With Sexual Assault Lawsuit, Tennessee Has a Lot of Explaining to Do

A lawsuit filed this week against the University of Tennessee alleges that the university had known about "(and itself created) a long-standing, severely hostile sexual environment of rape by male athletes (particularly football players)."

by Jessica Luther
Feb 11 2016, 5:15pm

Photo by Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, six women filed a civil lawsuit against the University of Tennessee, stating that the school has "intentionally acted by an official policy of deliberate indifference to known sexual assault." The result, they say, is "a hostile sexual environment," which is a violation of Title IX. The lawsuit is long and comprehensive, and includes individual accounts from each woman about what she reported to the university. Its 64 pages yield one single, giant takeaway: shit is fucked up at Tennessee.

Many Title IX lawsuits focus on what the university failed to do, or what the university did poorly, after students reported that they were the victim of sexual violence. This lawsuit does that—five of the six plaintiffs reported being raped (three by football players, one by a basketball player, and one by a non-athlete)—but it also addresses the overall culture on campus and within the athletic department that fosters this kind of dangerous behavior.

According to the lawsuit, the university had known about "(and itself created) a long-standing, severely hostile sexual environment of rape by male athletes (particularly football players) that was condoned and completely unaddressed" by high-level administrators and people within the athletics department. Among the charges listed in the lawsuit, the women believe officials interfered in the disciplinary hearings against the men they reported, maintained a culture in athletics that encouraged drinking and drug use, and steered players toward the use of a particular type of hearing that is only available under Tennessee state law and which, the women say, violates Title IX.

Read More: Missouri Football's Rape Culture, "And So On And So Forth"

Early on in the lawsuit, the women list allegations of sexual misconduct by male athletes going back to 1995. This includes multiple players who were charged with rape, some with domestic violence, and others for sexual harassment; a Super Bowl-winning quarterback is among them, in fact.

In 2011, then University of Tennessee Vice-Chancellor Tim Rogers began trying to get other higher-ups at the university to care about what he saw as, the lawsuit says, "ongoing problems involving sexual assaults by football and basketball players and with the University's response as it relates to sexual assault cases." In May 2013, Rogers met with the Chancellor of the university, Jimmy Cheek, and "provided direct notice to Cheek of the hostile sexual environment, rape culture, and increased risk of placing athletes with freshman woman [sic] at Vol Hall." He then "communicated [his concerns] directly to University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro." Much of this was first uncovered and reported last year by the Tennessean.

Rogers resigned that month, because he felt that the university had created an "intolerable situation" with, the lawsuit says, "the UT administration and athletic department interfering with the disciplinary process for athletes and being deliberately indifferent to the risks of sexual assault and rapes by football players and basketball players."

There's also this tidbit: Director of Student Judicial Affairs Jenny Wright had "voiced concerns relating to a pattern and practice of active inference by the Athletic Dept. that included 'coaching witnesses to get their stories straight.'" The women believe Wright was told "to 'stop' and not pursue an investigation or disciplinary action in an incident relating to allegations of sexual assault against UT football player Marlin Lane in April, 2013." In May 2013, Wright was fired "amidst an investigation into whether she had inappropriate relationships with students." The investigation lasted a year and she was eventually cleared. The media first covered the allegations against Lane in October 2014, when the Tennessean broke the story.

A lawsuit alleges that UT permits a "severely hostile sexual environment of rape by male athletes (particularly football players)." Photo by Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

In the category of Problems That Happened After the Women Reported, the lawsuit spends a fair amount of space on Tennessee's Uniform Administrative Procedure Act (UAPA), a state law that is unique to Tennessee. (VICE Sports discussed this particular law and the tension it has with the federal Title IX law in a December 2014 piece.) A regular Title IX hearing treats the accused and the person who reported exactly the same in terms of who gets to present evidence, question the evidence, have a lawyer present, and cross-examine witnesses. The lawsuit calls the UAPA "one-sided" and says it is a tactic used repeatedly "to delay and altogether avoid sanctions and discipline for sexual assault." The UAPA, unlike a regular Title IX hearing, "allows only accused perpetrators of sexual assaults (and not victims) to have the right to confrontation, cross-examination, and a right to an evidentiary administrative hearing."

Even though the UAPA hearing is trying to determine, as all Title IX cases do, if there is a preponderance of evidence that someone violated the school's conduct code—in other words, that it is more likely that they did than did not—the UAPA in practice functions much more like a criminal case. Criminal cases are an inherently more hostile process; they are for determining if someone will go to jail, and the accused's guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The UAPA, the women say, "is contrary to federal law" and "insulates athletes from discipline and sanctions but facilitates and encourages sexual assaults because athletes know the process can be rigged, dragged out, and used so that they suffer no consequences."

One of the Jane Does, who reported that a basketball player raped her, says that the player chose a UAPA hearing and then requested delays "to ensure that any disciplinary action would be imposed after he was able to complete academic courses at UT so that his eligibility transfer would not be adversely affected." And, indeed, the lawsuit reports, the player took classes through the spring semester, failed to show up at the end of May for his hearing, was found to have violated the conduct code, and only received an "indefinite suspension" once he was already on his way to another school.

Of the five cases of women who reported being raped, four of the athletes chose to use the UAPA. When VICE Sports was trying to determine how common UAPA was back in 2014, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga said that "most students don't use" them. The lawsuit does not say whether UAPA was a common alternative used by students in such cases, or if it was mainly a tactic utilized by athletes.

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart cheers on the basketball team earlier this year. Photo by Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There are a host of other things the women bring up in their suit. They note that Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, who was AD at FSU before taking the job at Tennessee, "came under serious scrutiny [at FSU] after attempting to cover up an alleged rape of a female FSU student athlete by a football player in 2003," and that he was accused in 2012 in two lawsuits of discrimination at Tennessee because he removed "female staff and administrators and replac[ed] them with male counterparts." The women point out repeatedly that most suspensions of the players were light, when they occurred; sometimes they coincided with off-season training or a player's injury recovery.

They also draw attention to the problem of retaliation at the hands of other team members. One woman reported that she was raped by two players. She was a varsity athlete, too, and her teammates and her roommate received "calls and texts" from one of the men she reported and his roommate, trying to convince her "not to pursue any investigation or disciplinary action."

Then, while this plaintiff was meeting with university representatives in the athletic department about her report, another plaintiff in the suit says that a football player who had taken her "to the hospital the night of her assault and who had supported her decision to report the incident to the authorities" was "jumped" by his teammates. According to the lawsuit, two players told police that "the football team had 'a hit' out on" the player who helped her. Players felt he had "betrayed the team." They admitted to saying threatening things to him and confronting him in the locker room. That player had denied his teammates threatened or assaulted him. He transferred from Tennessee to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The short version of all of this is that these women feel there was a "systemic pattern of deliberate decisions by [UT] administrators directly in violation of the rights of its students to be free from a sexually discriminatory and harassing environment." One woman suffered from PTSD; when her GPA wound up being .08 below the requirement to make it into nursing school, the lawsuit says, "the school would offer no leniency" to her. Another woman withdrew, and though she first reported the case in October 2014, "UT's investigation has not yet concluded"; the man she reported remains at UT. Another woman, a varsity athlete, "could not continue her education at [UT] and was forced to sit out the Spring 2015 semester while trying to find another place to continue her education and collegiate athletics." Another was "forced to look at other schools," and another, after missing "class on multiple occasions for court and other appointments related to the alleged assault," had to "withdrawal from school for the semester with no credits earned."

The suit might be settled before we get to depositions, but for the sake of transparency— something Tennessee has apparently not provided for many years now—let's hope we learn more from the UT administrators and officials these women name in their lawsuit. So many people want answers, and not just at Tennessee. Because as much as this lawsuit is not about the individual actors but rather the overall systemic problems at UT (the lawsuit is only against the university itself), we know that this problem is not just at UT. It's Baylor. It's Florida State. It's Colorado. It's Montana. It's Vanderbilt. It's Minnesota. It's Missouri. And with each thing we learn about one program, the more we know about the overall culture of college football and its apparent "deliberate indifference to known sexual assault." There are many questions yet to be answered, but the most disturbing ones are the broadest. Where next? When?

Updated on February 25: Since the original publication of this piece, UT has released a statement, and its coaches and athletic director have held press conferences, all denying the severity of the lawsuit's charges. Lawyers for the plaintiffs have also filed an amended lawsuit adding two more women to the case, as well as an affidavit from the football player who was allegedly assaulted after helping one of the victims, affirming the account in the lawsuit.

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