Failing To Face The Music

The University of Tennessee failed to address the disturbing culture behind a recent sexual assault lawsuit.

The current storm cloud hovering over the University of Tennessee seems to be growing. The storm, in this case, involves a recent lawsuit that accuses the university of having a “hostile sexual environment.” Add the Peyton Manning mess onto the pile, and suddenly UT has a full on public relations crisis on their hands. So much so that a collection of UT coaches decided it was best to strap on their rain gear and face the storm head on.

Only, they didn’t face the storm head. Instead, they sat smugly on stage and recounted tales of harmony and unity between male and female athletic teams, and why they believed the university was a safe and welcoming place for all female students. The only time they actually touched upon the allegations and pending lawsuit was when football coach Butch Jones said, “Everything is about the alleged victims, and we take that very, very seriously. We feel for them. We hurt for them.” That was it. He then went on to defend the football program and complain how competing schools are using the claims against UT for recruiting purposes, because everything is about the victims, right?

In fact, each coach had a window of opportunity to speak up for the victims and validate their stories. But they chose not to do so, and in the end they perpetuated the culture of ignorance, apathy, lack of awareness, and discrimination that still exists among college sports programs to this day.

Karen Weekly, the UT women’s softball coach said it perfectly herself (though she was trying to make a completely different point), “If you want to go back 20 years and accumulate incidents, I think a lot of places would have a similar story to Tennessee.”

Sadly, it’s true. Lots of colleges and universities have similar stories to share involving Title IX violations, sexual assault, gender discrimination, compensation disparity, and sexual orientation discrimination.  A lot of female students do, too. And so do a lot of female coaches.  The University of Minnesota-Duluth is currently dealing a lawsuit filed by three former coaches, alleging similar offenses. In fact, over the past nine years, there have been at least 11 public lawsuits filed by former coaches against colleges and universities citing sexual orientation and/or gender discrimination.

These types of stories are not new. They have been going on for years. Unfortunately, the way the UT athletic administration and coaching staff decided to deal with it in a public forum is nothing new, either.  The recipe for deflection, glossing-over, positive spin and victim blaming is tried and true. It’s almost as if it’s written in the back of every college athletic director’s handbook.

Like I told Jason Whitlock, a national sports commentator known for his brash opinions and willingness to think outside of the box when it comes to sports news, in a rebuttal piece I wrote to him about the Peyton Manning case—ultimately, It’s about this same old story, being told a million times over, about the treatment of women in sports. It’s a broken record that I’m tired of hearing. Peyton Manning or not.

If universities like Tennessee continue to perpetuate this culture instead of facing the music head on and openly addressing it, then we’ll experience these same type of incidents again and again for the next 20 years. My daughter will be ready to go to college by then. And UT women’s basketball coach Holly Warwick’s words of assurance do nothing for me. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

And the bottom line is that UT handled this situation cheaply.