KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee head coaches will hold a rare joint news conference Tuesday morning, two weeks after a group of unidentified women sued the school over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student-athletes.
Athletic department spokesman Ryan Robinson said Monday that the 16 coaches decided they wanted to make themselves available to answer questions on a variety of issues. The release announcing the news conference didn’t specify what will be discussed.
The federal lawsuit filed Feb. 9 in Nashville by six unidentified women alleges that the school has violated Title IX regulations and created a “hostile sexual environment” through a policy of indifference toward assaults by student-athletes. The complaint states that Tennessee’s policies made students more vulnerable to sexual assault and that the school had a “clearly unreasonable response” after incidents, which caused the women making complaints to endure additional harassment.
The suit also states that the university interfered with the disciplinary process to favor male athletes.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones spoke briefly to reporters Saturday and said his program doesn’t have a culture problem. Jones declined to discuss the specifics of the lawsuit.
“The people that know us, they know our football program, they understand what’s going on here with all the positivity,” Jones said in his first public comments since the lawsuit was filed. “They understand that. We just have to continue to work and grow and get better and let it galvanize us closer as a football team and a football program. People who understand what we’re all about, they understand we have a good culture in place.”
Bill Ramsey, a lawyer representing the school, has said the university “acted lawfully and in good faith” in the situations outlined in the complaint.
David Randolph Smith, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said Monday that Ramsey is “basically calling our lawsuit false and ludicrous. Well, all I can say is we have a response. You’ll see it. It’s in our amended complaint.”
An amended complaint has not been filed yet.
Although Jones said the football team does not have a culture problem, the football coach acknowledged that everyone involved with the program can do better.
“We take all accusations very seriously,” Jones said Saturday. “Can we continue to improve? Yeah, just like any team, company or organization. But our players have done a great job, and we have great people here at Tennessee.”
The suit states that Tim Rogers, a former vice chancellor for student life, stepped down in 2013 “in protest over the violation of Title IX and the UT administration’s and athletic department’s deliberate indifference to the clear and present danger of sexual assaults by UT athletes.”
The suit focuses on five cases reported between 2013 and 2015, but one paragraph in the 64-page document refers to a 1996 sexual harassment complaint made by a Tennessee trainer after an incident involving Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was then the Volunteers QB.
Smith has emphasized that the focus of the lawsuit is on the university itself, and Manning’s situation was referenced only to show how Tennessee has handled reports of player misconduct dating to 1995.
In the past four years, there have been several sexual assault complaints made against Tennessee student-athletes, including former football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams. They were indicted on aggravated rape charges in February 2015 and have separate trial dates this summer.
Eight days after the Title IX suit was filed, Tennessee defensive lineman Alexis Johnson was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment. University police said Johnson was “play fighting” with a woman in a Knoxville apartment between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. Feb 14, and it escalated until he placed his hands around her throat two or three times. Police say the woman indicated “the constriction was so tight that she could not fight back and she felt she was going to pass out.”
Gregory Isaacs, the lawyer representing Alexis Johnson, has said his client “adamantly denies the allegations.” Johnson has been suspended from all team-related activities.