Gophers: University right in football walkout

Published 10:02 am Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Free Press, Mankato

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

For a few days last week, a rebellious University of Minnesota football team was poised to blow up the program.

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How much damage the players would have done had they persisted in their ill-considered walkout and actually skipped next week’s Holiday Bowl is uncertain. But it was far less than the damage that would have befallen the university’s reputation had the administration acceded to the athletes’ demands and reinstated the 10 players implicated by an internal investigation into a September sexual assault case.

There are many problems in intercollegiate athletics, and some may indeed justify a football team blowing up its program. The right to have group sex with an intoxicated woman with dubious consent without repercussion is not such an issue.

At the root of the dispute, it appears, is a basic misunderstanding by the players of the difference between the legal system and the university’s internal code of conduct. The Hennepin County attorney brought no charges against any of the players. That was not an exoneration; it was a conclusion that they could not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a specific player had committed a sex assault.

The university, unlike the county attorney, cannot put someone in jail. Nor does it need to meet high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to bring its more limited sanctions into play. The investigation that led to the suspensions is based on the federal requirements of Title IX, and those rules cite “the preponderance of evidence,” a lower standard. The 82-page report calls for the expulsion of five players, a year-long suspension of four others and a year of probation for the 10th. The university suspended the 10 pending the next steps in the process.

Now we come to the players’ insistence that they are not defending sexual assault but instead demanding “due process.” This is the due process. There will be hearings and appeals, and there would have been had the case not involved athletes or a high profile walkout. The administration conceded nothing to the players, and that is as it should be.

Another part of the awkwardness is that the process is supposed to be private. Indeed, some involved in the issue of campus sex crimes believe that the process is overly private, that students expelled from a college for sexual misbehavior simply move on to another without the expulsion known and continue the behavior. But in this case, the suspended students are high-profile, and the boycott raised public interest — and probably led to the leaking of the report. (It should be noted that the university only announced the suspensions, not the reason; it was a player’s attorney who confirmed that the suspensions were linked to the September incident.)

This dispute is far from over. Not only are the 10 players’ statuses with the university in question, but the county attorney’s office said this week that it would review the university report to see if it provides reason to reopen the criminal case. And beyond that, the job of head coach Tracy Claeys is now in question.

Claeys took an immediate and blunt stance in favor of the walkout from the beginning, tweeting: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!” This certainly could not have pleased his superiors.

Mark Coyle, it should be remembered, was brought in as athletic director to clean up a department that has had far too many notable miscreants, from a predecessor prone to sexual harassment to a tweeted sex video involving members of the men’s basketball team to pill pushing by wrestlers. The message of “Clean up your act,” it appears, hasn’t yet gotten through to everyone. It needs to.