Latest Allegations a Damaging Blow to Tennessee Football Program

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Latest Allegations a Damaging Blow to Tennessee Football Program
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

On the field, everything seems to be going right for Tennessee.

The Vols return a ton of talent on both sides of the football, are expected to contend for the 2016-17 College Football Playoff, according to Odds Shark, and boast two Heisman Trophy contenders in quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd.

Off the field, though, it's a different story.

According to Anita Wadhwani and Nate Rau of the Tennessean, six women filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee on Tuesday, claiming that the school "created a student culture that enables sexual assaults by student-athletes, especially football players, and then uses an unusual, legalistic adjudication process that is biased against victims who step forward."

Here's just a sampling of the allegations in the report:

  • Five athletes, including former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones and an unidentified current player, accused of sexual assault.
  • Violation of Title IX laws and creating a hostile sexual environment for female students. The blame for this environment, according to the lawsuit, falls at the top of the Tennessee administration, including chancellor Jimmy Cheek, athletics director Dave Hart and head football coach Butch Jones.
  • Investigation processes delayed until the alleged perpetrators either transferred or graduated.

In addition to the initial report, Dustin Dopirak of the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported on Wednesday that the lawsuit alleges that former wide receiver Drae Bowles, who transferred to Chattanooga following the 2014 season, was assaulted twice by football players for assisting the woman who accused Johnson and Williams of rape.

The school responded to the lawsuit on Tuesday (via the Tennessean):

Like the many other college campuses facing the challenges of sexual assault, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has devoted significant time and energy to provide a safe environment for our students, to educate and raise awareness about sexual assault, and to encourage students to come forward and report sexual assault. When the University receives a report of sexual assault, we offer care and support to the person who came forward and work to investigate and resolve the matter in a timely, thorough, and equitable manner. When warranted, the University takes disciplinary action but will not do so in a manner that violates state law or the constitutional due process rights of our students.

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. The University will provide a detailed response to the lawsuit and looks forward to doing so at the appropriate time, and in the proper manner.

This is potentially devastating to the university, and it will take years to recover from the allegations, regardless of the outcome of the federal lawsuit.

The point of this column isn't to lay blame on one side or the other.

That's what the lawsuit is for.

If the allegations are true and the lawsuit is successful, Cheek, Hart and Jones should have their roles within the athletic department called into question, the football program should be burdened with heavy sanctions—both financially and through whatever avenues the NCAA is willing to pursue—and anyone who had a hand in creating this atmosphere should be held accountable.

Adults are paid to be the adults in the situation, and if football players were protected from their roles in potentially serious crimes by a program, the head—or heads—of that program has to feel the pain.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones

If the allegations aren't true, and some or all of the six anonymous women who brought forth this lawsuit aren't being honest, there should be accountability on that end as well.

For the program, though, the damage is done.

This is part of the new identity of the Vols football program, and there's not much that can help it shed the label other than time.

Take Florida State, for example.

The rape accusation against former quarterback Jameis Winston became public in November 2013, nearly a year after the incident allegedly occurred.

Winston's saga lasted for years, despite Winston never being charged. It resulted in the school's shelling out $950,000 late last month to the accuser to settle its federal Title IX lawsuit, according to USA Today's Rachel Axon. In addition to the financial settlement, FSU agreed to "a five-year commitment to awareness, prevention and training programs."

There's no reason a school should be forced to commit to the safety of students, though. That should be a commitment every day, hour and minute of a university's existence.

Tennessee needs to re-commit to it now, regardless of the outcome.

On the field, Tennessee has a lot going for it. The Vols should be in the mix for an SEC East title in 2016, perhaps more, and Jones has successfully built the program "brick by brick" to a point where it is nationally relevant for the first time since playing in the SEC Championship Game in 2007.

If that foundation was built by cutting corners and protecting players, it will crumble like a house of cards.

The perception of the university is damaged, and whether it's deserved or not—we will leave that to the legal system to determine—it has to take enormous steps to make sure its student body is as safe as possible and the players within the program who break laws pay for it like anybody else would.

But then again, that seems like common sense.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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