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Minnesota Gophers football players end boycott, say they'll play in bowl game

The Minnesota Gophers celebrate a 58-28 win against Indiana State at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sept. 10. Elizabeth Flores / Minneapolis Star Tribune

After less than two days, the Minnesota Gophers football team ended their boycott of all activities Saturday morning, with 10 players remaining indefinitely suspended for their suspected roles in an alleged sexual assault in September.

“We understand that what has occurred … these past few days, and playing football for the University of Minnesota, is much larger than us,” Gophers senior leader Drew Wolitarsky said in a prepared statement Saturday. “So many people before us have given so much here, this football team, so many coaches, staff, administrators, professors, alumni, fans and our community have invested heavily in the success of our program. We will not, and we recognize that we must not, let those people down.”

The players sought to have the 10 suspensions lifted before preparing for the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, but meetings with members of the Board of Regents as well as a conference with University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle on Friday didn’t produce the concessions the players sought.

“We had a very frank and candid discussion,” Kaler said. “I listened to their concerns. I was able to explain our point of view around the actions that we took.”

Kaler addressed the blowback from the team to Coyle’s decision to make the suspensions.

“The athletic director made a values-based decision, and I supported that decision based on our values and what we think is right,” Kaler said. “Are there consequences of decisions that sometimes make people unhappy? Yeah, that happens.”

Wolitarsky called the previous 30 hours caffeine-filled and educational. That included a team meeting that lasted until after 1 a.m. Saturday and another confab at 6 a.m., according to a source.

“There are no decisions that do not affect somebody else,” Wolitarsky said from the team meeting room at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. “This process has been extremely difficult, and I’m sure as you all know how stressful this has been for everybody involved.”

The football team will resume practice today in preparation to play in San Diego in less than 10 days. They plan to leave Dec. 23. The Holiday Bowl was exploring contingency plans if Gophers players refused to play, but Kaler said there are now no issues with their berth.

“No stipulations; no strings attached,” he said.

The boycott began Thursday when the entire team gathered in their home jerseys in the indoor practice facility as Wolitarsky said, “The boycott will remain in effect until due process is followed, and the suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted.”

The Gophers and ‘U’ officials have agreed that the 10 suspended players will receive a hearing, “which includes a diverse review panel,” Wolitarsky said. The team also will work to expose issues of sexual violence and harassment against women, with details to come at a later date, Wolitarsky said.

The suspensions stem from an 82-page report from the university’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office that recommends five players be expelled from school, four suspended for a year and one placed on probation, according to Lee Hutton, the players’ attorney.

The players recommended for expulsion are defensive backs KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford and Dior Johnson; defensive lineman Tamarion Johnson and running back Carlton Djam, Hutton said. The players up for a one-year suspension are quarterback Seth Green and Mark Williams, running back Kobe McCrary and defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., with defensive back Antonio Shenault being considered for probation.

Before announcing the end of the boycott, Wolitarsky said sexual violence and sexual harassment against women “have no place on this campus, on our team, in society and at no time should it ever be condoned.”

After the players spoke at about 9 a.m. Saturday, they didn’t take questions. Before 10 a.m., Kaler and Coyle gave statements and answered questions.

“I am very pleased that the football team has realized the opportunity to represent the University of Minnesota,” Kaler said. “They’ve come out strongly in support of the victims of sexual violence.”

Kaler said the hearing for the suspended players likely will be in January, after finals conclude next week and then the holiday break.

“I have promised a very fair hearing to the students involved and charged, and I intend to have that be true,” Kaler said.

Gophers coach Tracy Claeys and some of his assistants rallied in support of their players Thursday. After the boycott announcement, Claeys tweeted: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!”

Claeys’ support of his players is in conflict with his superiors. Claeys has two years remaining on his three-year, $4.5 million contract. Soon after the Gophers wrapped an 8-4 season, Coyle stood behind Claeys as Minnesota’s football coach. Sources told the Pioneer Press a few weeks ago Claeys and staff were expected to be back in 2017 and contract extensions appeared to be in the works.

On Saturday, Kaler addressed how Claeys’ stance on the boycott might affect their future at Minnesota.

“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. We’ll talk about that with them and try to improve both their understanding and our understanding.”

Fathers of two Gophers players have said they’re considering having their sons transfer.

Former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr., said after the boycott announcement Thursday: “If the president and athletic director keep their jobs, my son Antoine Winfield Jr. will not attend the University of Minnesota.”

On Friday night, Ray Buford Sr. said even if the expulsion his son, Ray Buford, faces is overturned, “transferring is a very real possibility.”

With the Gophers football team’s boycott making international headlines, Kaler wanted to stress one point.

“I will continue to amplify the fact that the football team action was in support of their teammates, it was not in support of sexual violence,” Kaler said. “The players are clear about their involvement in preventing sexual violence. Their values are in support of the victims of sexual violence. Here, they were in a position where they were supporting teammates and I think the local and national media translated that into support of sexual violence and their intent was to support their teammates.”