University of Virginia football players staged a gladiator-style fight between a pair of incoming freshmen, a dangerous hazing incident that resulted in a concussion and jeopardized the career of a promising young receiver, according to a federal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
For weeks this past the summer, upperclassmen had taunted, bullied and ostracized Aidan Howard, a lanky freshman, new on campus and new to the Virginia football team, according to the complaint. The teasing that the newcomer faced steadily escalated, and after just one week of training camp, the first under new Cavaliers Coach Bronco Mendenhall, players used athletic tape to mark off a ring inside the Virginia locker room and forced Howard to fight another freshman, receiver Hasise Dubois, against his will, the complaint states. The locker room battle included “flashing lights, loud music, and announcements to simulate a ‘prize fight,’ ” according to the filing.
More than 100 people witnessed the fight, the complaint states, including Famika Anae, a graduate assistant on the coaching staff and the son of the team’s offensive coordinator, Robert Anae. No one tried to intervene, and, in fact, they were encouraged to put away their cellphones and refrain from recording, Howard’s lawsuit charges.
“The fight came to an end when Aidan sustained severe eye injuries,” the complaint states. “Aidan immediately experienced double-vision in his right eye and was in a significant amount of pain. His head hurt and he felt sick to his stomach.”
The complaint states that Howard was told he suffered a concussion and couldn’t continue practicing with his teammates. A week later he left the school.
Howard filed the federal complaint Oct. 14, charging the university with Title IX violations and seeking unspecified monetary rewards. The lawsuit was first reported Wednesday by Courthouse News Service.
A university spokesman said the school was aware of the allegations but would not make anyone available for comment.
“The University has been actively investigating these reports consistent with its obligations under the law and University policy,” Anthony de Bruyn, a school spokesman, said in a written statement. “The University does not comment on ongoing litigation and will not make any further statements regarding this case.”
Craig Littlepage, the school’s athletic director, also was not available for comment. Earlier this week, Littlepage informed his staff that he was stepping away from his position for the remainder of the year to tend to a family matter.
Howard’s attorney said Wednesday night his client were not available to comment.
“We were so happy to see Aidan go to a school like the University of Virginia where he’d be able to matriculate, get a great education and compete as an athlete,” said C. James Zeszutek, Howard’s Pittsburgh-based attorney. “It’s tough when you see your child go through something like Aidan is going through. … It’s been a tough road, but they’re a very strong family, they’re a very close family, and they’ll get through this.”
Mendenhall is not named in the lawsuit. In addition to Littlepage and Teresa Sullivan, the school president, the complaint singles out two Virginia teammates, junior Doni Dowling and sophomore David Eldridge, both wide receivers, and Marques Hagans, the school’s receivers coach. All three participated in harassing and bullying Howard, the complaint alleges.
Hagans is a former Virginia quarterback who briefly played receiver for the Washington Redskins in the NFL. He was the only member of former coach Mike London’s staff retained by Mendenhall.
Dowling, who has started every game this season for Virginia, is one of the Cavaliers’ leading receivers with 309 yards on 21 receptions in six games and considered one of the leaders in the locker room.
According to the complaint, Howard signed a letter of intent with the school in February and began attending summer classes in July. In his first few weeks on campus, the complaint states that older teammates “made Aidan the target of bullying and harassing conduct because of his soft-spoken and mild-mannered nature.” He also was targeted, the complaint alleges, because he was slow to pick up on the plays, and players “would call him ‘stupid,’ ‘dumb,’ ‘slow,’ and ‘retarded.’ ”
After Virginia granted Howard his release, he enrolled at Robert Morris in Pittsburgh, intending to compete for the football team there. But a doctor discovered Sept. 20 that he had suffered a broken orbital bone in the locker room fight, according to the complaint, and required surgery. His freshman campaign was over before he had played a single game.
It “is unclear if he will ever be able to play football again,” the complaint states.
Both the school and Virginia’s athletics department have written rules that forbid hazing, and the complaint alleges that Sullivan and Littlepage failed to educate university employees and have yet to take any sort of disciplinary action.
Furthermore, the complaint indicates that Howard’s case was not an isolated incident. In the complaint, he states that he saw upperclassmen bully and harass other freshmen, “including conduct which imitated and mimicked sexual acts.” Other first-year players were forced “to participate in fights and wrestling matches while naked or partially naked, an act referred to at UVA as ‘ramming,’ ” the complaint alleges.
Howard, a three-star recruit, verbally committed to Virginia in June 2015 before his senior year at Gateway High in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. Howard’s father, Verne, was a left tackle at West Virginia in the 1980s.
Howard’s complaint comes just months after five former members of Virginia’s swim team settled a lawsuit in March over allegations that they had hazed a freshman swimmer as part of an initiation in August 2014.
A multisport athlete in high school, Howard also was on Gateway’s basketball team when basketball coach Mitch Adams was accused of using abusive language toward players, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Adams kept his job, only to resign after he was charged with making terroristic threats and harassment following a confrontation with a neighbor.
Will Hobson contributed to this report.
[IMAGE: Steve Helber, AP]