Two NMSU men’s basketball players allege sexual assault in lawsuit filed against coaches, teammates, regents - Albuquerque Journal

Two NMSU men’s basketball players allege sexual assault in lawsuit filed against coaches, teammates, regents

The basketball court of the Pan American Center at New Mexico State University is seen Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Las Cruces, N.M. The remainder of the men’s basketball team’s season has been canceled, and the team’s coach fired. (AP Photo/Andrs Leighton)

Two New Mexico State University basketball players claim they were sexually assaulted and humiliated repeatedly by three teammates, and that when they approached coaches about the alleged abuse nothing was done.

The allegations were included in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against university officials, basketball coaches and players in connection with a hazing scandal within the men’s team that eventually led to the cancellation of the Aggies’ season and the firing of the head coach.

The suit was brought by William Benjamin, a former basketball star who played for the Aggies in the late ’80s and early ’90s; his son, William “Deuce” Benjamin Jr.; and Shakiru Odunewu. The younger Benjamin recently announced in a social media post that he was entering the transfer portal. Odunewu has also left the program.

The suit was filed in state District Court against the NMSU Board of Regents; former head coach Greg Heiar and assistant coach Dominique Taylor, and players Kim Aiken Jr., Doctor Bradley and Deshawndre Washington.

“While NMSU does not comment on pending litigation, we want to assure everyone that this issue is being taken seriously,” NMSU spokesman Justin Bannister said in a statement. “As we announced earlier this year, the university is working with (the law firm) Greenberg Traurig to look into these allegations. Their work is underway and running in parallel to our own internal investigation into this matter.”

The lawsuit includes a preliminary statement that says the defendants are speaking out not only for their own benefit, but to put an end to such behavior in college athletics.

“When the behavior goes too far, and crosses the line into non-consensual touching, it is not mere hazing; it is battery and sexual assault,” the defendants wrote in the complaint. “When the behavior continues for months, it cannot be viewed as an initiation rite; instead, it is harassment and abuse.”

The Journal’s policy is to not to reveal names of sexual assault victims except when they self identify in a lawsuit.

Some of the allegations include that Aiken, Bradley and Washington repeatedly targeted Odunewu and Benjamin, degraded them repeatedly and at times physically pinned the players down and touched them in ways that rose to the sexual assault, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that Benjamin joined the Las Cruces team as a hometown hero, as he was a star player for Las Cruces High School and his father, also his coach at LCHS, was in the Aggie Hall of Fame. Benjamin was a ball boy for the Aggies when he was in middle school and said in a social media post announcing he was leaving the program on Tuesday that it was his dream to play for NMSU.

“Due to the actions of others (which I will not go into here) that dream became a nightmare,” Benjamin wrote on Tuesday. “Adding insult to injury coach Hooten (new NMSU coach Jason Hooten) recently informed me that it would be in my best interest to continue my education and basketball career elsewhere.”

Sexual assault allegations

The suit says Odunewu was a devout Muslim who strove to be kind to others and didn’t express aggression.

In the summer of 2022, the three basketball players named in the lawsuit started to “degrade” Odunewu with cruel comments and unwanted touching, according to the suit.

In one case, they opened the curtain when he was showering and forced him to do squats as they slapped his buttocks. During a road trip, the three players pinned him to the ground, pulled down his pants and underwear, and sexually assaulted him, according to the complaint.

The suit alleges that Odunewu reported the incidents to Heiar and Taylor in November, but Taylor laughed at him. Taylor allegedly asked Odunewu: “What do you want me to do?”

Benjamin faced similar treatment, often in the locker room and sometimes in front of coaches, according to the suit. One incident happened after he was pulled into a hotel room and assaulted in front of players and some young women who were hanging out with the team. He struggled with his classes and to be a part of the team because of the mental and physical abuse he was suffering, the suit said.

The suit alleges that the player’s father reached out to Heiar and NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia, neither of whom returned his calls. The elder Benjamin in the lawsuit is arguing that the scandal has harmed the relationship between him and his son and he is entitled to damages.

The Journal spoke with Moccia, who said he could not comment on the matter, citing policy that prohibits him from talking about pending litigation, and referred all questions to Bannister. The Journal left a voicemail with Heiar seeking comment. It was not returned.

The attorney for the Benjamins, Joleen Youngers, said in an email, “I am impressed with the dignity and bravery of these two young men in bringing this case. It takes great courage to come forward after all they have been through.”

No charges have been filed in connection to any of the incidents mentioned in the lawsuit. It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether Taylor, Aiken or Bradley had attorneys.

Read the lawsuit

NMSU basketball players sue coaches, teammates, regents by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd

Additional allegations

The suit says other players and a staff member suffered similar treatment from the three players, who are all around 6 feet, 7 inches tall. The lawsuit says that all three players had full-ride scholarships and Washington and Bradley received $5,000 and $3,500 per month, respectively, in Name, Image, Likeness payments. The Journal was not able to confirm those payments.

The complaint says the hazing allegations started in the summer of 2022 and continued until Benjamin filed a police report on Feb. 10, 2023, which was reported to Moccia and former Chancellor Dan Arvizu. That’s when the season was suspended.

Days later, the rest of the games were officially canceled and Heiar was fired for cause, which means the university doesn’t have to pay him for the years remaining on his contract. He was paid a base salary of $300,000 per year and was under contract through April 2027.

Among the counts included in the lawsuit, the complaint accuses Heiar and NMSU of negligence. It also accuses Aiken, Bradley and Washington of sexual assault, battery and false imprisonment, and it is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and other relief.

New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu speaks as athletic director Mario Moccia listens during a news conference to announce the men’s basketball season was being canceled Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Las Cruces, N.M. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)

Scandalous season

It wasn’t the first scandal to rock the NMSU basketball program under Heiar, a first-year coach.

On Nov. 19, when the team was in Albuquerque for the rivalry game between the Aggies and the Lobos, Mike Peake, an Aggie player, was involved in a fatal shooting on the University of New Mexico campus.

Police have said that Peake was lured to campus in the middle of the night by three students who then attacked him, and he returned fire in self-defense, killing a UNM student. Peake was shot in the leg.

The shooting brought the team under scrutiny after an investigation revealed players were out late the night before the game, and the team left on a bus back to Las Cruces while police were still trying to obtain the firearm that Peake used and other evidence.

The bus was stopped near Truth or Consequences and an assistant coach turned over a bloodied tablet that Peake had with him at the time of the shooting. The gun used in the shooting was left at the team’s hotel in Albuquerque and Taylor later gave it to police.

NMSU confirmed Wednesday the 13 players who were on scholarship with the team included Washington, Bradley, Aiken — who was never cleared by the NCAA to play in a game after transferring to NMSU from the University of Arizona — and Odunewu.

Benjamin, though on scholarship briefly prior to the season, was not one of the 13 on athletic scholarship for the season. He was redshirting, which means he was not playing in games but still on the team, during the season.

It remained unclear Wednesday why players who were redshirting and players who were not eligible to play for the Aggies last season were on road trips with the team when some of the alleged incidents occurred.

“This series of events not only points to a lack of supervision over players, but also appears to indicate that the coaching staff was assisting players in covering up bad behavior and thwarting police efforts,” the lawsuit states.

It marked a stunning fall for a once-proud basketball program. The Aggies have made the NCAA tournament 25 times. During the 2021-22 season, the team won the Western Athletic Conference and made the tournament as a No. 12 seed. In the first-round, the Aggies upset this year’s national champion, the UConn Huskies.

The Aggies will now look to rebuild under Hooten, who was hired last month.

There are zero players listed currently for the 2023-24 season. Two players this week announced via social media they have committed to transfer to NMSU for next season, but there remain 11 roster spots available, as of Wednesday.

Season in shambles: A timeline of NMSU men’s basketball program in 2022-2023

Home » Sports » Two NMSU men’s basketball players allege sexual assault in lawsuit filed against coaches, teammates, regents

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