A Coach's Support

Minnesota football team has ended its boycott over the suspensions of 10 players accused of sexual assault, but coach’s comments in support of the team continue to draw criticism as taking sides against woman who brought complaint of gang rape.

December 21, 2016
Tracy Claeys

When several members of the University of Missouri football team threatened to boycott football in protest of racial inequality last year, their coach, Gary Pinkel, drew praise from others on campus for appearing to support his players. “The Mizzou family stands as one,” he tweeted alongside a photograph of the team.

Last week, the University of Minnesota’s football coach, Tracy Claeys, posted a similar message on Twitter when his players threatened to boycott an upcoming bowl game. "Have never been more proud of our kids," Claeys wrote. "I respect their rights [and] support their effort to make a better world!" Since that message was posted, local sports columnists have questioned whether Claeys should have his contract extended, faculty members have publicly condemned his comments by calling the tweet “a terrible thing,” and a petition has called on the university to fire the coach.

"Claeys’s tweet expressing his pride in the team failed to mention or acknowledge the importance of respecting women," the petition states. "Further, it did not condemn violence, sexual assault or disrespect of women. We feel this is not at all acceptable. We believe he put the welfare of his football program above the welfare of a female student."

The reason for the stark contrast between how the two coaches’ comments were received can likely be found in what their players were protesting. While Pinkel’s players joined a growing protest movement over racism, Claeys’s players were angry over the suspension of 10 teammates who had been accused of sexually assaulting and harassing a female student. The university, of which Claeys is among the more visible employees, had conducted an investigation finding many of the charges to be valid.

“The responsible action would have been to make sure to not add any validity to that type of protest,” Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said. “Generally, I would be saying that the university should throw its full support behind athletes acting like leaders and making a statement on a social justice platform. This is not one of those cases.”

After the Missouri protests helped lead to the ouster of the Columbia campus’s chancellor and the university system’s president, Lebowitz and other college sports observers began to muse about how athletes could use their “economic power” to protest on behalf of social justice issues and for reforming college athletics. At a Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics meeting in May, Arne Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education, asked college players if they would consider organizing similar boycotts over athletics issues like name and likeness rights.

In response, Rollins Stallworth, a former Stanford University football player and chair of the Pac-12 Conference’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, revealed that two of Stanford’s team captains boycotted football-related activities last year during summer workouts. For the third summer in a row, he said, the university was late in providing players with scholarship money for participating in the camps. The protest was not nearly as dramatic as the strike at Missouri, Stallworth said, but “seeing the effect of two of our teammates doing that and what goes on in the locker room, the discussion that happens, you can see the potential that could happen.”

College sports reformers have said a boycott of a bowl game -- which are typically among the most watched and most lucrative games in a program's season -- would be one of the most impactful ways athletes could protest their treatment or on behalf of social justice issues. The Minnesota football players said last week they would boycott the Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl game if their teammates' suspensions were not reversed. 

The university did not announce a reason for suspending the 10 players, but they are believed to be related to a sex assault investigation in which police declined to bring charges. While the athletes said they were advocating for due process rights, many said the protest was sending a very different message to victims of sexual assault.

“There is deep symbolism in this act of solidarity the football players are showing with their suspended teammates that, to the many survivors of sexual assault across college campuses, is a harrowing reminder of the power associated with protecting rape culture,” Abeer Syedah, Minnesota’s student body president, told the Nation. “To survivors, this feels familiar. To those who thought about speaking up, this silences. We must believe, love, support, center and be in solidarity with survivors, especially when the power stratification is against them.”

After the players announced the end of their boycott this weekend, the university's president said the media misinterpreted the team's intent and that reporters "translated" the players' support for their teammates "into support of sexual violence."

The boycott initially attracted sympathy from many alumni and those concerned about issues of due process, but support for the university's stance grew as details emerged about what happened to the female student, in particular after a redacted version of the university's equal opportunity office's report on its investigation was published online. Contrary to the team's comments, the 80-page report shows that the football players were interviewed, their assertions were considered and they were not all judged equally responsible for what happened. The report also details why the university found that four of the players engaged in sexual assault and that others engaged in forms of harassment, such as videotaping the victim without her consent.

The report states that some athletes tried to cover up what happened or violated other parts of the student code of conduct. The Star Tribune reported Sunday that it was the report's details -- many of them read over the weekend for the first time by football players who organized the boycott -- that broke the will of players to continue the boycott.

Despite the evolving public opinion about the protest, Claeys has doubled down on his support of the players’ actions. “This is all about due process,” the coach told reporters earlier this week. “It was all about me supporting their actions to try to improve the due process. Not just on this campus, but other campuses.”

Writing for the Washington Post, Justin Dillon and Matt Kaiser, two lawyers who have represented dozens of accused students in campus sexual assault cases, said Tuesday that the players' boycott was "a terrible blow to those who care about due process on campus."

"The problem with the Minnesota boycott isn’t really that the boycott failed," they wrote. "It’s that the Minnesota football players did not realize they’d picked the wrong case to stand up for. What Minnesota’s Title IX office found happened to the young woman in Minnesota was horrific. Assuming that report is accurate, the university’s penalties seem fair."

Neither the coach nor his team mentioned in their original public statements the woman who said she was assaulted. Claeys said this week he could have worded his earlier tweet more carefully and that he will donate $50,000 to assist efforts helping victims of sexual assault. As of last season, the coach’s contract stated that he will receive a $50,000 bonus for Minnesota playing in the bowl game.

"Coaches are in a challenging position," Eric Kaler, the university’s president, said when asked this week about Claeys's comments. "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."


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