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Basketball players sue New Mexico State University, former coach over alleged mishandling of assault

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(LAS CRUCES, N.M.) — Two basketball players spoke out Wednesday after filing a lawsuit against New Mexico State University accusing it of negligence, vicarious liability and violation of the state’s civil rights act after they allege they complained about being assaulted by fellow players and were ignored.

The three players named in the suit are being accused of sexual assault, battery and false imprisonment.

The two players — William “Deuce” Benjamin Jr. and Shakiru “Shak” Odunewu — allege the abuse went on for months, despite them reporting it to the coaching staff. Deuce’s father, William Benjamin, a former NMSU star basketball player, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

After Benjamin reported the alleged incidents to police, New Mexico State suspended its basketball program and fired the team’s head coach in the middle of its season in February, saying at the time this was due to a “hazing incident.”

The lawsuit filed last week alleged that what the university referred to as hazing crossed the line “into nonconsensual touching,” harassment and abuse of players that continued “for months.”

“When coaches and universities do not take adequate action to either prevent it from happening, or just stop it from happening, they fail their student athletes and they’re complicit, at that point, in the abuse,” Joleen Youngers, a lawyer representing Deuce and his father, said at a press conference Wednesday.

The defendants named in the suit are the NMSU board of regents, two former members of the coaching staff — including former coach Greg Heiar — and three former players: Kim Aiken Jr., Doctor Bradley and Deshawndre Washington. 

The suit alleges that the three players began degrading Odunewu through unwanted touching and cruel comments in the locker room. The behavior allegedly was “rarely, if ever addressed or limited by the coaching staff,” according to the suit.

The three players were allegedly “frequently inappropriate, disrespectful, degrading and violent toward their fellow team members, particularly those who were quieter and less accustomed to a rough environment,” according to the suit.

In one incident, Bradley filmed as he and Aiken harassed Odunewu while he was in the shower in what lawyers described as a “traumatizing event,” according to the suit.

He was later the victim of “unwanted physical and sexual contact accompanied by degrading remarks and taunts,” according to the suit.

When Odunewu reported one incident of alleged sexual assault to the coaching staff — namely Heiar and associate coach Dominique Taylor — Taylor allegedly “laughed in his face and said, ‘What do you want me to do?"”

According to the lawsuit, Odunewu discussed what had happened three times with Heiar. Heiar allegedly told Odunewu’s former high school coach that he was looking into it and would be issuing suspensions, but none of the players or staff aware were ever suspended.

“It’s just sad to see. Like never in a million years did I ever think that something like this was gonna happen,” Odunewu said at a press conference Wednesday.

Odunewu told reporters he had not wanted to go public with the allegations because he did not want to “tarnish” or mess up their careers.

“It just got to a point where I couldn’t bear it anymore. It’s just sad that my college experience had to go like this,” Odunewu said.

The three players’ alleged attacks on Benjamin usually happened in the locker room before workouts or practices. According to the suit, the three players would hold him down and expose him, and inflict pain on him and “degrade him.”

In one instance, this happened on the road in front of women, according to the suit.

After Benjamin reported the abuse to NMSU police, they launched an investigation listing possible criminal charges of “false imprisonment, criminal sexual contact and harassment,” according to the suit. The matter is still under investigation by law enforcement.

“My dream turned into a nightmare real quick and I never expected this to happen my freshman year. Now because of the situation, I gotta go a different route,” Benjamin told reporters at a press conference Wednesday.

“I haven’t been able to move on from this, but I want to be able to move on from this and go to a school that will just let me play basketball and let me be the person that I am,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin and Odunewu are asking the court for damages and legal fees, according to the suit.

The university launched an investigation conducted by Greenberg Traurig, a law firm, which recommended NMSU hire a third party to assist it in reviewing and revising its existing training modules to include the latest education in hazing prevention and response, which it said should be provided to all employees and students, NMSU said in a statement Wednesday.

The firm also recommended NMSU hire a third party to review its organizational effectiveness, working relationships and reporting structures for hazing prevention and response training as well as its response and investigation of hazing allegations, including in the Office of Institutional Equity, the dean of students’ office and any other NMSU department in which the hazing occurred.

In a statement to ABC News, the university said it had taken action in response to allegations.

“NMSU continues to regard this matter as extremely important. Once university leaders were made aware of these allegations, extensive measures were taken, including, without limitation: recalling the entire basketball team from their road trip out of state, placing the entire coaching staff on administrative leave, launching an investigation, making mental health counseling available, canceling the remainder of the season, and firing the head coach,” the university said.

“The kind of behavior described in those allegations has no place on our campus,” NMSU said.

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