Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart met with reporters Thursday, offering his "empathy" to sexual assault victims while discussing the widespread allegations levied against Volunteers student-athletes.
"I have tremendous empathy and sympathy for sexual assault victims," he said, per Matt Slovin and Anita Wadhwani of the Tennessean. "It is simply an unacceptable act. I can tell you at the University of Tennessee, the chancellor has made this his top priority."
Hart also took the opportunity to express his confidence in head football coach Butch Jones, per Slovin and Wadhwani, saying, "I trust in Butch Jones implicitly."
Hart's press conference comes at a time when the Tennessee athletic department is facing a crossroads. Earlier this month, six women filed a lawsuit against the university, saying it created a culture that not only enabled sexual assault but also actively discouraged victims from coming forward.
The suit claims former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola, former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones and an unnamed current football player committed sexual violence that went unprosecuted.
"I care deeply about our student-athletes, but I also care deeply about our student body," Hart said. "We encourage victims to come forward, and it is my hope the amount of publicity that has been generated in recent days will not discourage victims from coming forward, because that is the huge part of our effort."
Two more women joined the suit Wednesday as a series of new, damning accusations came to light, per Slovin and Wadhwani. The filing includes testimony by former Volunteers football player Drae Bowles, who alleged Jones said he "betrayed the team" after helping a woman who said she was assaulted by two teammates.
Jones released a statement denying those accusations Wednesday, per the Tennessean:
The assertion that I ever attempted to belittle or demean a young man for taking action to help another person is absolutely false. To the contrary, I did all I could to assist the former student in question. During the course of the judicial process, campus officials, as well as the young man's own words, will clearly establish that I have done nothing wrong. I will fight all of these false attacks on my character, and I know that once this process has been completed, my reputation will be affirmed.
Earlier this week, 16 Tennessee coaches held a press conference to defend the university's culture. Jones has denied all claims levied by Bowles, who has since transferred to UT Chattanooga. Bowles says he was not only verbally condemned by Jones but also assaulted by a teammate.
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