Leadership architect Sam Chand has a simple definition for an organization’s culture. From an insider’s point of view, it’s: “This is how we do things here.”
Every place has a culture, formed by what’s valued and what’s celebrated, what’s rewarded and what’s punished. That’s true in homes, workplaces, churches and schools.
According to six women who filed a federal lawsuit last week, the University of Tennessee athletic department does things in a despicable way regarding sexual assaults and student-athletes, particularly football players. The school’s alleged handling of cases is not only loathsome but illegal, too, a violation of Title IX laws meant to protect students from gender discrimination in federally funded education programs.
The story sounds familiar because we’ve heard similar charges way too often in the last few years.
There’s the former Florida State official who claims football players accused of sexual assault receive special treatment and most victims decline to press student conduct charges. There’s the University of Minnesota administrator who last summer emailed concerns about reports of sexual assault involving “individual players” and “groups of football players.” Interestingly, the Golden Gophers’ then-athletic director, Norwood Teague, resigned in August for sexually harassing two female colleagues at a leadership retreat.
There’s former Baylor University defensive end Sam Ukwuachu – convicted in August of sexually assaulting a women’s soccer player after he was cleared in a “school investigation” – and former Baylor defensive end Tevin Elliott – accused of sexually assaulting five women from October 2009 to April 2012 before an incident led to his conviction in January 2014.
There have been high-profile cases at Vanderbilt, Missouri, Colorado and Montana, presumably with cases elsewhere that we can’t remember or never heard about.
From the outside looking in, a number of athletic departments use cover-ups and pseudo probes to handle claims of sexual misconduct.
Plaintiffs in the Tennessee lawsuit alleged that the university showed “deliberate indifference and a clearly unreasonable response after a sexual assault that causes a student to endure additional harassment.”
There have been several sexual assault complaints against Volunteers student-athletes over the last four years. But the incident that drew the most notice last week occurred two decades ago and involved former UT quarterback Peyton Manning.
The lawsuit alleges that Manning placed his naked genitals on the face of a female athletic trainer while she was examining him for an injury in 1996. Manning has denied the accusation, claiming that he was “mooning” a teammate, not assaulting the trainer.
Throwing Manning’s name into the mix makes the lawsuit a lot juicier, leading to questions about the future Hall-of-Famer’s squeaky-clean image. The other players named in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit might as well be John Doe, James Doe, Jeff Doe, etc. Without Manning, the story would’ve drawn significantly less attention – which highlights part of the problem.
The bigger the sport and the bigger the star, the more we care … and the less enthusiasm administrators display in discovering the truth and imposing punishment when warranted. Whatever happened between Manning and Dr. Jamie Naughright 20 years ago is only relevant as it relates to norms and customs that still exist.
And while standards of accepted behavior back then clearly were lower than today, we have a long way to go before written policies line up with actual outcomes.
According to a statement from Bill Ramsey, an attorney representing the school, Tennessee “acted lawfully and in good faith” in the situations outlined in the complaint. He added that the school “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.”
That sounds great. But it doesn’t pass the smell test in light of allegations from a former UT vice chancellor in the spring of 2013.
In a memo obtained by The Tennessean, Tim Rogers detailed concerns about pressure from the athletics department on how athletes should be disciplined for misconduct, including sexual assaults. Rogers, a 38-year-employee, said the department’s “undue influence” was “enabled by way of the chancellor’s directives and interference.
According to the lawsuit, Rogers’ memo detailed a “hostile sexual environment, rape culture and an increased risk of placing athletes with freshmen women at Vol Hall” (a dorm where some of the incidents took place). Shortly after taking his concerns directly to UT president Joe DiPietro and chancellor Jimmy Cheek, Rogers abruptly retired in June 2013, citing an “intolerable situation.”
Here are a couple more adjectives for such scenarios on college campuses: Unbearable and indefensible.
Our love of big-time college sports – and schools’ love of the subsequent cash flow – shouldn’t force young women into a grimace-and-bear-it posture. Our society has a wink-wink attitude toward student-athletes and sexual conquests, but we should be enlightened enough by now to act appropriately when they cross the line, instead of wishing the women would suck it up and move on.
If that’s how athletic departments do things on campus, the culture is cancerous.
It needs to be cut out, transformed or transplanted. Anything but ignored.