MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota football coach Tracy Claeys doubled down Sunday on his support for players who boycotted practices and threatened to skip a bowl game if 10 teammates suspended after a sexual assault investigation weren’t reinstated.
Speaking publicly for the first time since a standoff between 110 Golden Gophers football players and the administration, Claeys said he understands the players’ frustration with a Title IX investigation that they felt was inherently unfair to teammates who were accused of assaulting a woman at an off-campus dorm in September.
“As kids, they have no problems being held to a higher standard than the university requires and should require,” Claeys said after Minnesota’s practice. “This is all about the due process.”
Claeys also clarified a comment he made on WCCO radio on Sunday morning when he said he was risking his job by supporting the players. The coach said he was just advising his players of possible ramifications during a team meeting on Thursday, before the team made the announcement to boycott.
“I was a sounding board for them and it was their decision,” Claeys said. “I made sure to make sure that they knew what the possible fallouts could be and we went through all those things. … I was there to make sure that they were doing it for the right reasons and they knew what the consequences could be.”
The boycott ended Saturday when the team backed down and said they would play in the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl against Washington State in San Diego, even though officials declined to reinstate their suspended teammates. The players agreed after getting assurances that those accused will get a fair hearing next month.
After the entire team announced the boycott Thursday, Claeys publicly backed his players.
“Have never been more proud of our kids,” Claeys tweeted at the time. “I respect their rights (and) support their effort to make a better world!”
Claeys said Sunday he wished he would have chosen his words more carefully in the tweet, but said he did not regret sending it.
“If you just show support for the players behind closed doors, you’re going to have a group of them that don’t believe you,” he said. “I needed to do that in a public way and I tried to do it as short as possible. … It was all about me supporting their actions to try to improve the due process. Not just on this campus but other campuses.”
Claeys said his players were not condoning sexual assault or harassment in any way. But they believed their suspended teammates were denied due process.
Officials announced the suspensions Tuesday after an internal investigation determined the 10 players violated school conduct codes in an encounter involving a woman and several players on Sept. 2.
According to the police report, the woman told police she had consensual sex with two men that night, but that she did not consent to sexual contact with other men who were present, including players. According to university’s more detailed internal report, she told university investigators that she believed 10 to 20 men had sex with her that night, though she wasn’t sure because she had memory gaps from drinking. Prosecutors declined to press charges, saying there was insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the university uses a lower bar in student discipline cases.
Linebacker Nick Rallis told WCCO the players believe the boycott succeeded, even though nobody was reinstated, because they believe it will ensure that athletes at Minnesota and other colleges who are accused of misconduct in the future get fair hearings.
The Title IX investigative process has become a hotly-debated topic on campuses around the country. Opponents argue that school investigators are often not professionals and do not have subpoena power or the ability to put a witness under oath.
Proponents say the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is too important, especially after the Department of Education threatened to pull federal aid for public schools if they did not increase their efforts to address the problem.
Minnesota President Eric Kaler said Saturday that he understood that Claeys’ position.
“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 and we’ll talk about that with them and try to improve both their understanding and our understanding.”
Claeys said he has spoken with athletic director Mark Coyle several times since Thursday and is not concerned about his job at the moment.
“I understand why (the suspensions) were made,” Claeys said. “But as for the players, the due process part was the part I did agree with on the players.”