Former Virginia wide receiver Aidan Howard has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school, claiming the football program bullied him over a diagnosed learning disability and forced him to participate in physical hazing activities that left him with eye damage. Two current coaches were named in the suit. He accuses the school of violating "federal Title IX gender equity laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act and negligence laws, among others," according to ESPN's Outside the Lines.
According to the suit, Howard endured regular bouts of verbal and physical assault from his former teammates, incidents which were known by coaches but either ignored or condoned.
Howard states in the suit that the upperclassmen on the team began bullying and harassing him "because of his soft-spoken and mild-mannered nature" soon after he began taking classes at UVA this summer. The lawsuit alleges that teammates Doni Dowling and David Eldridge, also listed as defendants, perceived Howard "to be 'soft' and not 'manly' like other student athletes in the football program." Dowling, a junior, is Virginia's second-leading receiver in yards this season, and Eldridge, a sophomore pass-catcher, is fifth.
"[They] would question Aidan's 'toughness' and 'manliness' and would call him 'stupid,' 'dumb,' 'slow,' and 'retarded,'" the lawsuit states, alleging that the players would make fun of him because he didn't comprehend plays and routes as well as his teammates.
The suit also alleges that wide receivers coach Marques Hagans harassed and bullied Howard when he didn't understand something, which served to encourage similar discriminatory behavior among his teammates. Hagans is named as a defendant in the suit, though Bronco Mendenhall, in his first season as Virginia's head coach, is not.
A test at UVA diagnosed Howard with a learning disability, and he was receiving additional academic support, of which coaches and players were aware, according to the lawsuit. The suit also accused teammates of taking and sharing photos of Howard with their cellphones and writing captions or comments on them stating he was "dumb" while in the presence of Hagans and other coaches.
Another instance alleged in the suit stated Howard was forced to box another Cavaliers newcomer, resulting in a broken eye socket and a concussion for Howard. The suit states 105 players witnessed the fight along with graduate assistant Famika Anae -- son of offensive coordinator Robert Anae -- who instructed players not to film the fight on their cell phones.
"The fight came to an end when Aidan sustained severe eye injuries," the complaint states, according to the Virginian-Pilot. "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."
From the complaint:
Additionally, Howard says he witnessed other players participate in forced fights and wrestling matches in various states of undress.
The university has responded to the suit with this statement:
"The University has been actively investigating these reports consistent with its obligations under the law and University policy. The University does not comment on ongoing litigation and will not make any further statements regarding this case."
At least one current player has stepped forward in support of Hagans.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is not named in the statement, but Hagans and Famika Anae are, along with Wahoos receivers Dowling and Eldridge and the school's president and AD Craig Littlepage.
Howard has since been granted his release to transfer to James Madison.