Sports

Amid Sexual Assault Lawsuit, 16 Tennessee Coaches Staunchly Defend Culture

CREDIT: Patrick Murphy-Racey, AP

Tennessee coaches appear at a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Knoxville, Tenn. The coaches held a news conference two weeks after a group of unidentified women sued the school over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student-athletes.

The University of Tennessee (UT) has been under a lot of scrutiny lately, from the resurfaced interest in Peyton Manning’s 1996 alleged sexual assault, to the Title IX lawsuit filed this month by six women, accusing the university of intentionally acting “by an official policy of deliberate indifference to known sexual assault.”

So, on Tuesday morning, all 16 head coaches in the university’s athletic department sat down to talk to the media. They said the press conference was their idea, although it was announced at the start that specifics of the lawsuit would not be addressed.

“We want to put our faces out there,” soccer coach Brian Pensky said. “Instead of continuing to lay down and take a beating, we wanted to show that we have our administration’s back.”

Five of the six plaintiffs in the lawsuit reported being raped — four by athletes — and the suit alleges that UT administrators have facilitated an environment of sexual assault by athletes that has been “condoned and completely unaddressed.” The suit details many examples, from the Manning allegations 20 years ago to the 2014 assault of former UT football player Drae Bowles after he helped a woman who accused his teammates of rape.

READ MORE: The Real Takeaways From The Resurfaced Sexual Assault Allegations Against Peyton Manning

Just last week, two Vols football players were in the news: one for allegedly punching and choking a woman, another for child sex crimes.

While head football coach Butch Jones admitted that “some individuals” have made “some poor choices,” he disagreed with the accusation that there was a problem with the character of the athletes at UT. “I think we’re stereotyped. I just want to get that out there because I take it personal.”

When asked about the victims more than halfway through the hour-long press conference, Jones insisted, “We feel for them. We hurt for them. It hits at our soul. Don’t think that we diminish the alleged victims.”

But rape culture, consent, or the administrative procedures the university has put in place to both educate athletes and handle sexual assault allegations were never discussed, beyond reiterations of “nothing good happens after 10 at night.”

Instead, all of the coaches staunchly defended the culture at the university, citing a plethora of examples that were loosely-related at best. “Women have never been treated better here,” women’s golf coach Judi Pavon said, while boasting that her team shares a training facility with the football team. Swim coach Matt Kredich said that even though his athletes were “scantily-clad,” he hadn’t witnessed any issues of sexual harassment or assault.

It was clear that the main point of the press conference was to defend their bosses, students, and one another, and to point out that there are sexual assault incidents on other campuses as well.

Notably, Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Dave Hart was not present at the press conference. (A UT spokesman said he was out of town.)

Hart was specifically cited in the Title IX lawsuit. He was previously the athletic director at Florida State University, where he came under scrutiny for mishandling a rape allegation by “failing to report the claim to law enforcement, leading to the creation of a special task force to study how sexual assaults are handled there.” Another report commissioned by FSU criticized Hart for “not holding head coaches accountable for the enforcement of rules for players, including classroom attendance and student conduct.

He has also been at the center of multiple gender discrimination lawsuits, including a recent one former UT employees that was settled for $750,000. That suit alleged that “less qualified, less experienced members of the men’s athletics department received better jobs when Hart merged the female athletics and male athletics department, which had previously operated separately.”

All 16 coaches on stage during Tuesday’s press conference reiterated their support and gratitude for Hart.

“I’ve never been around a leader like Dave Hart,” Pensky said. “His agenda is for every student athlete here to have whatever they need to be incredibly successful.”