Sports Nut

The Minnesota Football Boycott Sounded Like a Social Justice Protest. It Wasn’t.

“Justice.” “Awareness.” “Due process.” Players co-opted the language of the recent jock awakening to push a reactionary message.

Minnesota Boycott Football
University of Minnesota wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky, flanked by quarterback Mitch Leidner and tight end Duke Anyanwu, reads a statement on Dec. 15.

Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via AP Images

Last week, the University of Minnesota football team took a stand. In the name of justice and due process, the Golden Gophers launched a boycott to demand the reinstatement of 10 of their teammates, who were suspended for their roles in an alleged sexual assault of a fellow student. Receiver and team spokesman Drew Wolitarsky defended the reputations of the suspended players and called for more transparency from the university. He said: “The boycott will remain effective until due process is followed and suspensions for all 10 players involved are lifted.” Even after the players resumed football activities to prepare for Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl, the team defended its boycott.

“If people wonder, ‘Now that you’ve stopped boycotting, do you regret it?’ Absolutely not,” linebacker Nick Rallis told the Star Tribune on Tuesday. “The boycott has been successful. It brought national awareness to not only the situation we have on our hands, but a flaw in the system with a lack of due process.”

Boycott. Justice. Awareness. Due process. Transparency. The team’s language and actions seemed to be of a piece with other athlete protests in the age of the great jock awakening. An NBA star gives an ESPY Awards speech about racial injustice. WNBA players stage media blackouts in the name of Black Lives Matter. An NFL player kneels during the national anthem. A college basketball team dons rainbow warmups before a game in Durham, North Carolina, to protest the state’s transgender bathroom law. But the football boycott at Minnesota was different: the tools of social justice agitation being put to reactionary ends.

The saga of the Gophers’ boycott unfolded in just a week’s time: The 10 players were suspended by the university on Dec. 13. The boycott was announced Dec. 15. It was called off Dec. 17. As the Star Tribune reported, the team’s decision to resume practicing came after the publication of the university’s 80-page Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action report, which detailed the findings from the school’s investigation into the alleged assault in September. The university did not make the findings of its Title IX–mandated EOAA investigation public, citing student privacy concerns, but local news station KSTP obtained and published the document on Friday.

The report lays out a nightmarish scene in which a drunk, initially reluctant female student consents to sex with two men at an off-campus apartment, only to have the encounter recorded on camera and shared that night. From there, the report says, the night devolved into a series of assaults. Though she was inebriated and at times confused, the woman said she repeatedly voiced her opposition to sexual contact with some of the accused. Unable to reach her clothes and phone, she wrapped herself in a blanket to shield her body and told those present to stop sending people into the bedroom. Men whose identities were confirmed by interviews and cellphone messages obtained during the university’s investigation allegedly held her shoulders down and forcefully had sex with her. Sometimes it was one man a time; other times it was more. All the while, the report says, men stood at the door watching, laughing, jostling for their turn. The report says that when she finally left the room, its floor littered with used condoms, she “immediately started crying” and jotted down what she could remember of the ordeal, including some names of players. She also wrote, “I need help this isn’t okay.” The next day, she reported the assault to the Minneapolis Police Department.

The university’s EOAA investigation found that four players had violated the school’s policy regarding sexual assault, eight had violated the sexual harassment policy, and 10 had violated the student conduct code by lying to investigators or obscuring evidence. Based on the findings, Minnesota indefinitely suspended Ray Buford, Kiante Hardin, Carlton Djam, Dior Johnson, Tamarion Johnson, Antonio Shenault, Antoine Winfield Jr., Kobe McCrary, Seth Green, and Mark Williams from team activities. (Appeal hearings will likely be held in January.) The official police report contains similar information to the EOAA report. Though the case was presented to county prosecutors “for review with regard to charging and prosecution,” the prosecutors concluded there was not enough evidence to press charges against the players.

If the alleged violations did occur, as the university’s investigation concluded, getting kicked off the football team is meager justice. But to the players, the suspensions were cause for righteous anger, and a boycott was the logical next step. After all, football programs bring in revenue for universities—the Holiday Bowl alone will earn Minnesota a cool $2.3 million—and a football strike at Mizzou last year had already proven to be an effective change agent. In that case, though, the players joined ongoing protests on campus to force the university to address racism at the school. The team said at the time it wouldn’t play until the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, “resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” Two days later, Wolfe resigned.

At Minnesota, the boycott lost steam after details of the EOAA report began to circulate. “I learned a lot from these past couple days […] I’m sure you all know how stressful this has been for everybody involved,” Wolitarsky said just two days after declaring his teammates had been falsely accused. “Let me first state so there is no misperception: Sexual harassment and violence against women have no place on this campus, on our team, in our society and at no time is it ever condoned.” But the players’ refusal to reconsider their stance on the incident, without first knowing every sordid and humiliating detail of the alleged assault, which the university said it couldn’t disclose because of federal privacy laws, is telling.

After the report had been leaked and the boycott ended, players spoke of their efforts as righteous acts in the face of bad publicity. “The leaked report never changed our message,” defensive back Adekunle Ayinde told the Star Tribune. “The only thing that changed was the public perception of that message.”

“The most important thing is, this was not a stance about sexual misconduct,” Rallis said. “It’s not our place to say whether they committed misconduct, and those found responsible will be held accountable.”

He added: “I think now we’re just trying to get people to slowly understand. We are going to go down there to represent those 10 guys and how they were mistreated in the process.”

To state the obvious, this desperate, revisionist telling makes no sense. For one thing, in announcing the boycott the team had already weighed in on whether their teammates had “committed misconduct,” asserting without equivocation that the suspended players were “falsely accused.” Backpedaling on that point now reeks of insincerity. So, too, does the complete reversal of logic regarding the boycott. Not playing in a football game was supposed to convince the university and the public that they were right. Now, playing in a football game is supposed to do that. The players’ messaging has no consistency because what they want isn’t justice; it’s the perpetuation of the status quo. The players also clearly and fundamentally do not understand what due process entails. Not being allowed to play football isn’t a violation of anyone’s due process rights, and the school is well within its purview in suspending those found to have violated its policy. Maybe this, at least, is something the team might come to “slowly understand.”

At bottom, the Minnesota boycott was an old story smuggled in under the banner of social justice—not one of athletes mobilizing for justice, but of institutions closing ranks when one of their own is accused of wrongdoing. Note that the Minnesota coaching staff backed the players: a good tell that the boycott was something other than the cry of the marginalized. After the boycott was announced, head coach Tracy Claeys tweeted: “Have never been more proud of our kids. I respect their rights & support their effort to make a better world!” (For comparison, look at Northwestern football’s attempt to unionize, a move that would have certainly shaken up the power structure. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald urged his players not to vote for unionization.) Think Penn State, in other words, not Missouri. Or think Baylor and Florida State. If either of those schools had handled its high-profile sexual assault cases differently, we might well have seen this type of player protest earlier. The football players’ boycott at Minnesota inadvertently demonstrated something radical: A university adequately handled an accusation of sexual assault.

Jock activism was bound to butt up against other parts of the social justice project, particularly in a campus context. Athletes occupy a contradictory place in the university ecosystem. They are a kind of dual citizen—an exploited class, in that they’re unpaid labor, and a privileged class, with all the perks and social advantages that come with being a jock. Often, because of the latter, they’re dismissed when they point out the former. (Athletes shouldn’t get paid! They get scholarships and free clothes!) The Minnesota players borrowed the moral leverage they’d accrued as members of the former to advance their prerogatives as members of the latter. Misinformed, reactionary, and entitled, the boycott was a reminder that even—especially—in the age of the jock awakening, athletes on any level can be fashioned into weapons for the status quo.