Hearings begin for suspended Minnesota football players

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Ten Minnesota football players suspended for their alleged involvement in a sexual assault faced a panel of university employees on Thursday and Friday in an attempt to avoid expulsion and other punishments recommended by the school's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office.

The players have denied any wrongdoing and remain enrolled. The university presented its findings and called its witnesses to testify before a three-person panel during a meeting that lasted more than nine hours on Thursday. The players were scheduled to present their sides of the case on Friday.

''I am pleased that the panel asked different witnesses thoughtful and clarifying questions,'' Ryan Pacyga, an attorney representing Antoine Winfield Jr., said in a phone interview early Friday morning after the hearing concluded. ''So I think the panel is taking their duties seriously.''

Among those who testified on Thursday were the woman who alleged that she was pressured into having sex with multiple players at an apartment after the team's season-opening win over Oregon State in September and the author of the 80-page EOAA report, Pacyga said.

Authorities twice declined to charge any of the players, citing a lack of evidence. But the school conducted a Title IX investigation, which carries a lower burden of proof. The investigation concluded that the players violated the student conduct code and recommended expulsion for Ray Buford Jr., Carlton Djam, KiAnte Hardin, Dior Johnson and Tamarion Johnson; one-year suspensions for Seth Green, Kobe McCrary, Mark Williams and Winfield; and probation for Antonio Shenault.

The other nine players are represented by Lee Hutton, a former Gophers receiver.

The panel will have one week to come to a decision, which can be appealed to the university provost and then, if need be, in federal court. The guidelines require that a majority of the panel decide it was ''more than likely'' that the accused violated the conduct code. That is far different from a court of law requiring a unanimous ruling from a jury that a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.

Attorneys for the players have expressed concerns about the proceedings, saying that they have been unable to interview the three-person panel that will preside over the case to see if any of them have any potential biases or past history with sexual assault. They also argued that each player should get his own hearing, but the school denied that request. And lawyers also said the 18 hours of time dedicated to hearings over two days was far shorter than what is normally allowed in the Title IX process.

''We're asking for due process and we're being denied at every turn,'' Pacyga said before the hearing began.

The suspensions in December caused an uproar in the football program. The entire team argued that the process was unfair and threatened to boycott the Holiday Bowl against Washington State. Two days later, the team decided to play the game, and the Golden Gophers went on to beat the Cougars. But coach Tracy Claeys was fired in part because his public support of his players differed from the stance of both university President Eric Kaler and athletic director Mark Coyle.

In agreeing not to boycott the bowl game, the team pushed for assurances from the university that the panel hearing the case would be diverse. All 10 players are black. The panel included one woman of color and two white men, with a white woman serving as an alternate, Pacyga said.

The incident has received exhaustive coverage locally and nationally, leading Pacyga to say that it would be difficult for the university to find three members for a panel that have not been influenced by what they have seen in the media or heard on campus. He also said that the players are still entitled to due process even though the closed hearings are not taking place in the court system.

University officials have said repeatedly throughout the process that they cannot comment on the case or the procedures that examine them.

There is no subpoena power in Title IX proceedings, so Pacyga said they were unable to call the Minneapolis police officer who investigated the case to testify and were denied by the university in their request to play a 90-second video that they say proves the woman had consensual sex with two men present in the apartment that night.

Five of the players, including Winfield, were not alleged to have had sexual contact with the woman that night. Pacyga said Winfield came into the apartment to get a 17-year-old recruit out of the situation and left shortly after doing so.

Pacyga also said the author of the report clarified on Thursday that she did not find that Winfield was involved in the sexual activity, but instead was found to have violated the student conduct code for being present outside the bedroom at the time.

''All in all, this is still a very daunting task for these students,'' Pacyga said. ''This is a scary process because it's just so much different than the due process we're all used to in courts. But that being said, I'm still hopeful for Mr. Winfield Jr.''

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More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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