Late last month, Florida State settled a lawsuit with a former student who alleged she’d been raped by a member of the Seminoles football program. Two weeks later, it’s Tennessee that now finds itself under the ever-growing spotlight of sexual assaults on college campuses.
In a Title IX lawsuit filed by six UT students in federal court in Nashville Tuesday, it’s alleged, The Tennessean writes, that the university “has 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.” Four former Volunteer student-athletes, including three football players, were identified by name in the lawsuit as having sexually assaulted the alleged victims — former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola, former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones.
A fifth UT student-athlete is identified in the lawsuit only as a current football player named “John Doe.” One of the plaintiffs alleges that she was raped by a non-football player, also identified as a “John Doe,” at a football team party.
None of the six women involved in the suit are named.
One of the most damning portions of the lawsuit alleges that top UT officials, including current head football coach Butch Jones, were aware of incidents of sexual assault involving football players but were “indifferent” to the allegations.
UT administration (Chancellor Jimmy Cheek), athletic department (Vice Chancellor and Athletics Director) Dave Hart and football coach (Butch Jones) were personally aware (as ‘appropriate persons’ under Title IX) and had actual notice of previous sexual assaults and rapes by football players, yet acted with deliberate indifference to the serious risks of sexual assaults and failed to take corrective actions.
Additionally, the Associated Press wrote, “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.'”
It’s further alleged in the suit that a former UT football player, Drae Bowles, was assaulted by his Vols teammates after he had “taken Plaintiff Doe IV to the hospital the night of her assault and who had supported her decision to report the incident to the authorities.” Shortly after that November of 2014 attack, which came one day after Plaintiff Doe IV was allegedly raped, Bowles transferred out of the football program and continued his playing career at Chattanooga.
Eight months later, it was confirmed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) had launched an investigation into a lengthy list of sexual assault allegations at UT, a handful of which involved football players.
Following an investigation by local law enforcement that began in November of 2014, Williams, a then-current UT cornerback, and Johnson, a star linebacker who had just completed his senior season, were indicted in mid-February of last year by a Knox County grand jury on two counts each of aggravated rape. Both pleaded not guilty a month later, although Johnson had already seen his invitation to the NFL combine rescinded while it was reported in June that the Vols had “moved on” from Williams.
According to reports that surfaced in mid-November, a 19-year-old UT student claimed that Johnson and Williams raped her at the former’s residence in a Knoxville apartment complex. The unnamed woman claimed that the assault lasted 45 minutes, and occurred during the course of a party being held following UT’s win over Kentucky. Another 19-year-old woman claimed she was sexually assaulted at the same location around the same time by Williams.
The first woman was treated at the UT Medical Center. The second alleged victim declined treatment and headed back to her home in Florida. She also initially declined to pursue charges despite claims of being sexually assaulted, but did cooperate with the grand jury.
Then, in late April of last year, reports surfaced that wide receiver Von Pearson was a suspect in the investigation of an alleged rape. Pearson has been indefinitely suspended by his head coach, and in August it was announced that Pearson would not face charges.
Those are the three that have been well-publicized and chronicled; according to The Tennessean at the time, however, there were three other Vols football players who were on the roster in 2014 who had been accused of sexual assault.
In April of 2013, running back Marlin Lane, whose eligibility expired after the 2014 season, was on the receiving end of what turned out to be a two-month suspension that was attributed to “disciplinary reasons.” The paper writes that “Lane… was named as a suspect in the rape of an 18-year-old high school student in Lane’s dorm room on April 9, 2013,” four days before his suspension. No charges were filed after the alleged victim declined to pursue the case.
In February of last year, Riyahd Jones, who was on the team in 2014, was named as a suspect in a sexual assault that was reported to the Knoxville police. The Tennessean writes that “[n]o charges have been filed, and police have declined to provide a copy of the full police report, saying that the district attorney’s office could still decide to pursue charges. Ultimately, the alleged victim declined to pursue charges in the case.
In September of 2014, an unnamed football player was named in the sexual assault of a female freshman student. An internal investigation found that no sexual assault had occurred and that instead the sex was consensual. He remained on the team and in good standing.
In response to the federal lawsuit, the university released the following statement:
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.