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Football Player Alleges Critical Hazing Injuries

(CN) — A wide receiver recruited by the University of Virginia this year claims in a federal complaint that he may never play football again after he sustained a broken orbital bone in a hazing ritual.

As laid out in the Oct. 14 lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, a "soft-spoken and mild-mannered nature" made Aiden Howard the target of bullying shortly after his arrival at UVA summer school with an athletic scholarship in July 2016.

In addition to the perception that he was "soft" and "not manly," Howard says his failure to grasp team plays led fellow athletes to mock him as "slow" and "retarded."

An academic-placement test soon revealed, however, that Howard had a learning disability, the complaint says.

Howard claims that this did not stop the bullying, noting that teammates sometimes circulated photographs of him with captions about his struggle to remember plays.

Already "ostracized," according to the complaint, Howard says two teammates informed him in August of an initiation ritual that required him to brawl with another first-year player in the football program.

At least 100 people, including one of the coaches, stood around the crudely taped-off "ring" to watch the fight, Howard says.

As quoted in the complaint, that coach — a graduate assistant for the university's football program — even "yell[ed] 'No phones,' and admonish[ed] the student-athletes to put their cell phones away and to not record videos of the fight."

Howard says he was diagnosed with a concussion after the fight, and that his father had him pulled from the team.

"Despite the university's full knowledge of the reasons for Aidan requesting a release from his national letter of intent, the university simply noted in the national letter of intent release that it was due to 'conduct of others within the university' with no further comment or reason given for granting Aidan the requested release," the complaint states.

A Pennsylvania native, Howard says he planned to play football at the school to which he transferred, Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.

"Unfortunately, after being seen by a physician in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Aidan learned on September 20, 2016, that he actually suffered a broken orbital bone from the fight," the complaint states.

Howard says he underwent surgery on Sept. 29 and now "cannot compete with RMU's Football program during the 2016-2017 academic year."

"It is unclear if he will ever be able to play football again," the complaint continues.

Howard says he was not the only one being hazed at UVA noting that he witnessed some of the upperclassmen "force other first-year student-athletes to participate in fights and wrestling matches while naked or partially naked, an act referred to at UVA as 'ramming.'"

Howard seeks damages for violations of Title IX, the federal law banning gender discrimination in education. The athlete also alleges civil-rights violations, negligence, and violations of the Rehabilitation Act and Americans With Disabilities Act.

Howard says the harassment he faced also amounted to tortious interference with his contract to play football at UVA.

C. James Zeszutek, an attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl, represents Howard.

A spokesman for UVA has not returned a voicemail seeking comment. Team rules for 2016-17 put out by its Football and Athletics Department include a ban on hazing. The rules state: "NO offensive or abusive behavior will be accepted; respect and tolerance for differences is expected ... NO hazing or initiations. No Rookie Night."

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