By Alex Norman
The ticket sales are up. The anticipation is growing. The car flags are back.
The biggest football season in at least a decade is less than 7 weeks away. So the last thing Tennessee wanted to do is answer question after question in the preseason about the pending Title IX lawsuit, in which Tennessee was accused of creating a “hostile sexual environment” and indifference concerning accusations of sexual assault by student-athletes. It was scheduled to go to trial in 2018.
Last week the University of Tennessee settled out of court, and will pay eight women a sum of $2.48 million. That number includes lawyer fees. The cost will be split between UT and UT athletics.
“No university will be able to prevent every incident of students, faculty or staff making bad judgments,” said outgoing Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek. “Like many institutions, we are not perfect, but our goal is to continue to be the best we can be at creating awareness, educating and preventing discrimination and abuse in any form and to continue to be equally prepared when it does happen and to deal with it promptly, sensitively, fairly and effectively. We’ve come a long way in recent years, and we are working every day to be even better. Our first priority is the safety and well-being of every member of our University community.”
By settling this case, the University of Tennessee doesn’t admit to “guilt, negligence or unlawful acts.” The other key here for Tennessee is that now football coach Butch Jones, athletic director Dave Hart, and other UT representatives won’t be deposed. Had that occurred who knows what other negative details would emerge.
Remember back in February, a couple of weeks after the Title IX lawsuit was filed, when Tennessee held that bizarre press conference with all 16 of its head coaches? UT had been silent about this issue for way too long, and went way over the top when the non-revenue sport coaches were suddenly put in front of the cameras to say that the culture at Tennessee was honky dory.
For months in the media (traditional and social) the University of Tennessee had been portrayed as an unsafe place for women, and that gargantuan press conference was going to make things better? From a purely public relations standpoint, the press conference was a failure. Athletic Director Dave Hart wasn’t even present for the event, and had to hold his own meeting with the media days later. And even that only happened after he was ripped in many circles for not being there.
Why does it happen this way? Why is Tennessee always playing defense?
Indulge me if you will for a moment…
I’ve got a friend of mine (let’s call him Roger) that has mellowed over the years… but back in the day after a few pops he’d get to the point in which he was ready to swing the fists at a moment’s notice. Once at a bar he almost punched a dude because “he was looking at me funny.”
My friend was “likes to fight” guy.
That moniker should also be applied to Dave Hart.
When Tennessee dismissed long-time Lady Vols Sports Information Director Debby Jennings in 2012, she filed a lawsuit against UT and Dave Hart, alleging “unlawful discrimination and retaliation.”
For over two years, this case made its way through the legal system, every now and again painting Tennessee and Hart in a negative light. Finally, in October 2014 a settlement was reached. It took $320,000 to make it go away.
Had Tennessee settled this case early on, or even before it made headlines, they would have avoided years of bad PR, likely paying even less than the $320,000. Instead Hart (who had a toxic relationship with Jennings) and Tennessee wanted to fight in the courts as long as he could.
Perhaps you can recall the lawsuit filed in 2012 by three former Tennessee athletic trainers. They maintained that the University of Tennessee discriminated against them in terms of pay because they worked on the women’s side and not the men’s side. This lawsuit was in the news for multiple years as well.
Instead of settling in the early going, once again UT fought until they could fight no more, finally agreeing to pay out more than $1 million to make it go away this past January. This could have gone away much earlier and likely at less cost. Those PR hits in the grand scheme of things were quite unnecessary.
Back to the Title IX lawsuit… even if Tennessee truly believed they were in the right all along, there’s no reason in the world, in this climate of Baylor University, that it ever should have gotten this far.
But Tennessee knows how special this football season can be, and it looks like keeping this “distraction” out of the news is the only reason why the settlement happened earlier than later.
Hopefully going forward they will realize when compared to real life issues, football is only so important…