North Carolina

Amid UNC probe of altercation, four players suspended from season-opener

UNC wide receiver Jackson Boyer (17) poses for a photograph during the Tar Heel's "Media Day" on Saturday Aug. 2, 2014 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.
UNC wide receiver Jackson Boyer (17) poses for a photograph during the Tar Heel's "Media Day" on Saturday Aug. 2, 2014 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

While UNC-Chapel Hill investigates an off-campus altercation among members of the football team, coach Larry Fedora announced Wednesday that four players, including two defensive starters, have been suspended for the first game of the season Saturday.

Fedora said Desmond Lawrence, Donnie Miles, M.J. Stewart and Brian Walker were suspended for a violation of team policies. He didn’t reveal which policies.

Fedora’s announcement came one day after Yahoo! Sports reported that Jackson Boyer, a nonscholarship wide receiver, sustained a concussion amid an alleged hazing incident that turned into what the website characterized as an assault.

Neither the Chapel Hill Police Department nor UNC’s campus police were called to the Aloft Hotel, where the alleged incident happened in early August while the football team stayed there during preseason camp. There is no police record of any altercation at the hotel.

After twice saying he couldn’t comment on the Yahoo! report, Fedora announced the suspensions immediately after practice. All four players are defensive backs, a position group that refers to itself as the “rude boys.”

Lawrence and Walker, both from Charlotte, are starting cornerbacks. Stewart and Miles are backup players, but Fedora expected both to play prominent roles.

“We’re going to hold all of our guys accountable for everything they do, on the field and off the field,” Fedora said. “And we also have very high expectations for guys in this program, and they didn’t meet those expectations. So that’s why we’re having some disciplinary measures here.”

Fedora, though, offered no details of why the players were suspended, other than to say, more than once, it was because of a “violation of team policy.” Details of what transpired at the Aloft Hotel, then, remained scant.

Boyer’s mother, Kimber, and his brother, Cole, did not return messages seeking comment. UNC did not make any football players or assistant coaches available for comment after practice. Boyer, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining, has continued to practice with the team.

UNC officials have declined to discuss details of the alleged incident, and it’s unclear whether the university considers what happened to meet its official definition of hazing.

The university has a clear anti-hazing policy. The policy, outlined on UNC’s website, reads, in part, “UNC expressly prohibits hazing or any activity that puts a student’s physical, emotional or psychological health and safety at risk.”

UNC’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs is handling the investigation. Fedora said he had no role in the investigation, and Kevin Best, a football team spokesman, said the athletic department would have no role in it.

The four players will sit out the season opener against Liberty. Asked if the suspensions could last longer than one game, or if he considered the matter closed, Fedora said he considered it “a closed book for me in football, yes.”

It’s unclear, though, whether the university’s broader investigation could add additional disciplinary measures. Fedora said he didn’t know when the investigation might be complete.

“The office of student affairs is handling that, because students are involved,” Fedora said. “So I am not privy to that information, actually. So that may continue to be going at this time.”

Before Yahoo! posted its report Tuesday, neither Fedora nor anyone inside the football program provided any indication that it was aware of an alleged hazing incident. Fedora throughout the preseason has spoken in glowing terms about Lawrence, Stewart and Walker.

He said he didn’t know exactly when he found out about the alleged incident, but once he did he began to take action. Asked why he decided to suspend four players, he said, “We’re getting to a point where I had enough information where I could make a decision.”

Surrounded by television cameras and reporters, Fedora said he hoped the suspensions provided the team a message “that everybody is held accountable for their actions and that we have some very high expectations to be a football player here at the University of North Carolina. And if you don’t meet those expectations that you will be disciplined.”

This episode is another moment of turmoil for an athletic department that has been embroiled in highly publicized controversy. The NCAA recently reopened an investigation it closed in 2012, and the university is still trying to determine the relationship between the athletic department and suspect African- and Afro-American Studies courses.

Now, days before the start of a football season surrounded by high expectations and hope, Fedora is facing his first significant off-the-field crisis at UNC. He approached a throng of reporters with a wry smile and said, joking, that he’d been looking forward to seeing them.

Then he announced the suspensions.

“I think our student-athletes do a great job,” athletics director Bubba Cunningham said after Fedora met with reporters. “We have 18,000 students, we have 800 participating in intercollegiate athletics. And from time to time, we all make mistakes. And when we do, we hold each other accountable.”

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