Where’s the Outrage? UT Athletic Department Gets a Pass From State Lawmakers, Local Media

In The Daily Dumpster Blog by Matthew Everettleave a COMMENT

On Sunday, The Tennessean ran a profile of former University of Tennessee student-discipline administrator Jenny Wright. It’s a long, in-depth look at the nasty and unfounded accusation that led to her dismissal from UT in 2013, the independent investigation that cleared her of any wrongdoing, and how her experience relates to the Title IX lawsuit filed earlier this month by eight women who allege a culture at UT that tolerates sexual assault and rape by athletes and then protects them from punishment.

A few days before that, Sports Illustrated ran a long piece connecting the current lawsuit to earlier incidents: a vice chancellor’s internal memo in 2013 that “read like a CliffsNotes version of the what’s-wrong-with-major-college-sports guidebook”; Wright’s firing; complaints about athletic director Dave Hart’s handling of sexual assault cases while he was AD at Florida State; discrimination suits filed against Hart at FSU; and former Lady Vols media director Debbie Jennings’s discrimination suit against Hart and UT in 2012.

There are a lot of troubling—disturbing, chilling, even downright frightening—allegations about the Vol football program and the upper reaches of the athletic department administration piling up out there. And the new charges are unearthing some old stories about dirty business dating back to the 1990s. But somehow the well-documented suggestion of a campus environment that is actively and criminally hostile to women doesn’t provoke the same kind of outrage that gender-neutral pronouns do. Not a single state lawmaker has harrumphed publicly about the situation or called for the rolling of heads, a very different response than they had during last year’s self-produced brouhaha over a couple of blog posts from UT’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. These lawmakers are, of course, very busy this winter—introducing bills to preserve busts of Ku Klux Klan members at the state capitol, to roll back motorcycle safety laws, and to name an official state rifle. And, of course, to defund the Office of Diversity. You know, the real heavy-lifting governance of a GOP supermajority.

The Tennessean and SI pieces are the most thorough reads on the subject so far, and each provides context and supporting evidence that makes the case against the university seem pretty compelling. Notice that neither one of them comes from the paper of record in the city where the main UT campus is located.

The day the suit was filed, in Nashville, the News Sentinel ran an AP story about it. (That day, the NS did run a story about Drae Bowles, a former UT wide receiver who, according to the lawsuit, was assaulted by two teammates for helping the victim of an alleged rape by two other football players.) Since then, the NS has run a lot of stories repeating UT officials and former players, some of them named in the suit, denying any wrongdoing and asserting that the culture they’ve got over there is actually pretty great. At least two columns have explicitly questioned the credibility of women who claim to have been abused at UT: sports columnist John Adams wrote a long story dismissing Jamie Naughright, a former trainer who settled a 27-point discrimination and harassment lawsuit against UT in the 1990s; and yesterday NS editor Jack McElroy, in a column that actually used the phrase “true rape,” argued that the plaintiffs in the current Title IX suit would be more believable if they weren’t anonymous. (Never mind that intimidation and retribution are among their main complaints, or that McElroy himself repeats the standard justifications for protecting the identities of victims of sexual assault and rape.) Mike Strange insinuated that none of this would ever happen if college women made better choices, like staying locked in their dorms and apartments after 10 p.m.

Never mind, of course, that this kind of stuff has been confirmed at other big-time college sports programs—look at Florida State, Miami, and Montana—or the cloud of corruption and exploitation that’s hanging over major college sports in general. Or that, if the allegations against UT are true, it would be a monstrous abuse of power by a public institution. Let’s just make sure Christmas parties remain safe on the UT campus. It’s easier to score political points that way.

Senior Editor Matthew Everett manages the Knoxville Mercury's arts & entertainment section, including the comprehensive calendar section—Knoxville’s go-to guide for everything worth doing in the area. You can reach Matthew at matthew@knoxmercury.com.

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