starters and Buford and Shenault are key reserves.
The school has recommended expulsion for Buford, Hardin, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson and Djam and one-year suspensions for the other five players.
According to police records released Wednesday, the woman told police she was drunk when she was sexually assaulted in Djam's apartment by several men, including some of the suspended players. She said her sexual contact with two men may have been consensual, but her contact with four of them was not. Several players told police it was consensual.
The players boycotted practice Thursday, one day after meeting with Coyle. Then they all lined up in the team's indoor practice facility, wearing their maroon jerseys with gold numbers and vowing to stay united.
"When we had questions for him, he basically told us that he didn't have answers," Wolitarsky said. "So that led us basically to believe that this is kind of unjust and he has the power to reverse this and he won't."
In recent seasons, big-time college football teams have been much more aggressive about exercising their collective right to protest by threatening not to play when they are dissatisfied with issues they confront on campus.
Just last season, more than 30 members of the Missouri football joined campus protests and threatened to boycott team activities unless school president Tim Wolfe resigned after his handling of several racially charged incidents on campus. The coaching staff and entire team threw support behind the boycott — which could have threatened a game against BYU — but the Tigers ended up never even missing a practice when Wolfe stepped down two days later.
When asked if the Golden Gophers would boycott their bowl game, Wolitarsky said they would take it "day by day."
"The thing of it is, all these kids' reputations are destroyed," quarterback Mitch Leidner said. "Their names are destroyed. It's extremely difficult to get back and it's very unfair for them and that's why we're sticking together through this thing."
There has been some confusion about whether Gophers coach Tracy Claeys backed the decision to suspend the players or not. Coyle and Kaler said he was consulted, but the players said Thursday night they did not believe their coach had a say in the matter.
"Have never been more proud of our kids," Claeys tweeted. "I respect their rights (and) support their effort to make a better world!"
Former Minnesota Vikings star cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr. said his son did nothing wrong and blistered university leadership for what he said was a lack of communication.
"If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son, Antoine Winfield Jr., will not attend the University of Minnesota," Winfield Sr. said.
When asked if he was concerned about the threat of the university pulling their scholarships in reaction to this show of force, Wolitarsky struck a defiant tone.
"We're in this together," he said. "What, are they going to pull 120 guys off the team? I mean, they're not going to have a team if that's the case."
Holiday Bowl executive director Mark Neville said they were "monitoring it closely." A request for comment from the Big Ten was not immediately returned.
Washington State sold out its 7,000-ticket allotment in less than two days and has already requested more.
Getting a team to fill the bowl spot on short notice would be difficult, if not impossible. But the next team in line to receive a bid is Northern Illinois, which finished 5-7 but has the highest Academic Progress Rate among teams with that record.