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Coaches Say UT's Culture Is Fine, Despite Multiple Rape And Assault Allegations

The growing list of arrested football players doesn't reflect Tennessee's athletic culture, they argue.

02/23/2016 12:34 EST | Updated 02/02/2017 17:45 EST

Though multiple football players face criminal charges of sexual assault, physical assault and attempting to have sex with minors, University of Tennessee coaches gathered together on Tuesday to say there is no problem with the athletic culture on campus.

UT is facing a federal lawsuit, filed by a group of unnamed female plaintiffs this month, that accuses the school of deliberate indifference to multiple reports of sexual assault involving student athletes. The university came under a Department of Education investigation last year into allegations that it mishandled sexual violence cases, an inquiry that is ongoing.

To prove that the campus culture is healthy, 16 coaches from various teams hosted a press conference in which they described positive interactions between the school’s male and female athletes. Women’s teams shared practice and weight-lifting facilities with major men’s athletic programs, and are working together on new locker rooms too, they said.

“I’ve been here 18 years and women have never been treated better than they are now,” said Judi Pavon, the women’s golf coach. Track coach Beth Alford-Sullivan said, “I see the football players every single day; they walk by and they give me the nod.”

Holly Warlick, head coach of the women’s basketball team said, “To think the university is not treating women fairly is totally not true. … Let’s don’t lose sight we’re trying to make an atmosphere that’s great for the student athlete.”

The coaches repeatedly noted how much support was in place to assist student athletes and to help them succeed in every aspect of their lives at the university ― to win championships and succeed academically.

But that is one of the major allegations in the lawsuit: that university procedures are biased in favor of athletes accused of sexual assault.

The lawsuit accuses UT of intentionally failing to address reports of sexual assault and a “severely hostile sexual environment” caused by male athletes, especially football players.

The university would “arrange for top quality legal representation” for any athlete accused of sexual assault, the complaint states. Plaintiffs say the school dragged out investigations of their assaults for so long that the accused perpetrators either graduated or transferred.

Patrick Murphy-Racey/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The coaches held a news conference two weeks after a group of unidentified women sued the school over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student athletes.

Three of the six plaintiffs said in the lawsuit they were sexually assaulted by current or former football players, and a fourth said a former men's basketball player assaulted her.

One of the plaintiffs accused former UT football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams of rape. Johnson, a former linebacker, and Williams, an ex-defensive tackle, are awaiting separate criminal trials on the rape charges.

The suit cites a laundry list of alleged criminal misconduct by UT athletes, plus more recent examples of multiple football players' arrests. Since the suit was filed, authorities arrested former offensive lineman Mack Crowder on felony charges of attempting to have sex with a 14-year-old girl, and defensive tackle Alexis Johnson on charges of aggravated assault of a woman he previously dated. Johnson is accused of choking the woman and attempting repeatedly to touch and kiss her. 

During the press conference, head football coach Butch Jones said multiple times of the alleged victims, "we feel for them, we hurt for them."

Jones, the only defendant named in the suit who appeared at Tuesday's press conference, said he is vowing to defend the campus culture. The coaches decided to hold the press conference on their own because they already meet once a month and wanted to share some of the positive things they talk about during those sessions, Jones said. UT officials said athletics director Dave Hart and other administrators reportedly couldn't attend the press conference because of scheduling conflicts.

"We are raising these kids and they're kids," Jones said. "Have we had some individuals make some poor choices? Absolutely … It's our job to hold them responsible."

"The actions of one reflect on all -- I get that. But again, I don't want to diminish the great people we have here in the administration, on our coaching staff, in our student body," he added.

The lawsuit says Jones had promised to "handle things inside" when nine players were arrested in February 2014 at a party on various charges related to providing alcohol to minors. At the time, Jones said, "They understand right from wrong and it's all about decisions, but we have too much good going on right now and really good character kids."

More players were arrested on charges of underage drinking in the fall 2014 semester, charges of felony theft in the spring 2015 semester, and for driving under the influence in summer 2015. According to the lawsuit, each of those cases was handled internally by Jones. 

"The things being alleged right now haven't changed our world," head soccer coach Brian Pensky said at the press conference. Pensky added that the coaches aren't losing sleep, wondering "what might be happening to our kids right now," because he believes they still have a great culture in place. 

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter covering higher education and sexual violence. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.