Report: U of M followed procedures, laws in football suspensions

Updated 4 p.m. | Posted 8:10 a.m.

A report by a law firm hired by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents says the university followed its own rules and the law when it suspended 10 football players last year in a Title IX investigation of the sexual assault of a woman.

In the aftermath of the suspensions, the Gophers football team boycotted practice and threatened not to play a game, before relenting.

Several players were subsequently reinstated, fueling complaints that they did not receive due process.

“Courts have almost universally held that a student’s interest in athletic participation is not a liberty or property interest protectable by the Due Process Clause,” the report from Dorsey and Whitney said. “The University may impose athletic discipline before providing an opportunity to be heard.”

The report said that while incoming students receive orientation training — especially on the university’s “no means no” policy — it said more should be done to train transfer students “because it cannot trust that those students received comprehensive orientation at a different institution, let alone orientation that aligns with the University’s values.”

It also said that while the athletics code of conduct gives substantial power to coaches and the athletic director to suspend students, the university should consider limiting that discretion.

a. One option would be to remove or limit discretion from decisions on athletic discipline relating to sexual assault allegations. For example, rules designed to restrict discretion could read as follows:

(1) Student-athletes under police investigation for sexual assault or criminally charged with sexual assault are athletically suspended.

(2) Student-athletes under investigation by EOAA—unless otherwise suspended due to an ongoing criminal process—[are/are not] athletically suspended.

(3) Student-athletes found to have committed sexual misconduct by EOAA are suspended pending completion of the student discipline process, including any appeals to the Provost.

It also said the athletics department should issue clear guidelines on the meaning of restraining orders.

And it said the athletics department should be more clear on the rules for recruits visiting campus. The sexual assault case involved a student recruit.

Hearings held as part of the Title IX investigation were traumatic for both the accuser and the accused, the report said, suggesting that it may discourage victims from reporting sexual assault on campus.

For example, the University of Minnesota permits both the reporting party and the accused student to have an advocate appear with them throughout the disciplinary process. The attorney for the accused student is allowed to actively participate throughout the process. No other Big 10 institution takes this approach in all conduct code matters.

The most common model is to allow students to have advisors of their choice, but the advisors cannot speak or ask questions on the students’ behalf. In certain cases, consideration should be given to whether a model like this is more in line with the Student Conduct Code’s developmental, educational goals. In particularly serious cases, at least one person recommended a more robust role for counsel including having the University pay for counsel throughout the process.

The report also looked at the player boycott and outlined several recommendations to prevent a repeat.

Dorsey & Whitney concluded that multiple factors contributed to boycott:

  • Underlying alleged misconduct;
  • A lack of understanding by student-athletes and Athletics Department personnel of the Student Conduct Code disciplinary process;
  • Allowing access to and influence over the football team and coaching staff by third parties;
  • Weak leadership by the football team coaching staff; and
  • Impaired communications and a breakdown in trust between the University leadership and the football team due in part to the University leadership’s inability to share private student information.

Dorsey & Whitney also concluded that the boycott may have been managed better had the Board of Regents collectively, individual Regents, and University administration, the Athletics Department, and football team coaches responded in a more coordinated and unified manner.

In addition to citing weak leadership by the football coaches, the report said “third-party influence” also created a hostile atmosphere during the boycott, but it did not appear to identify the third party.

The regents discussed the report Wednesday morning.

Ryan Pacyga, an attorney who represented some of the accused students, says there are specific things the U can do.

“What is the harm in telling a student: number one, you do not have to respond to an interview request, because they are not required to,” he said. “Number two, if you want to respond you have a right to a lawyer to get some advice before you do that and to have them present at the investigation if you want them with you.”

MPR News reporter Peter Cox contributed to this report.