Ex-New Mexico State players discuss sexual assault lawsuit allegations

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For the first time since filing a lawsuit April 19 alleging negligence, loss of consortium – or familial relation impacts – sexual assault, battery and false imprisonment against their former university, basketball coaches and teammates, former New Mexico State players Deuce Benjamin and Shakiru Odunewu returned to the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

The New Mexico State Board of Regents, former head coach Greg Heiar, former assistant coach Dominique Taylor and former players DeShawndre Washington, Doctor Bradley and Kim Aiken Jr., were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

In the suit, Benjamin and Odunewu alleged that they were sexually assaulted by three teammates and that despite reporting it to coaching staff nothing was done.

Both players have since entered the transfer portal with hopes of continuing their basketball careers elsewhere.

‘My life has not been easy ever since those events happened,’ said Benjamin. ‘First it hurts and then it changes you. There is a part of me that hasn’t been the same now and I want people to know that.

‘All you can do is weather the storm and stay positive through this whole process. I’m proud of myself that I survived those days when I felt I couldn’t. Pain makes you stronger and I’m still fixing myself every day. Regardless if the plan changes, I stay loyal to my purpose and my purpose is to play at a Division I school and to represent my city and the state of New Mexico.’

Benjamin was a target of abuse by three teammates, according to the lawsuit, which began in the summer of 2022 and escalated until February 2023.

Odunewu redshirted last season, but signed to play under former head coach Chris Jans. According to the lawsuit, Washington, Bradley and Aiken began to ‘degrade’ Odunewu in the summer of 2022 through unwanted touching and cruel comments in the locker room.

A second assault on Odunewu, the lawsuit alleged, occurred during a bus ride on Nov. 12, 2022 and involved Aiken, Bradley, and Washington.

According to the lawsuit the three forced Odunewu ‘onto the floor in the back of the bus. Aiken and Bradley pinned him down and pulled his pants and underwear down to his ankles. … They slapped his bare buttocks and he felt fingers inserted into his anus while his scrotum was simultaneously squeezed.’

According to the court documents, Heiar and the coaching staff were present on the bus, though seated at the front. In response to the assault taking place, one of the coaches turned around and yelled out, “Stop playing around,’ the lawsuit alleged.

Heiar and Taylor were alerted to behavior when Odunewu officially reported it, and the lawsuit alleged Odunewu also asked Taylor to intervene. According to the court documents, ‘Taylor laughed in his face and said, ‘What do you want me to do?”

‘Last year I was a redshirt with Coach Jans and the culture was different,’ Odunewu said on Wednesday. ‘Nothing like this would ever happen. There was discipline, there was an authority figure. It’s just sad to see … I was born and raised in a very strong Islamic household … When this was going on, I didn’t want to come out because I was scared if I did come out, I was going to tarnish and mess up the people who were involved and their careers.

‘It’s just sad that my college experience had to go like this. I really feel bad for Deuce. This is his hometown and he was born and raised here. His dad is a Aggie legend and he comes here and has to deal with this nonsense. I hope me and Deuce will have the strength to move past this.’

Odunewu and Benjamin also detailed an incident where the three players who harassed them also pulled down the pants of an assistant coach in public.

‘After the [game] at UTEP, when we lost, they pantsed one of the assistants,’ Benjamin told ESPN. He said assistant had his pants pulled down while he slept on the bus, and another was able to discourage the three players by yelling. ‘[Other coaches acted] like they didn’t see it,’ Benjamin said.

Benjamin also told ESPN that pulling down another player’s pants was part of a common pregame ritual. He said one player was ordered by Washington to pull down his shorts for good luck prior to the team running on the court for a game.

‘We know the vast majority of civil cases settle,’ said Joleen Youngers, attorney for Deuce and William Benjamin. ‘We are preparing the case to go to trial. If there is the opportunity for a good settlement that matters to these young men that helps right some wrongs, we are open to it. If we were able to resolve the case sooner and get these guys out on the basketball court, that would probably be the very best thing for them.’

Attorneys claim complaints were not addressed

William Benjamin, father of Deuce Benjamin and also a party in the lawsuit, was recently inducted to the New Mexico State Athletics Hall of Fame and is a longtime coach at Las Cruces High School.

Attorneys for the Benjamins stated in a press conference Wednesday that school coaches and administration were made aware of the allegations before authorities were notified and a lawsuit was filed.

William Benjamin hoped for accountability, something he said was promised by New Mexico State athletics Director Mario Moccia in a February press conference after the school fired Heiar and cancelled the season.

‘Nobody has a crystal ball and and nobody bats .1,000, but we still hold people accountable for their actions; for what they do and do not do,’ said William Benjamin, mirroring Moccia’s comments at the time regarding his decision to hire Greg Heiar.

In its only response to the lawsuit, the University stated that a task force would be convened to ‘facilitate implementation of preventive measures whose purpose is to identify and extinguish any opportunity for this to occur in the future.’

On Wednesday, New Mexico State also released a two-page summary of its third-party investigation by Greenberg Traurig into the hazing allegations.

According to the executive summary, ‘Our investigation focused on a programmatic review of New Mexico State’s anti-hazing policies and procedures. Based on that review, we make certain recommendations below. GT was not retained toinvestigate the 2023 allegations themselves.’

Among the recommendations were the addition of training for students and employees and ‘Investigation of and Response to Hazing Allegations by OIE (Office of Institutional Equity), DOS (Dean of Students), and/or Other Departments.’

Youngers said that Tuesday was the first time Odunewu had been contacted by New Mexico State and Deuce Benjamin has not been contacted by the school.

However, it’s unclear if all current student athletes are aware of such processes as incidents occurred as early as last summer and through February, according to the lawsuit.

Odunewu’s attorney, Ramez Shamieh, said New Mexico State general counsel Roy Collins ‘had no clue in February what this was about,’ during a Zoom Call. ‘I think that gives you a good idea how the school is operating.’

New Mexico State University has since been assigned Las Cruces attorney Blaine Mynatt through the state’s Risk Management Division to represent the university in the lawsuit.

‘I don’t believe (student athletes) felt they would be supported,’ Youngers said. ‘Particularly after some overtures were mad and nothing changes. What we see all too often with business and government entities and schools, who have great policies and procedures and they are window dressing or lip service. Because if people don’t know about them or feel they have the power to access them, it doesn’t matter.’

William Benjamin addresses son’s interaction with current coach Jason Hooten

Deuce Benjamin reported an interaction with current New Mexico State coach Jason Hooten, who was introduced to replace Heiar on March 26.

According to the lawsuit and a April 18 post on his social media Deuce Benjamin said, ‘Coach Hooten recently informed me that it would be in my best interest to continue my education and basketball career elsewhere.’

The interaction was also mentioned in a recent letter from Higher Education Department Cabinet Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez, who directed university leadership to take immediate action to address mounting concerns, including another investigation into the interaction that Rodriguez said could, ‘constitute retaliation against a local, home grown athlete and New Mexican for the act of coming forward with legitimate concerns and allegations of abuse and hazing.’

William Benjamin said he met with Hooten following his introductory press conference, and was under the impression that he would be able to speak again with the new coach regarding his son’s future with the program.

‘I thought me being an alumni, Hall of Fame, and a person in the community, I would get that conversation and I never did,’ William Benjamin said. ‘(Hooten) saw my son practicing in the gym and spoke to him without me being present and basically informed him that it would be in his best interest to go make a name for himself someplace else.

‘I would have thought he (Hooten) would have stuck with us having a conversation as a family and him saying the same thing would have been fine. I wish I would have been present for that conversation, but unfortunately I wasn’t.’

William Benjamin said that players who could be victims of assault, should be treated differently than a player who may or may not be involved with the program under a new coach.

‘I don’t think you are supposed to press the reset button and lump the victims in with everybody you are getting rid of,’ William Benjamin said. ‘I think that the victims deserve a little bit more sympathy and empathy for the situation.

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