The 2016 college football bowl season was almost tainted by a travesty at the Holiday Bowl. Two weeks ago, Minnesota’s football players threatened to sit out their bowl matchup against Washington State when ten of their Gopher teammates were suspended for their roles in an alleged sexual assault earlier in the year. However, the players backed off 48 hours later after they learned of the full details of the incident, and they will take the field after all.
However, one part of this incident still leaves a rancid taste in the mouths of a number of Gopher football fans. In an incredibly tone-deaf move, head coach Tracy Claeys tweeted his support for the players when they announced the boycott. Now, several fans and alumni want Claeys fired for a failure of leadership.
Earlier this season, four players–defensive backs Ray Buford, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson, and defensive lineman Tamarion Johnson–were suspended for three games after their names turned up in an investigation of the assault, which took place in the wee hours of September 3 at an off-campus apartment. It’s not as if Claeys had a choice; the alleged victim worked in operations at TCF Bank Stadium, and the players had been slapped with a restraining order that barred them from even being at the stadium.
The restraining order was lifted on November 2 after prosecutors opted against pressing charges. Listen to more details from Minnesota Public Radio.
However, an internal investigation by Minnesota’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action was still well underway. As a result of that investigation, Buford, Hardin, Dior Johnson, and Tamarion Johnson were suspended again for violations of the university code of student conduct. Six other Gopher players were due to stay home for the Holiday Bowl–defensive backs Antonio Shenault, Mark Williams, and Antoine Winfield Jr., running backs Carlton Djam and Kobe McCrary, and quarterback Seth Green.
School officials were initially mum on details, citing federal privacy laws. However, the other players claimed that their teammates had been denied due process, and announced they would not take part in any football activities–including the Holiday Bowl–until the suspensions were lifted. To their credit, school president Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle refused to back down. Kaler sent an email to all Gopher student-athletes saying that this decision was based on “the values that every University of Minnesota student is expected to uphold.”
That stands in marked contrast to Claeys’ stance. Hours after the players announced their boycott, he fired off this tweet.
Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world! 〽️?
— Tracy Claeys (@t_claeys) December 16, 2016
How tone-deaf can you get?
Claeys’ tweet sounded even more tone-deaf when KSTP-TV in St. Paul obtained a copy of the EOAA report that formed the rationale for the suspensions, viewable here. It makes for horrifying reading. EOAA found that nine of the accused players did indeed assault the victim and lied to investigators, while a tenth falsely claimed he hadn’t been in the apartment despite witnesses saying he was there. It also reveals that much of the ordeal was recorded and photographed, and that one of the assailants was a high school recruit who was in the apartment.
Within hours of the report being released, support for the boycott collapsed, and on December 17 the team announced it would play in the bowl game after all. That wasn’t good enough for a number of Gopher fans and alumni who were outraged at Claeys’ apparent statement of support. On Monday, they launched a petition at MoveOn.org calling for Claeys to be fired for his failure to “mention or acknowledge the importance of respecting women,” as well as his failure to “condemn violence, sexual assault or disrespect of women.”
In so doing, the petitioners argue that Claeys “put the welfare of his football program above the welfare of a female student.” As of Monday night, almost 750 people have signed this petition.
One of the petition organizers, Joe Nathan, taught at his alma mater for 22 years and worked with a number of Gopher student-athletes on leadership and character development. Nathan told ESPN that he was particularly angered by the recruit’s presence in the apartment, which was “in and of itself” a firing offense. He added that with his tweet, Claeys “came down on absolutely the wrong side” and “didn’t stand up” when his players announced their boycott.
Claeys has since admitted that he could have chosen his words more carefully, and has promised to donate $50,000 to support victims of sexual assault. But where was that stance two weeks ago, considering that nine times out of ten, he knew about that report before it was made public? And in the one chance that he didn’t, why didn’t he put his foot down after the report was made public?
Any responsible coach would have called the boycott’s leaders in and told them, “If you want to appear to condone sexual assault, turn in your jerseys now.” Claeys didn’t do that. In light of this, I can only agree with Nathan–Claeys has to go, and he has to go now. Sign here.
(featured image courtesy Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio)