Thursday, February 11, 2016

Patterns emerge: Tennessee

I wonder if Florida State officials are sending thank you notes to their counterparts at Baylor and Tennessee for helping take the heat off their recent settlement announcement in which they did not admit culpability for improper handling of a sexual assault accusation against former football player Jameis Winston as they paid out nearly $1 million to settle the lawsuit brought by Winston's victim.

Because what is happening at those two schools is--and will be--taking up a lot of media space. Both Baylor and Tennesse are having problems dealing with their student-athletes and with accusations of sexual assault against their athletes. This post is just about Tennessee. I will post again shortly about Baylor. Though similar, they each have their own unique aspects that warrant separate consideration.

Word came out yesterday about a lawsuit filed by 6 women at Tennessee alleging improper handling of their sexual assault reports. Five of those allegations are against student athletes (football and basketball). The non-student athlete assault happened at a football team party. The lawsuit details parties such as that one and the culture of illegal behavior that is, at best, tacitly supported by the school. It cites high-ranking university officials (including the chancellor) as responsible and aware of the assaults. The lawsuit also mentions additional sexual assaults of other women not associated with the lawsuit.

In additional to the allegations of deliberate indifference, the lawsuit also states that the hearing process for sexual assaults is biased against victims. One accusation is that the accused can have lawyers. On its face, this does not seem like a problem--other universities allow this--unless victims are not allowed lawyers either expressly or through omission (i.e., they are not made aware of this option). The more particular issue is that one lawyer in town is being hired to represent all these athletes at their hearings. Not automatically a problem or violation, but there are potential issues with this. Community support in the form of the judicial and law enforcement sectors being "kind" to student athletes is not new. We saw it at Florida State and it was rampant at Washington in the Neuheisal era where law enforcement and the judicial system almost colluded in protecting football players charged with crimes (not all sexual assault). So one might ask: Who is paying this lawyer? Is he doing it for free? What is his connection to the program? To the university? These are issues that someone should investigate.

Apparently an administrative law judge adjudicates these hearings. The lawsuit contends bias here because that judge is appointed by the chancellor and, again, the accusation is that the chancellor is part of the problem and arguably has a vested interest in protecting student-athletes and/or the reputation of his university. These will be interesting aspects with which the court will have to contend. How much leeway does a school have in establishing policies and procedures? How guide-y are the federal guidelines? Is Tennessee following the letter of the law, but not the intent in the way it addresses accusations of sexual assault?

What will be less contentious, assuming the allegations are proven to be true, is the deliberate indifference and the sheltering of student athletes. Many athletes are publicly reprimanded for "bad behavior" by being suspended or even kicked off a team. What happens afterward is not as public. Often athletes stick around campus--still students in good standing--and then transfer to other schools or even graduate. According to the lawsuit, Tennessee violated Title IX by:
"delay[ing] the investigation process until the athlete perpetrators transferred to another school or graduated without  sanction or discipline." One named assailant, former football player A.J. Johnson was suspended during his last season with the team but was allowed to take part in graduation.

The transferring to other schools is not new. The delay of investigation while everyone looks the other way is not new. We have written about it. There have been other lawsuits and complaints that report this. The SEC, of which Tennessee is a member!--now has a rule that its member schools cannot accept transfer student athletes with records of sexual and domestic assault.

What we do not know, but what many of us suspect, is that this "procedure" for dealing with offending athletes is more widespread than the few incidents indicate. The Tennessee lawsuit may not reveal a national pattern, but it certainly adds to the mounting evidence that what happened there is business as usual in big-time college sports. 

Also, these allegations of bias and of collusion in hiding and protecting offending athletes at Tennessee is not new. There have been complaints and investigations against other officials as well as the football coach who has a great deal of control over the disciplinary  proceedings against athletes. These alleggeations have been around for years. 

A side bar, of sorts, to this story is one about a Tennessee football player who was physically attacked--allegedly more than once--for helping one of the victims (taking her to the hospital and encouraging her to report her attack). I have seen some social media that critiques news outlets for running this story saying that the real story is the lawsuit and all that is contained within it (the events, the response, etc.) and that running the story about the football player takes attention away from what these 6 women endured.  

If that is the only story that a media outlet ran about what is happening at Tennessee, I would agree with the critiques. But this story is telling in itself. It speaks to the culture of secrecy and protection within athletic departments. A culture specifically cited in the lawsuit. A culture that both lead to the assaults and certainly affected how they were handled by university officials. It is a message to those within the program, arguably within the Tennessee athletics community as a whole, that if you do not conform to the cultural norms--the ones, in this case, that privilege athletes to such a degree that they are allowed to engage openly in illegal and violent behavior--that you will be punished. This is code red, A Few Good Men, culture. Officials knew what was happening, the victim told them this player was being assaulted, and they did nothing.

This is something new. I have not seen reported anything about repercussions to those--who are not victims (because they are frequently shunned, bullied, further assaulted and harassed)--within the culture who in some way support a victim. Maybe because it does not happen. Those who disagree with what was done or what is happening will just remain silent rather than threaten their position within a culture that provides them protection and privilege. This may not be the main story, but it is a compelling one and deserves attention as well.