On October 14th, former University of Virginia football player Aidan Howard sued the UVa administration and select members of the football team, alleging that upperclassmen continually bullied him and and forced him into a hazing ritual that caused severe injury.
Howard, a freshman wide receiver, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania, claiming that he was relentlessly mocked by veteran players. Diagnosed with a learning disability, Howard purports that wide receivers Doni Dowling and David Eldridge would call him “slow,” “dumb,” and “retarded,” despite being fully aware of his diagnosis. Howard also claimed that the bullying was widely apparent, and instances even occurred in front of coaches.
The most severe hazing incident occurred in August during the team’s preseason camp, when Howard was forced to fight another first year wide receiver, Hasise Dubois, as part of his “initiation.” The complaint alleges that the “prize fight”-like event was witnessed by 105 of his teammates along with graduate assistant coach Famika Anae, who continually advised the bystanders not to record the fight on their cellphones. Howard suffered a broken eye socket in the fight and underwent reconstructive surgery in September.
Howard requested and was granted release from the program in late August, and subsequently transferred to Robert Morris University. While he intended to join the football team, the orbital bone surgery prevented him from playing this season. In Howard’s national letter of intent release document, UVa associate athletic director for compliance Eric Baumgartner indicated that Howard’s release was due to “conduct of others within the University,” without further explanation.
The lawsuit cites the University of Virginia, President Teresa Sullivan, athletic director Craig Littlepage, wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, Famika Anae, Dowling, and Eldridge as defendants. Notably, Bronco Mendenhall, in his first season as head coach, was omitted. None of the parties named have filed a reply in court.
The complaint alleges that the UVa football program “fostered a culture of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination.” Howard claims that the coaches knew about the bullying and where his injuries came from but did nothing to punish the culpable players. He also cites the coaches’ failure to enforce school and NCAA rules against hazing, bullying, and discrimination, claiming they violated aspects of federal Title IX laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act in the process.
Howard was diagnosed with a learning disability when he arrived at UVa and was receiving academic support. The suit alleges that wide receivers coach Marques Hagans also perpetrated some of the bullying, ridiculing Howard for his intelligence when he did not understand something, which encouraged similar behavior among players.
Howard and his attorney, C. James Zeszutak, are now demanding accountability for the alleged abused endured at the hands of UVa football. UVa is currently conducting an internal Title IX investigation into the accusations, with the cooperation of the football team. While Title IX actions typically involve women reporting sexual assault, the law covers all types of gender-based discrimination. Howard’s attorneys argue that the emotional distress he endured falls under this umbrella as his “manliness” was repeatedly called into question by his bullies. The lawsuit also quotes a section of the UVa football team rules that explicitly bans sexual abuse, bullying, fights, and abusive behavior related to anyone’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation—and specifically states, “NO hazing.”