Public Relations: Tennessee’s Constant Failure

 

By Alex Norman

It. Just. Keeps. Getting. Worse.

Over the past few weeks, the University of Tennessee has made mistake after mistake in the eyes of the public. Some of those errors are serious in nature, others are fairly inconsequential, and others are out of their control.

But the hits, like the Led Zeppelin IV album, just keep on coming.

On February 8th, a Title IX lawsuit was filed in federal court, stating that five former Tennessee student-athletes (four football, one basketball) and one non-athlete assaulted six women (the plaintiffs in the suit), and that the University of Tennessee did not take claims seriously.

“UT administration (Chancellor Jimmy Cheek), athletic department (Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director) Dave Hart and football coach (Butch Jones) were personally aware (as ‘appropriate persons’ under Title IX) and had actual notice of previous sexual assaults and rapes by football players, yet acted with deliberate indifference to the serious risks of sexual assaults and failed to take corrective actions.”

Tennessee’s legal counsel Bill Ramsey responded thusly. “In the situations identified in the lawsuit filed today; the University acted lawfully and in good faith, and we expect a court to agree. Any assertion that we do not take sexual assault seriously enough is simply not true. To claim that we have allowed a culture to exist contrary to our institutional commitment to providing a safe environment for our students or that we do not support those who report sexual assault is just false.”

On the morning of February 16th UT President Joe DiPietro gave his “State of the University” speech. He refused to comment on the Title IX lawsuit, instead deferring to the statement made by legal counsel.

“If you are affiliated with UT, there is a lot to be proud of,” DiPietro said. “But, in spite of these successes, we recognize that, currently, there are many issues that are overshadowing our progress and our efforts to advance our university’s mission.”

This is where DiPietro needs to lead, not hide behind their lawyers.

Peyton Manning has been mentioned in that Title IX lawsuit for an incident involving a trainer back in 1996. The lawsuit goes back more than two decades, trying to hammer home the fact that Tennessee has struggled in this area for years. Having the most well known representative of the University is awful for both sides.

Then, on the evening of February 16th, former Tennessee offensive lineman Mack Crowder was arrested on child sex charges in Florida, reportedly admitting to police that he solicited sex several times with an undercover deputy he thought was 14 years old. Crowder’s final season with the Vols was in 2015. He at one time was thought of so highly that he represented Tennessee at SEC Media Days.

On February 17th, former Tennessee lineman Cosey Coleman was arrested in Florida and charged with felony counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and battery. Coleman played on the Vols 1998 national championship team.

Those players are obviously no longer with the program. But then the evening of February 17th, Tennessee defensive lineman Alexis Johnson, a JUCO transfer that enrolled at Tennessee a month ago, was arrested and charged with aggravated assault by strangulation and false imprisonment of a woman. He was suspended from team activities by Butch Jones immediately and will reportedly plead not guilty.

So in a 24 hour period Tennessee had a recent alum, a long time alum, and a current player arrested, all on serious charges.

And while all of this was going on, the silence from Butch Jones and Dave Hart has been deafening. This is when they need to say something… anything… about how Tennessee is a safe place for women, and how they teach their student-athletes to be respectful of women. Even a simple press release would be more than what they have done to date.

Jones finally spoke to the media briefly before the Tennessee/LSU basketball game on February 20th, at which the football team was scheduled to be honored for its win in the Outback Bowl. Jones said, “There’s no culture problem.”

Then, on February 23rd, all 16 varsity coaches spoke in a rare joint press conference. They said that the culture at Tennessee is good and many of the perceptions that have formed are inaccurate. Conspicuous in his absence was Dave Hart. UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek wasn’t there either, nor was any other UT official.

Contrary to popular belief, you can major in Public Relations at the University of Tennessee.

Maybe one of these days the University of Tennessee will stop giving those students so much to discuss during lectures.

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