Culture Clash: Title IX suit shines light on problems with Tennessee athletics
This story appears in the Feb. 29, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. It includes a few editorial notes to reflect updates to a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Tennessee alleging that the school has created a culture enabling sexual assaults by student-athletes. These updates were first reported by The Tennessean.
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In the spring of 2013 a vice chancellor at Tennessee wrote an internal memo that skewered the university’s athletic department. His complaints read like a CliffsNotes version of the what’s-wrong-with-major-college-sports guidebook. The department, the vice chancellor said, refused to address an “inordinate number of disciplinary cases involving athletes” and wielded “undue influence and diminishes or eliminates the independence of thought and action necessary for unbiased review.” When the school did hand down punishments to misbehaving athletes, the penalties were met with “constant criticism” from athletic officials.
The salvo laid blame at the highest levels of the university—with president Joe DiPietro, chancellor Jimmy Cheek and athletic director Dave Hart Jr. Their actions and the athletics culture they created, the memo asserted, placed both students and the school’s institutional integrity “at peril.”
The memo, which was leaked to The Tennessean in March 2015, was as notable for who wrote it as for what it said. The author was Tim Rogers, a university employee for over 38 years who, for the final decade of his tenure, oversaw the office that investigated student misconduct. In May 2013, Rogers abruptly announced that he was leaving the school, telling Cheek that he found the chancellor’s failure to address his concerns to be an “intolerable situation.” In particular, he was troubled by the administration’s rejection of his proposal for a campuswide program to address issues of sexual assault. Around the time the memo became public, Cheek told The Tennessean that he had heard that Rogers’s staff had been “too strict” in how it disciplined athletes.
Nearly three years later Rogers’s memo sounds ominously prophetic. On Feb. 9 six unidentified women sued the university, alleging that the athletic department turned a blind eye to transgressions by athletes and created a “hostile sexual environment” and “rape culture.” The suit centers on five cases of alleged sexual assault by athletes between 2013 and ’15 that, the suit argues, the university failed to properly investigate and adjudicate. The suit claims that Tennessee has long been in violation of Title IX, which in addition to mandating fairness in funding for men’s and women’s sports also sets guidelines for how federally funded institutions should handle sexual assault complaints.
[Editor’s note: On Wednesday, two more women joined in this lawsuit against the school, which was originally filed on Feb. 9. Counting these new plaintiffs, the number of women suing the University of Tennessee is now eight.]
The complaint runs 64 pages and cites examples of alleged Title IX violations at UT over the past two decades. But one paragraph on page 8 received the most attention: It describes a 1996 sexual harassment claim directed at Peyton Manning, then a 19-year-old sophomore quarterback. He was alleged to have exposed himself to Jamie Naughright (then named Jamie Whited), a female trainer, as she examined Manning’s injured foot. (The details of the allegation have changed over time: In 2003, during litigation of a defamation suit brought against Manning, Naughright said that Manning had actually pushed his genitals onto her face. Manning, in a court deposition, said he had been mooning a teammate as part of a joke, something the teammate denied in sworn testimony.)
The Title IX lawsuit sheds no new light on the Manning case, for which the quarterback has never faced criminal charges; he has twice settled suits with Naughright for undisclosed terms. But the mention of Manning created media scrutiny that shined a light on a Tennessee athletic culture long thought by many on campus to be corrosive and hostile to women.
Reached by phone this week, Rogers declined to comment; he did say that he “stands by everything 100%” from his 2013 memo. Butch Jones, the school’s football coach, told The Tennessean last Saturday that “there is no culture problem” at UT. But Jenny Wright, the director of student judicial affairs at the university from 2011 to ’13 and the associate director of the same office from 2008 to ’11, had voiced concerns to her supervisors while employed there about athletic department meddling in the school’s judiciary process. An athletic culture with few checks and balances reminded her of another well-known college sports scandal, in spirit if not in the details. “In regards to the culture at Tennessee,” she says, “I said on many occasions, Does Penn State mean nothing?”
Last spring the federal government initiated two Title IX investigations of Tennessee. The findings have not been made public, but the Feb. 9 lawsuit is built around the same incidents as the federal investigation.
The suit alleges sexual assaults by Yemi Makanjuola, a men’s basketball player from 2011 to ’13; former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones; and a football player listed as John Doe I. (Jones’s accuser, a UT student, declined to press charges after the alleged incident in February 2015. Campus officials found that Makanjuola had violated the student code of conduct with “objectionably offensive” behavior in March 2013, but no criminal charges were brought. Johnson and Williams were each charged with aggravated rape after an incident in February 2015; each pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial this summer.)
The suit also alleges that Cheek, Hart and Butch Jones acted in violation of Title IX by showing “deliberate indifference” to the allegations and by exerting “direct interference” with the university disciplinary process. The lawsuit also says that receiver Drae Bowles was assaulted by other football players for assisting the female UT student who accused Johnson and Williams of rape. (Bowles denied that he had been assaulted to the Knoxville News Sentinel.)
[Editor’s note: A new filing in the lawsuit, which was first reported by The Tennessean on Wednesday, contradicts Bowles’s initial denial of assault. In a sworn declaration, Bowles maintained that he was punched “in the mouth with great force” by Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt, “causing Bowles’s lip to bleed,” as retribution for assisting the alleged rape victim. Bowles also claims that he called head coach Butch Jones to tell him what had happened, and that Jones “stated to Bowles he was very disappointed in Bowles and that he had ‘betrayed the team’” for helping the woman, according to the affidavit.]
The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges other instances of favorable treatment of athletes: investigations of assaults that stalled, or shifted, or disappeared; whistle-blowers who lost their jobs or retired shortly after they leveled complaints about the ways athletes were (or weren’t) disciplined. (On Monday a Tennessee spokesperson said the university could not comment on pending litigation but added that “we disagree with” the notion that the athletic department has interfered with the school’s judicial process.) Wright says, “There was underlying pressure of wanting to make sure I did everything perfectly because I knew I was going to be pressured by the athletic director, and by the chancellor” to go easy when looking into allegations of athlete misbehavior.
Ron Leadbetter, the school’s associate general counsel from 1972 to 2008, says that what he hears and reads is troubling. “The university, in the last several years, has been more concerned with bad p.r. than about taking action to protect its students,” he says. “It concerns me as a citizen.”
Though the suit cites behavior dating to the mid 1990s, its most serious allegations are concentrated in the years since Hart took over as AD in 2011. Hart is a longtime college sports administrator who worked at East Carolina, Florida State and Alabama before Tennessee—and who arrived in Knoxville with a track record of questions about his handling of gender and sexual assault issues. In 2003, while Hart was athletic director at FSU, an internal investigation of the athletic department found that officials, Hart included, failed to immediately report an allegation of rape against a football player. In 1997 a gender-discrimination lawsuit filed by Christianne Gobrecht, the former Seminoles women’s basketball coach, alleged that the school’s female coaches were treated worse, paid less and trained in lesser facilities than their male counterparts. She alleged that Hart lied about those differences and violated Title IX repeatedly. The suit was settled for undisclosed terms.
In 2012, JoAnne Graf, an FSU hall of famer and the winningest softball coach in NCAA history, wrote an open letter in the Knoxville News Sentinel saying that Hart was “a bully to women directly and indirectly.”
“It’s pretty obvious that Dave Hart does not treat females the way he treats males,” she says now. “I do see a pattern.... [There] was intimidation, bullying, threatening—the appreciate-what-you-got-or-take-off kind of mentality.”
On Monday, Hart said of Graf: “We agreed to disagree on some things.” When asked if he was bothered in general by the lawsuits naming him, Hart responded: “They do not. I know who I am and what I stand for.”
Some UT employees say that Hart’s heavy-handedness has continued in Knoxville. Wright says she was criticized by Hart for being too strict in the cases of athletes. Before a female athletics luncheon in 2012, Wright says, Hart leaned in until his face was inches away and screamed at her about overprosecuting athletes in front of hundreds of colleagues—an event that Rogers witnessed and referenced in his 2013 memo. (“I never met with Jenny Wright during my tenure here,” Hart says. “Nor did I ever have a conversation with Jenny Wright. I didn’t know what she even looked like.”)
“When I think about it, I still feel overwhelming shock,” she says. Wright also says she received a phone call from Brad Pendergrass, then director of football operations, who she says told her, “You can’t hide from us. We know where to find you.” (Pendergrass has denied that he said that to her.)
“After I got that phone call, I started to feel worried and afraid,” she says. She voiced concerns about the practice of “active interference” by the athletic department that included coaches helping witnesses “get their story straight.” Wright also says that Cheek told her not to pursue an investigation in the case of Marlin Lane, a football player accused of sexual assault in April 2013. (Lane was never arrested, and his accuser did not press charges.)
Wright was accused of having inappropriate relations with student athletes and fired by Tennessee on May 13, 2013. A year later a university investigation cleared her of wrongdoing after finding no evidence to substantiate the claims.
“Dave Hart and the administrators above him [demonstrated] deplorable treatment of women who played major roles in the Women’s Athletic Department who, after the men’s and women’s departments were merged on his watch [in 2011], were either demoted or essentially fired for ‘insubordination’ just because they disagreed with him on certain issues,” says Barbara Mead, a professor of human performance and sport studies at Tennessee from 1971 to ’97. “Hart has also led an effort to diminish women’s athletics at UT because their success was outshining that of the men.”
A suit filed by Deborah Jennings, the Lady Vols’ media director who worked at the school for 35 years, against the university and Hart in 2012 alleged that after the men’s and women’s departments consolidated in ’11 she was “marginalized and ostracized and denied employment opportunities due to her gender.” Jennings also alleged that Hart and others “fostered a culture of intimidation and hostility” when they regarded employees as disloyal or divisive—a label she received, she says, when she brought up complaints about gender discrimination.
The lawsuit notes that in one round of athletic department layoffs in 2012, 12 of the 15 employees who were let go were female. After the layoffs, the suit says, 13 of the 15 senior members of the athletic department’s senior administrative staff, or 86.7%, were male. Of the 23 executive staff and senior administrative staff positions, the lawsuit says, 20 were male (87%), three were female (13%) and none were African-American. The plaintiffs also included a sworn affidavit from legendary UT women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who stated that Hart forced her into early retirement in 2012. “That accusation is absolutely false,” says Hart. (Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. She later amended her stance and said she may have misinterpreted Hart’s comments.)
Jennings’s lawsuit says the school retaliated to her suit with a “libelous memo” that maintained she had been fired for unsatisfactory performance. In 2014 she settled with Tennessee for $320,000, with no admission of wrongdoing by the school. In another suit in 2012 former athletic trainers Jenny Moshak, Heather Mason and Collin Schlosser claimed employees in the women’s athletic department were paid less than their male counterparts before being replaced by less qualified male candidates. The university settled with them for at least $1.05 million.
“Prior cases settled by the University of Tennessee are not an admission of guilt,” Hart told SI on Monday. “Quite the contrary. We wanted to move on.”
[Editor's note: In this same Monday conversation with SI, Hart was asked, "Does it concern you that someone could be subjected to ramifications for helping sexual assault victims?" Hart responded, "If it were accurate, certainly."]
The Title IX lawsuit is hardly the first record of UT’s alleged tone-deafness toward sexual harassment. The allegations against Manning first came to light when Naughright filed a complaint with the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1996. She cited 27 examples of harassment and discrimination that she said took place from ’94 through ’96—including players who nicknamed her breasts “midgets” and referred to her in crude, homophobic terms; supervisors who protected athletes who harassed her; and an incident at a car wash in which an athlete poured water over a female TV reporter. Tennessee’s Office of Diversity Resources and Educational Resources (DRES) found that Naughright was “not subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct” and that many of the allegations were “not sexual in nature.”
The Manning incident was number 27 on Naughright's list; in 1997 she settled her claim with Tennessee for $300,000. Though the recent Title IX suit has again made her 20-year-old allegations headline news, she has not commented on that case. Manning is not targeted in the Title IX suit, and it’s unlikely he would be compelled to testify. But Tennessee’s most famous alum, fresh off a Super Bowl victory, is now entangled in the darker side of the school's athletic culture.