Just three days before the Yale men’s basketball team won its first NCAA Tournament game in program history, former captain Jack Montague announced that he will sue the University following his expulsion last month for sexual misconduct.
In the subsequent days, many in the Yale community struggled to reconcile the excitement of a historic postseason run with the controversy surrounding Montague’s dismissal and its broader implications for Yale’s sexual climate. Even after Yale was eliminated from the tournament by defending national champion Duke on March 19, national media continued to dissect the Montague case, especially as members of two other NCAA Tournament basketball programs, at the University of Oregon and University of California, Berkeley, are under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct as well. Together, these cases have led to a renewed conversation about the way in which universities adjudicate sexual misconduct complaints and the position of athletics within that system.
The announcement of Montague’s lawsuit, which was written by his attorney Max Stern and released by Polaris Public Relations, claimed the University’s decision to expel Montague was “wrong, unfairly determined, arbitrary and excessive by any rational measure.” Although players and head coach James Jones declined to comment on Montague as the team prepared for its March 17 contest against Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, asking for the focus to stay on basketball, some Yale fans decided they could not support the team given the current circumstances.
The University has not publicly commented on the impending lawsuit, which spokeswoman Karen Schwartzman of Polaris said would be filed within a month of the March 14 announcement. But shortly after the release of Stern’s statement, University spokesman Tom Conroy said the decision to expel a student is made only after “the most careful consideration, based on the facts and, when appropriate, disciplinary history.” Only one out of 10 cases heard by the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct ends in expulsion, Conroy said.
The alleged incident of sexual misconduct took place between Montague and a current female junior at Yale who, according to the UWC fact-finder’s report, had “developed a relationship that led to them sleeping together in [Montague’s] room on four occasions in the fall of 2014.” Only the last of those incidents is disputed as nonconsensual.
A year after that encounter, the statement continued, the female student reported the incident to one of Yale’s Title IX coordinators, and a Title IX official — not the student herself — filed a formal complaint within the UWC.
The UWC panel that heard Montague’s case determined that he had violated University policy and recommended a penalty of expulsion. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway accepted the recommendation on Feb. 10, 2016, and University Provost Benjamin Polak, who hears appeals from students, upheld the decision, according to the statement.
Stern criticized both the UWC process and the severity of Montague’s penalty. He highlighted the fact that the decision to expel Montague came shortly after the release of a report from the Association of American Universities, which estimated that 16.1 percent of all Yale students, undergraduates and graduate students, have experienced an attempted or completed sexual assault in their time on campus. That percentage is nearly five points higher than the AAU’s aggregate figure, which estimates that 11.7 percent of students across the 27 universities surveyed experienced nonconsensual sexual contact by force or incapacitation during their time at school.
Arguing that Montague “has been pilloried as a ‘whipping boy’ for a campus problem that has galvanized national attention,” Stern’s statement hinted that the AAU report, “which was highly critical of the incidence of sexual assault on the Yale campus,” was related to Montague’s expulsion.
But Barry Toiv, vice president of public affairs for the AAU, said the report did not criticize the participating universities either individually or collectively. Rather, the report was meant to help the universities gain a better understanding of their students’ experiences and attitudes, he wrote in an email to the News.
Stern also cast doubt on the female student’s claim that the encounter in question was not consensual. The incident, which occurred in October of 2014, involved two encounters between Montague and the female student in the same night.
According to the statement, the female student joined Montague in bed, voluntarily undressed herself, and had sexual intercourse with Montague — an encounter the female student later alleged was nonconsensual. The two then got up, left the room and went separate ways; later that same evening, the female student reached out to Montague to meet up again. She returned to his room and spent the rest of the night in bed with him.
“We believe that it defies logic and common sense that a woman would seek to reconnect and get back into bed with a man who she says forced her to have unwanted sex just hours earlier,” the statement said.
Stern’s reasoning drew criticism from experts, victims’ advocates and sexual assault survivors, who argued that the language Stern used in the statement blames victims.
“I cannot explain this woman’s behavior, and, perhaps, neither can she,” said a female Yale student who has gone through the UWC informal and formal complaint processes but chose to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “I did some things during and immediately following my own assault that didn’t make sense. The way that a person reacts to being assaulted doesn’t have to follow a formula, it doesn’t have to be logical.”
Laura Dunn, the executive director of SurvJustice, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims, said that any time sexual violence occurs within an ongoing relationship, it can be challenging for a victim to determine what to do next. She added that the statement’s suggestion that a victim of sexual violence would not return to stay with the accused assailant is based on a “lack of understanding” of the dynamics of dating violence.
Student group Unite Against Sexual Assault at Yale also criticized the “false notion” that a woman would not reconnect with her assailant in a statement released in response to Stern’s announcement.
Still, others saw value in Stern’s critique and identified systemic flaws in the UWC process.
“Cross examination is one of the most important tools in the legal system to assess [credibility], but Yale, like a lot of schools, does not allow for it,” said Samantha Harris, director of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “What we are seeing in a lot of schools is that the process wasn’t fair and reliable.”
Because in cases of sexual assault there are often only two witnesses, determination of credibility is crucial, particularly in cases where there are conflicting statements, Harris said. Since 2011, there have been more than 85 lawsuits against universities by students accused of sexual misconduct who allege they were denied due process rights, according to Harris.
Stern’s statement, which marks the first public comment released by Montague since he told the News on Feb. 17 that he was taking a “personal leave” from the team, kicked off a media firestorm around a team in the midst of a program-best postseason run.
After amassing a 13–1 record in conference play, the Yale men’s basketball team advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 54 years. However, the announcement of the lawsuit partially overshadowed the excitement around the team’s historic March Madness berth.
As No. 12-seeded Yale went on to defeat No. 5-seeded Baylor 79–75 to notch Yale’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, students and alumni were confronted with what many described as a difficult decision: whether to actively support the team, which had publicly demonstrated its support for its former captain.
Despite Montague’s absence on the court, the team maintained close relations with him, FaceTiming and texting him before games, according to current players. Montague attended both the Baylor and Duke games, where he cheered the team on from the stands.
Montague was one of thousands of Bulldog fans who made the trek to Providence, Rhode Island, for both games. But others chose not to make the trip.
“The reason I cannot support the men’s basketball team is really simple; I can’t support an organization that has fostered rape culture on our campus and derailed conversations about sexual violence and assault,” Joshua Tranen ’18 told the News. “It would take a whole lot of cognitive dissonance for me to cheer on the Yale basketball team while less than a month ago they were publicly supporting their captain who was expelled for sexual misconduct.”
Tranen said that although he recognizes the momentousness of Yale’s NCAA Tournament berth, the pervasiveness of rape culture is a larger issue.
But other students said they were able to separate the team’s performance on the court from the controversy surrounding it off the court.
“In my opinion, the team’s performance has overshadowed the recent events,” said Celine Yeap ’19, a member of the women’s squash team. “They worked hard to get to where they are, and I think all we Yalies and Bulldogs want to see is a great basketball game.”
The team ended its March Madness run on March 19 with a loss to defending national champion Duke in the Round of 32.