KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Eleven minutes into a packed press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Center on Tennessee’s campus, university athletic director Dave Hart issued an emphatic statement. “I trust Butch Jones implicitly,” Hart said. “I know who he is. I know the kind of person he is. I trust him.”
Why, on a random Thursday in February, was Hart vouching for Tennessee’s head football coach? New allegations contained in a high-profile lawsuit brought against the university have cast Jones, his program and Tennessee's athletic department in an unfavorable light. On Feb. 9 six unidentified women filed a Title IX lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Nashville alleging that the university's athletic department created a “hostile sexual environment” and “rape culture” on campus that enabled sexual assaults by student-athletes. With two more women joining the lawsuit this week, the number of plaintiffs is now eight, six of whom contend they were victims of rape or sexual assault caused by football or men’s basketball players.
On Wednesday, a new filing to that lawsuit included a sworn declaration by former Volunteers receiver Drae Bowles (he has since transferred to UT-Chattanooga), who claimed that in November 2014 Jones told him he had “betrayed the team” after assisting a female student-athlete who had allegedly been raped by football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams. (Both Johnson and Williams were later charged and will go to trial this summer.)
Hart met with reporters on Thursday as part of Tennessee’s effort to discuss its athletic culture. Pending litigation prevented the athletic director from providing detailed answers to questions pertaining to suit, but Hart staunchly defended the school’s personnel and procedures in the face of recent criticism. “I’m proud of the culture we have here,” Hart said. “But I also understand it is our responsibility to continue to address what is a national problem.”
The question is: Just how prevalent is that problem at Tennessee?
Throughout his press conference, Hart weaved between making several important points. “I have tremendous empathy of the alleged victims and all victims of sexual assault,” he said. He also made it clear, “We encourage victims [of sexual assault] to come forward.” Later, Hart cautioned that the school’s role in the suit is not “the judge and the jury,” and said no conclusions should be reached until these claims go through the entire legal process.
On that last point, Hart is correct. Each person is entitled to due process. If the accusations against Jones and the athletic department turn out to be true, though, they could have far-reaching consequences across the university—and beyond.
Jones issued a statement on Wednesday categorically denying the suit’s claims. “The assertion that I ever attempted to belittle or demean a young man for taking action to help another person is absolutely false,” Jones said. “I will fight all of these false attacks on my character, and I know that once this process has been completed, my reputation will be affirmed.” Jones’s reputation is hardly the only thing on the line, however; the Title IX lawsuit alleged violations at the university dating back two decades, including a 1996 sexual harassment claim directed at quarterback Peyton Manning by then-athletic trainer Jamie Naughright (then named Jamie Whited). The concern is that the problems go beyond any one headline. If some of the claims are accurate, the problems go much deeper.
On Feb. 18, Tennessee defensive tackle Alexis Johnson was suspended after being charged with aggravated assault and false imprisonment. That same week, former Vols offensive lineman Mack Crowder was arrested in a child sex sting in Florida and charged with five third-degree felonies. Tennessee attempted to address this run of bad press by holding an unorthodox joint press conference with all 16 head coaches on Tuesday. Each offered an account of why a perceived culture problem in Knoxville is nothing more than a mirage. “I think all of us want to let everybody know that we are behind our administration that there's a lot more to the University of Tennessee and the athletic department than what is being read about,” women’s soccer coach Brian Penskey said.
Bowles’s sworn affidavit, which was first reported by The Tennessean the following day, has many questioning that message, though. Disputing that was one of Hart’s primary goals in his press conference.
“We’re not perfect,” Hart said. “Far from it. Anybody that would claim they’ve got everything under control is drifting around with blinders on.
“I cannot stand here and tell you that of our 550-plus student-athletes, we won’t have future issues of poor decisions,” he added. “But what can’t get lost is how far we have come in many, many efforts.”
On Thursday, Hart dismissed the notion that student-athletes are given preferential treatment in the disciplinary process. “Guilty parties should be immediately dealt with and prosecuted,” he said. And while the the accusations contained in the Title IX lawsuit currently remain just that—for a legal breakdown of the filing, click here—if they are proven true, then that process has failed in a sweeping and fundamental way at Tennessee.
The lawsuit and the reaction to it have not gone unnoticed by Tennessee’s student body. While Hart addressed the media Thursday, a crowd of two dozen students gathered in protest in the athletic facility lobby. As Hart spoke, students chanted phrases like “Vols for Jane”—a reference to the Jane Does listed as victims in the Title IX lawsuit—and held signs that read: “We support Jane Doe(s), not 1 more!”
Elizabeth Stanfield, a senior at the school who took part in the protest, said many students were surprised by the university’s response to the allegations. “Not only did they say everything is fine, they said everything is actually great. ‘We have a great culture!’” said Stanfield, who is a native of Jackson, Tenn. “Personally, I was shocked that’s what they would come out in public to say. I understand they have things they have to worry about, like recruiting, but to not acknowledge a problem and really dismiss it is appalling and beyond anything I would have expected.”
On Thursday, Hart defended the culture at Tennessee, backing up Jones and his crop of coaches. He told those in attendance to withhold judgment until this suit comes to a resolution. In the meantime, Hart, Jones and the rest of the Volunteers staffers find themselves tangled in a case that could shake a once-proud athletic department to its core.