Former University of Virginia wide receiver Aidan Howard filed a lawsuit against the school Friday, saying the school fostered an environment that led to relentless hazing and harassment at his expense.
According to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by Paula Lavigne and Nicole Noren of ESPN.com, Howard said there was a pattern of abuse against him and other freshmen players by upperclassmen—which was allowed to go on unimpeded. He said he suffered a broken eye socket in one hazing ritual referred to as "ramming," in which freshmen were forced to wrestle naked or partially clothed.
The lawsuit also names receivers David Eldridge and Doni Dowling as co-defendants. Howard said Eldridge, Dowling and other teammates would harass him over trouble he had learning plays. The suit says the school had diagnosed him with a learning disability, of which his coaches and teammates were aware.
"[They] would question Aidan's 'toughness' and 'manliness' and would call him 'stupid,' 'dumb,' 'slow' and 'retarded,'" the lawsuit says.
Howard said the Virginia coaching staff was aware of the hazing, which violates NCAA bylaws, and did nothing to impede it. Wide receivers coach Marques Hagans is also named in the suit and is alleged to have fostered the bullying environment by harassing Howard when he had difficulty understanding something.
Howard's attorney, C. James Zeszutek, said:
We want some accountability by the university and the student-athletes who were responsible for doing this to Aidan. Now these student-athletes are continuing to play their sport, continuing to attend classes, and there's been no ramifications to them whatsoever. Our client is a victim who has been injured, damaged and he's out of competition this year.
On Friday, Virginia released a statement on the matter, per Brian Leung of SB Nation's Streaking the Lawn:
The University of Virginia places a high priority on the safety and well-being of every member of its community.
Specifically as it relates to Mr. Howard’s legal filing, UVA is conducting a thorough investigation that involves several steps in the fact-finding process.
Upon receiving a report from the UVA Athletics Department on August 16 concerning the hazing allegations, the University reported the matter to the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorneys in accordance with Virginia state law. The University Police Department, the Office of the Dean of Students and UVA’s Title IX office began concurrent investigations consistent with University policies and procedures.
Mr. Howard and his counsel participated in interviews with the University Police Department in August and also have been interviewed by members of the University’s Dean of Students and Title IX offices. Other staff and students have been interviewed in connection with this matter, as well. This investigative review is on-going.
Alleged violations of University policy are investigated to determine appropriate disciplinary and remedial measures, including legal recourse. UVA takes prompt action to provide support services to affected students, review conduct and impose discipline for violations of UVA policy and athletic codes of conduct.
The University’s responses to this particular case are consistent with its approach to ensuring the well-being of our students that include a hazing hotline and its long-standing “Just Report It” online resource.
For more information on the University Policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence implemented in July of last year, click here.
Howard transferred to Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh after being granted his release from Virginia in August. He says he had intended to play football for the program this season but needed surgery to repair the damage done by hazing.
The lawsuit claims Virginia violated Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other federal provisions.
Cavaliers head football coach Bronco Mendenhall is not named as a defendant in the case.
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