Minnesota ends boycott, will prepare to play in Holiday Bowl

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

TheUniversity of Minnesota football team will play in the National Funding Holiday Bowl, reversing a threat to boycott the game because of the suspension of 10 of its players accused of sexual assault.

The players made the announcement at a news conference on Saturday, after a group of seniors from the team met with the university's board of regents, president Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle late into Friday night.

"As a team, we understand that what has occurred these last few days and playing football for the University of Minnesota is larger than just us," Golden Gophers receiver Drew Wolitarsky said.

The school declined the players' request to reinstate the suspended players, something the team said it sought before agreeing to return to practice. The team will now go ahead with its Dec. 27 bowl game against Washington State in San Diego after getting assurances that those accused will get a fair hearing next month.

Wolitarsky, reading from a statement, said after many hours of team discussion and speaking with Kaler, "It became clear that our original request of having the 10 suspensions overturned was not going to happen."

Many of the players who made the initial stand on Thursday had not read the university's 82-page report detailing a woman's specific allegations. The university kept the details private under federal law, but players saw it after KSTP-TV published it on Friday. The details fractured the group's resolve, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak publicly for the group.

Kaler and Coyle made clear to the players, and to the community through statements on Friday, that they had no intention of changing their decision, after an internal investigation determined the suspended players violated school conduct codes in an encounter involving a woman and several players at an off-campus dorm on Sept. 2.

"I'm very pleased that the football team has realized the opportunity to represent the university and come out strong in support of the victims of sexual violence," Kaler said Saturday.

"They've come out strongly in support of the victims of sexual violence. I have promised a very fair hearing to the students involved and charged, and I intend to have that be true. We will judge them very fairly."

Three players spoke anonymously to ESPN's Brett McMurphy on Saturday after the boycott was lifted. The players, who did not want to be identified because they wanted the statement to be the team's message, said they were literally up for the past 35 hours without sleeping, trying to reach a decision.

The anonymous players also said the team never considered actually going to the Holiday Bowl and then refusing to play, because this is "bigger than football." The team called Holiday Bowl officials on Friday night, and the bowl told the Golden Gophers they needed a decision by 5 p.m. local time Saturday, the anonymous players told McMurphy.

The Holiday Bowl is one of the most lucrative and well-known of the second-tier bowl games. The payout to each of the competing schools was $2.8 million last year. Not including the New Year's Six bowls that are tied to the College Football Playoff, the Holiday Bowl's distribution was the fifth largest of the other 34 postseason games.

Bowl revenue is pooled and shared by conferences. For the Big Ten, which distributed more than $30 million to each of its 14 members last season, Holiday Bowl revenue is a small piece of a large pie.

Four Minnesota players were initially suspended for three games earlier this season while the police investigated allegations by a woman, who said several players pressured her into having sex with them after a season-opening win over Oregon State. No arrests or charges were made, and the players, who maintained the sex was consensual, were reinstated after a judge lifted a restraining order.

The university said it holds its students to higher standards than those applied by the law, and its announcement of the suspensions on Tuesday caught the team off guard. University investigators wrote they generally found the woman's account more credible than those of the accused students. The investigators concluded several students failed to provide full and truthful information.

The entire team gathered at the practice facility on Thursday night and issued a statement saying they would boycott all football activities until Kaler and Coyle apologized for their lack of communication and reinstated the suspended players. But on Friday, after hours of sometimes contentious meetings with lawyers and university leadership, the players softened their stance.

"There's always room to try to communicate more clearly, and I think the players now understand that process more fully," Kaler said.

The players also asked the university to show "support for the team and the character shown by the great majority of our players" and help them "use our status as public figures to bring more exposure to the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women."

Players said on Saturday they were most disappointed with the lack of communication and due process and they took the issue of sexual assault seriously.

"As football players, we know that we represent this university and this state and that we are held to a higher standard," Wolitarsky said. "We want to express our deepest gratitude to our coaching staff and so many others for their support during this difficult time, and we hope that our fans and community understand why we took the actions that we did."

Dean Johnson, chairman of the university's Board of Regents, said he supports the decision to end the boycott and to keep the 10 players under suspension.

He added that the situation has shown that while the university does not tolerate sexual violence, more must be done to ensure the campus is safe for all students. That change, he said, could come in stronger policies, enforcement or more educational opportunities and sensitivity training.

"It's not been a good thing for the University of Minnesota, with donors, with ticket holders, with the administration, the regents -- it's not been a proud week," Johnson said.

ESPN's Mark Schlabach and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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