Daytime television does not always offer the most appealing fare. This afternoon, I find myself particularly unsatisfied as I watch the 16 head coaches at the University of Tennessee hold court on ESPN, defending the “culture” of their embattled school.
Football coach Butch Jones, men’s basketball coach Rick Barnes, and women’s basketball coach Holly Warlick, among others, are responding to recent bad publicity stemming from a federal lawsuit charging that the school created a “hostile sexual environment,” violating Title IX with deliberately indifferent actions before and after a series of alleged rapes.
The coaches are somber and sincere. Softball coach Karen Weekly just spoke of the administration’s support for her program, evident in the access her team has to football training facilities and the attendance of other officials and coaches, including Jones, at her team’s games.
I can appreciate those things. My stepdaughter’s high school softball team has a noticeable absence of both.
I appreciated less Jones’ characterization of some athletes’ “poor choices.” Linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams face rape charges stemming from an incident in November 2014. To Tennessee’s credit, both were suspended when accused. Less laudatory are claims in the lawsuit that football players twice assaulted wide receiver Drae Bowles for helping the accuser, and that nothing was done about it.
Clearly, it’s impossible to know for sure what happened in that case, or in the case of the five alleged rape victims included in the lawsuit. (Tennessee athletes allegedly committed four of the offenses. The other athletes accused are a former men’s basketball player, a former defensive back, and a current football player who has not been publicly named.)
Also, clearly, rape rises to a level slightly more serious than a poor choice.
The lawsuit includes allegations against UT athletes going back to 1995. It also includes an allegation against former Vols quarterback Peyton Manning, accused of misconduct in a 1996 incident with a female athletic trainer that led to a settlement in 1997.
(Aside: My affection for Manning has been well-documented here. I’ve read and watched numerous reports about the 1996 incident. I do not feel I know enough to make any definitive comment. Of course, the fan in me hopes it’s not true, but I won’t be so blinded by the aforementioned affection that I am unwilling to see facts that may prove me wrong.)
Whatever the truth about any of the incidents is, one hopes it will come to light in the legal proceedings to come. One would also hope that a university would not need to be taken to court in order for victims to feel they have been heard, but that apparently was not the case. That is a sad reality on college campuses across the country, not just at Tennessee.
One also can't help but find in the above information a troubling pattern, a pattern that calls into question a college's "culture" and has put UT under an uncomfortably hot microscope. And there’s something slightly discomfiting about seeing a line of coaches, men and women, assembled on a dais to preach similar sermons about how great things actually are and how outsiders just don’t understand.
I suppose the goal is to present a united front. I wonder where the line is between united and intimidating.
Late in 2014, Tennessee made headlines because of a plan to consolidate all athletic teams under the “Power T,” the university’s universal logo. This plan meant all sports program except women’s basketball would be known as the Volunteers. No more Lady Vols, except in the sport that had made that name, and the school, famous.
Some decried the loss of the Lady Vols name as a blow to the unity championed by UT today. Others saw it as a long-overdue break from sexism disguised as tradition.
Tennessee women’s teams have won 11 national championships, including eight in women’s basketball. That powerhouse program, synonymous with Hall of Fame pioneer Pat Summitt, has long been the gold standard of athletic excellence - gender specificity not required - and draws nearly 11,000 fans per game.
As Tennessee rallies its troops from all corners, women’s basketball has fallen out of The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in 31 years. Thirty-one years. The remarkable streak began on Feb. 17, 1985 and included 103 No. 1 rankings. UConn, the modern-day measuring stick of excellence in women’s basketball, has been ranked for 428 straight weeks. The Huskies will only need roughly seven more years to match the Lady Vols’ record.
Though iconic, women’s basketball has not been the only shining success. UT softball has reached the Women’s College World Series seven times in the last 10 years. The women’s indoor track team won national championships in 2005 and 2009, and women’s swimming is a perennial NCAA contender.
It is odd, and sad, that a college with such a history of women’s success now stands accused of treating women so badly.
So as I watch the UT press conference, and as I watch pretty women in leopard-print and strapless dresses tell me about it on SportsCenter, I don’t know what to think – other than it’s a bit silly to deny that a college – any college – does not have a problem with sexual assault and how it is handled. Baylor, Florida State, Columbia, Cal: If you talk about college “culture,” as the 16 UT coaches did today, that conversation is invalid on its face if it does not acknowledge and address sexual assault as a problem, no matter how many people repeat the same message.