ST. PAUL -- An appeals court panel has brought back to life a discrimination lawsuit filed by former University of Minnesota football players who were punished for an alleged 2016 gang rape.

Three judges for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found the players have made a credible argument that the U punished them because they are male, citing “external pressures” and detailed allegations of “investigator bias and dubious investigative procedures.”

The case now returns to U.S. District Court, where the players will be able to present their argument that the U discriminated against them because of their sex.

The U suspended several players after a cheerleader reported she was sexually assaulted in September 2016. Following an investigation, a university official recommended that five players be expelled, four suspended and one placed on probation.

The football team threatened to skip the postseason Holiday Bowl until they were promised the disciplined players would receive fair student conduct hearings. Ultimately, six players were cleared and four expelled.

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Nine players sued the U in 2018 and a 10th later joined the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank threw out the case in 2019, rejecting a long list of claims related to race and sex discrimination and other issues.

In a decision released Tuesday, June 1, the three appeals court judges found that Frank ruled correctly on all legal claims except the sex discrimination count.

“From the beginning, this has been a Title IX case. This has been about sex discrimination, more than anything,” said David Madgett, the players’ attorney. “This was about treating male defendants differently, and I think the Court of Appeals recognizes that and recognizes the position this puts young men in at academic institutions.”

The judges wrote that the players raised numerous issues, some external and some specific to their case, which led to the judges’ conclusion that the U may have discriminated against the players.

First, the Obama administration in 2011 wrote a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities criticizing them for failing to properly investigate and punish students for sexual misconduct on campus and ordering them to use a low burden of proof when adjudicating cases.

Meanwhile, the U in particular was facing pressure from the campus community after multiple cases of sexual misconduct in athletics.

In 2014, the U paid a female gymnast $250,000 to settle harassment claims after she performed semi-nude modeling for the head coach’s husband, who was a volunteer assistant coach.

A year later, Norwood Teague resigned as athletics director after harassing two colleagues.

Meanwhile, internal emails showed U officials believed in 2015 there was a “concerning pattern” of behavior by football players related to sexual assault and harassment.

“That these pressures influenced the University in this case can be inferred from (Athletics Director Mark) Coyle’s comment that the players should be suspended when initially accused ‘because of optics,’” the judges wrote.

The judges cited their own September 2020 decision involving the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, in which they found a male student punished for sexual misconduct made a plausible argument for sex discrimination based on “the totality of the allegations.”

In the case of the Gopher football players, the judges wrote, “the external pressures were if anything greater, and the detailed allegations of investigator bias and dubious investigative procedures in these particular proceedings lend sufficient credence to the inference of discrimination ‘on the basis of sex.’”

Madgett said the Fayetteville decision gave him hope that the football players would get the chance to make their argument, too.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined to prosecute any of the players, saying the U’s investigation revealed “deplorable behavior” but that he’d be unable to prove a crime had taken place.

The U in March 2020 agreed to pay the alleged victim in the case $500,000. According to the settlement agreement, the woman believes the U handled the case properly but “believes and has claimed that the University violated her rights relating to events occurring prior to Fall 2016 and as a result, has suffered physical injuries.”

The U since has implemented mandatory training for students and staff that emphasizes the importance of bystander intervention in preventing sexual misconduct.

The Trump administration last year gave colleges and universities new instructions for investigating sexual misconduct, increasing due process protections for accused students and allowing schools to raise the standard of proof for finding students culpable. President Joe Biden in March asked his education secretary to consider another re-write that would favor victims of sexual misconduct.