Unfairness in the Minnesota Football Rape Case

We don’t normally think of college athletes as prominent defenders of due process. Yet perhaps the highest-profile protest against the post-Dear Colleague letter demise of campus due process came last week at the University of Minnesota. Its emergence, the reaction to it, and its quick collapse speaks volumes about the relationship between due process and policies toward sexual assault on the nation’s campuses.

In September, several members of the Minnesota football team were accused of a particularly ugly gang rape. The police investigated, but the prosecutor ultimately declined to pursue charges, largely because a contemporaneous video of the incident (taken by one of the players) showed the accuser (in the words of a police report) “certainly conscious and aware of what is going on”—“lucid” and “alert.”

The university, however, conducted its own investigation and found at least some of the players guilty of the same offense (sexual assault) for which the local prosecutor had concluded he lacked probable cause to indict. Armed with that finding, the university’s athletic department suspended the players—in the process publicly identifying them. This move prompted other members of the football team to threaten to boycott the Holiday Bowl game, only to abandon their move under heavy pressure from the university and the media.

The Limitations of Due Process Protests

The timeline of the Minnesota football team’s response resembles that of the Yale basketball team’s response to the Jack Montague case. In both instances, the team began with examples of high-profile protest. Each member of the Yale team wore Montague’s warm-up shirt before a game. Each member of the Minnesota football team stood behind a statement indicating that university procedures had denied their teammates’ “due process,” in part by finding them guilty of the same offense for which the police had chosen not to bring charges.

Within 48 hours, under what appeared to be heavy internal and external pressure, the teams backed down and issued statements effectively retracting their original protests. In both instances, these statements were radically different in tone and substance from the teams’ original actions and read as if written by a university administrator rather than by college students.

Contrast both the Minnesota and Yale outcomes to that at the University of Missouri. When the Mizzou football team threatened to boycott on behalf of student protesters alleging racial discrimination on campus, the president was fired. The backdowns in the Minnesota and Yale cases, by contrast, provides a reminder of where the power lies in universities on due process issues and sends a message to other students that standing up for due process in sexual assault adjudications will be futile.

The Minnesota case includes one element absent in the Yale matter. Local reports suggest that the players’ unity was in part eroded by the release of the university investigative report. Even construing the incident in the light most favorable to the accused players, this lengthy document revealed an ugly, troubling episode in which the accused players were almost caricatures of unfeeling misogynists. Little wonder the other players then folded. (One of the players has subsequently maintained that the boycott nonetheless will ensure that future accused students are treated fairly, but no signs exist that Minnesota will in any way change its policies.)

Ironically, however, the leaking of the report (to a local TV station) heightened the due process critique the team originally made. The report, of course, was supposed to be confidential. Given its conclusion, and its highly negative character portrayals, it’s inconceivable any of the accused players leaked it. That leaves someone from the accuser’s legal team, or a university official, as the likely source—figures willing to waive the confidentiality requirements when they thought it would be helpful to their side of the case. The report’s leaking, in this respect, casts further doubt on the integrity of the Minnesota adjudication process. Just as with Yale and the Patrick Witt case, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for an investigation to identify the leaker who violated university policies.

Blue State Laws

The last few years have featured a wave of blue states passing “affirmative consent” laws, which effectively require accused students to prove their innocence. Minnesota hasn’t enacted such a law (though the university does employ the “affirmative consent” standard, thereby defining sexual assault differently than state statutes). But the state did enact a first-in-the-nation law requiring “training” of all campus investigators and adjudicators of sexual assault cases.

The football players’ case was one of the first to be adjudicated under the new standards. This summer, I had asked Minnesota’s Title IX coordinator, Kimberly Hewitt, for a copy of the new training material; she declined to provide it, with a cc to the university public relations office. (I then obtained it through a state public records request.)

I can see why Hewitt wasn’t eager for the material to become public. Minnesota has trained its sexual assault investigators by having them attend an event organized by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault; sessions from the National Association of Colleges and Universities; participating in the “Minnesota Campus Sexual Violence Summit”; joining an AAU Survey of Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct Webinar; and completing a course organized by the ATIXA Institute, an organization associated with the anti-due process NCHERM.

Adjudicators receive briefings from the Minnesota Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, the Student Sexual Misconduct Subcommittees, the university Office of the General Counsel, a local police chief, a university lecturer expert in addressing questions of credibility, the Director of Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life at the University of Minnesota, and the legal advocacy coordinator of the Aurora Center, a university organization that “provides a safe and confidential space for students . . . who are victims/survivors/concerned people of sexual assault.”

Adjudicators receive briefings from the Minnesota Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, the Student Sexual Misconduct Subcommittees, the university Office of the General Counsel, a local police chief, a university lecturer expert in addressing questions of credibility, the Director of Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life at the University of Minnesota, and the legal advocacy coordinator of the Aurora Center, a university organization that “provides a safe and confidential space for students . . . who are victims/survivors/concerned people of sexual assault.”

The list of training, therefore, contains no defense lawyers. Nor does it feature a representative of a group devoted to campus civil liberties, like FIRE (or even the ACLU). So Minnesota trains its investigators and adjudicators exclusively from sources that are either neutral or who are ideologically inclined to believe the accuser (and therefore find guilt). Imagine the criminal justice context, of jurors in sexual assault trials (and only sexual assault trials) required to receive “training,” with the training material provided only by the prosecutor and not by the defense.

The effects of this training were apparent in the university investigator’s report. Both the accuser and the accused had inconsistencies in their stories. But the accuser’s inconsistencies enhanced her credibility—“we generally attribute the differences among [her] accounts over time to her gradual recollection of what she found to be a very traumatic experience,” the university report declared—while the accused students’ inconsistencies led the university investigator “to discount their credibility.”

Nothing in the one-sided nature of the training, of course, should obscure the ugliness of the undisputed conduct detailed in the report. (This was, in the light most favorable to the accused players, an episode of group sex amidst underage drinking, while the players were entertaining a high school recruit.) But despite the wording of a statement issued from the president’s office, Minnesota did not suspend several of the players because their behavior conflicted with university values; it suspended them because the university concluded they had engaged in behavior the state considers a felony—even as the prosecutor declined to seek indictments over the same behavior.


Initial coverage of the players’ boycott statement was basically fair—at least in the local Minnesota media. That tone soon changed. It changed despite the fact, as Robby Soave has observed, this was a protest (from students of all races) alleging that authorities had denied due process rights to accused black males.

In the current national environment, in virtually any other context, this message –that young men of color had been mistreated by agents of the government who were investigating conduct that state law deemed to be criminal—would have been greeted with enthusiastic support from the mainstream media.

Yet (unsurprisingly, given the general media attitude regarding due process and campus sexual assault), the editorial and commentary response was overwhelmingly negative. This Sally Jenkins piece in the Washington Post is a representative sample; this Dave Zirin piece is a typically extreme manifestation of the attitude. In its editorial condemning the players who threatened to boycott, the Star-Tribune conceded that “there can be discussion over whether [preponderance of evidence is the correct standard and over the high level of secrecy involved in the disciplinary process at the University” and noted that there “has been pushback in other high-profile incidents across the country over the current system and the way standards are applied.”

In other words: the editors conceded that the due process concerns presented by the students had merit. After making the point, the editors nonetheless charged that, through their protest, the players threatened to “further damage the university’s reputation.” Is there any other context in which a left-of-center editorial page would advance such a claim about students advocating for other students’ civil liberties?

Beyond the choice of framing, both the Times (in a straight news story) and the Star-Tribune (in its op-ed) erroneously asserted that the University of Minnesota was required by “law”—even Obama administration officials (albeit very reluctantly, under prodding from Senators Lamar Alexander and James Lankford) have conceded that the Dear Colleague letter doesn’t carry the force of law. The Times quietly eliminated its error.

After the issue was pointed out on Twitter, the Times replaced, without acknowledgment, the claim that Minnesota had to use a lower standard of proof by law with the following passage: “Burdens of proof used in such investigations are frequently lower than the criminal justice system’s.” The false claim in the Star-Tribune editorial remains. The errors reflect the generally poor approach the media has featured in covering campus procedural issues.

The Minnesota football coach has said that his public support for the protest threatened his job. Given the current atmosphere on campus, he’s probably right.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

9 thoughts on “Unfairness in the Minnesota Football Rape Case

  1. A section of this article is repeated:

    “I can see why Hewitt…”

    This has happened before on this site. Software issue?

  2. Some commenters have indicated that university football players should be held to a higher standard than whether or not they are innocent as a matter of criminal law. This is irrelevant to the matter at hand: the young men were suspended (and some may be expelled) from the university, not kicked off the team. The team deserved an “A” for standing up for due process. It is easy to be for due process when an obvious injustice has been done; it is much more difficult to stand up for certain basic principles when the facts are murky or the incident is a tawdry one, yet these situations require fair and transparent adjudication just as much as those involving a clear miscarriage of justice or more sympathetic actors. The Title IX hearings make a mockery of fairness and due process, and the people who have shamed the team really ought to rethink their position.

  3. Issues of due process and black males reminds me of Janet Halley’s essay in the Harvard Law Review.

    In it she wrote, “But nothing so malign need be at work when black men show up in the dock: morning-after remorse can make sex that seemed like a good idea at the time look really alarming in retrospect; and the general social disadvantage that black men continue to carry in our culture can make it easier for everyone in the adjudicative process to put the blame on them.”

    Her prescient words apply here. It seems that in the hierarchy of whose rights get trampled in sexual assault proceedings, male is the defining characteristic. Being black becomes an aggravating factor.

    1. False.

      Once you step outside the grotesque extralegal circus of academic witch-hunts — which I was opposing through legislative testimony long before it came to the attention of the activists here — real rapists and child rapists still rarely face consequences in the real justice system.

      That is why, in just one state, we found thousands of serial, stranger sex offenders with long record of pleading down, non-prosecution, and/or convictions just for property or drug crimes when DNA databasing revealed the extend of un-prosecuted sex crime by known offenders in the late 1990s.

      This website and KC Johnson contribute not a little to misapprehension of this reality with their sheer ignorance of and intellectual incuriosity about the working of the real criminal justice system. And frankly, they demonstrate a victimization complex that rivals those they criticize in the feminist cabal. Both sides indulge in pimping the subject of rape in order to posture politically.

      Exclusionary rules of evidence and defense-orchestrated technicalities in the real justice system make a parody of justice. There are a thousand ways for offenders to game the system. Black men commit rape at higher rates than other races. And if anything, they are granted more lenience, not less, particularly by urban juries that fall for the sort of self-serving virtue signaling you indulge in here.

      Being interracially raped while white — or black in an intra-racial rape or molestation case — is no cakewalk in a culture where every black rapist plays the Tom Robinson card and the majority of law students report that they dream of being Atticus Finch.

      Far from facing negative consequences, black males have even actually been rewarded by academia FOR acknowledging that they were involved in a sexual assault — for just one example, see Nathan McCall, who admitted to helping run a “train” (gang rape) on a friend of his and got away with no consequences. He also got a best-selling book deal out of it and approbation and academic awards: at Emory, all students were forced to read his sickko, self-pitying memoir as a group activity at the beginning of the school year. He has been endowed with prestigious posts, not despite his role in the rape of a young woman but because of the street cred that vicious act gave him, and campus leftists eagerly swallow such stories.

      You know nothing about how the real justice system actually works. Nor do the alleged “experts” here.

      1. Tina Trent, You wrote, “Exclusionary rules of evidence and defense-orchestrated technicalities in the real justice system make a parody of justice.” This sounds like a view of our criminal justice system formed by watching the TV show Law and Order; it has little to do with what I have seen as someone who has taken an interest in wrongful convictions. Too often prosecutors hide exculpatory evidence, the police and prosecution threaten or cajole witnesses into making statements that are less than true, and juries sometimes fail to employ critical thinking.

  4. One interesting aspect of this case is that the complainant apparently had sex with a high school recruit, who was presumably underage (I’m not certain what the age of consent is in Minnesota). While some states allow “safe harbor” (for an age difference of, say, two years when one individual is under the age of consent and the other is not), others don’t. Presumably, if the complainant was found not to be credible, then she would be guilty of statutory rape. Even if not prosecuted, this would presumably be a violation of the University of Minnesota’s sexual conduct policy.

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