Just days after Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl last month, Shaun King of the New York Daily News unleashed a damming report about an alleged incident in 1996 in which Manning, then the star quarterback at the University of Tennessee, lewdly exposed his genitals to a female athletic trainer during an examination. Dr. Jamie Naughright, a respected sports medicine expert, was effectively blacklisted as part of a settlement agreement after she sued the university over the incident. Although King’s detailed article paints a very ugly scene regarding the legal battle waged between Peyton and his father Archie Manning against Naughright, the saga is merely a paragraph’s worth of background information in one of the biggest lawsuits to ever involve college athletics. In many ways this pains me to write, as I am unabashedly a much bigger college sports fan than pro fan, and this week starts the beginning of March Madness. As a sports law analyst however; it is impossible to understate the potential significance of the Title IX complaint filed in Nashville federal court by eight unnamed women on February 9th against the University of Tennessee could be to the entire college sports landscape.
Title IX laws are designed to protect against gender discrimination among federally funded educational institutions. The plaintiffs allege in the suit that the university consistently violates these legal standards, and that the administration has created an environment of “deliberate indifference and a clearly unreasonable response after a sexual assault that causes a student to endure additional harassment.” One of the main cruxes of the problem, according to the document, is the unique administrative law system for public institutions in the state of Tennessee that heavily favors the university over its accusers. The administrative law judge is chosen by the school’s chancellor and the accused athletes are provided access to top-level attorneys, who are then able to cross-examine accusers during the evidentiary hearings. The triumvirate of Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, athletic director Dave Hart, and head football coach Butch Jones, are considered the architects of the biased system and are the persons at the core of the complaints. Although the lawsuit includes several incidents preceding Hart’s 2011 arrival as Tennessee’s athletic director, including the Manning episode, the uptick in complaints coincides with his tenure. As a long time college sports administrator, he was accused in 2003 of initially withholding information regarding a sexual assault allegedly committed by a football while serving in the same role at Florida State.
Although the 64-page lawsuit cites over 20 years worth of examples of university leadership maintaining policies that make students “vulnerable to sexual abuse,” the complaint specifically seeks damages for five separate incidents between 2011 and 2015. According to the Tennessean, the five athletes being accused are former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola, former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams, and Riyahd Jones, as well as a current football player listed as “John Doe.” One unnamed non-athlete has also been mentioned in the suit’s main complaint. Makanjuola was named after an alleged February 2013 sexual assault, while Williams and Johnson were both accused of assaulting the same woman during a December 2014 event. Jones and the unnamed player were accused of a sexual assault at an off-campus apartment on February 5th, 2015. The unnamed non-athlete was accused of another sexual assault during an on-campus event in one of the players’ dormitories. Altogether, six players from Tennessee’s 2014 football roster have been accused of sexual assault.
The women accuse university administrators of using their influence to delay several investigations long enough for accused athletes to graduate, transfer, or otherwise no longer be a party to the university, and out of the administrative judge’s jurisdiction. Specifically, administrative law judge Katrice Jones Morgan, appointed by Cheek, dismissed the university’s case against Johnson last week because he graduated in December 2014 and therefore, is no longer within Morgan’s jurisdiction. It should be noted, however, that Johnson and Williams still face criminal trials on aggravated rape charges later this year, for which they pleaded not guilty. Still, the ruling does mean that Johnson will be permitted to receive his diploma, which had been held by the university pending the outcome of the case. Although an administrative law judge found a preponderance of evidence that Makanjuola violated the student code of conduct due to an alleged sexual assault, he was able to transfer to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 2013, both with well-wishes from the athletic department, and also without any criminal charges filed against him by the district attorney in Knoxville.
Although Jones has publicly stated that “there is no culture problem” last month, the Title IX lawsuit follows a June 2015 investigation of sexual violence occurring at Tennessee by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), followed by a second investigation launched after a July complaint. Also, while not named in the Title IX lawsuit, running back Marlin Lane was accused of sexually assaulting an 18 year-old high school student in Lane’s dorm room in 2013. The University of Tennessee police department did conduct an investigation, but Lane was not charged because the alleged victim decided not to press charges against him. He was suspended from the team without the athletic department publicly mentioning the reason, but then reinstated two months later. After his reinstatement, Lane was named as one of the program’s 13 team leaders, with Jones saying that Lane was a “success story,” adding that he “learned from his mistakes, and he’s done a good job of putting those behind him.” Among the myriad stories mentioned as historical background to the lawsuit is one involving gender discrimination during a wave of athletic department layoffs in 2012. During this period, 12 of the 15 employees dismissed were female, and that 20 of the 23, or 87 percent of senior administrators and executives were male at the time.
As the Peyton Manning incident has brought a moderate amount of publicity to the lawsuit, many have already compared the severity and duration of the alleged infractions to the Penn State scandal involving assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Much like Tennessee, high-level administrators in that debacle were accused of covering up the former coach’s trail of sexual assaults on young boys during on-campus youth events. That case came as a shock to most college sports fans and people in general, but that was probably more due to the fact that the victims were preteen and young teen boys. The Tennessee case however, is probably somewhat less shocking because of several predeceasing cases that have been proven to be false. March 28th will mark the tenth anniversary of the Duke lacrosse rape scandal, in which three players were falsely accused of sexually assaulting an erotic dancer hired to perform for the team. Also noteworthy is the notorious 2014 article penned by Rolling Stone magazine regarding “rape culture” at the University of Virginia, in which editor Will Dana was forced to issue an apology over shoddy journalism practices. It is likely these poorly-handled incidents have made both authorities and journalists more skeptical towards accusers of sexual abuse against college athletes. Although several sports and news media outlets have published stories regarding the lawsuit, it has seemed more of a struggle to keep the Tennessee case in the news, even with the Peyton Manning connection.
This is why it’s important to separate fact from speculation in this case, but there is an awful lot of smoke to go along with the fire. Unlike the graphic shower scenes at Penn State, allegations of more “normal” sexual abuse committed by NCAA athletes are common, if not frequent. The former kicker for my beloved Michigan Wolverines, Brenden Gibbons was dismissed over an alleged sexual assault, albeit much belated. Many of the details involving that case could have come straight from the Tennessee lawsuit material due to the way it was handled by Michigan’s athletic department, which has since been largely replaced. Former Florida State star quarterback and number one NFL draft pick Jameis Winston was cleared of sexual assault charges by university officials regarding a 2012 incident due to lack of conclusive evidence, but Florida State still paid $95,000 to the alleged victim Erica Kinsman in January. As recently as last night, the University of California dismissed assistant basketball coach Yann Huffnagel following an investigation into claims of the repeated sexual harassment of a female reporter assigned to the team. These are among a few of several cases that have occurred in recent years, the OCR lists 208 separate Title IX investigations of sexual abuse involving 167 schools and 39 states as of February 25th. Although the Duke case and the Rolling Stone story may have created setbacks for advocates of campus sexual assault, the handling of the Tennessee lawsuit within the judicial system could serve as a warning to most colleges that Title IX is to be taken seriously. The lawsuit’s potential damage to Tennessee’s storied reputation should give major institutions pause to evaluate their administrative procedures regarding Title IX complaints in order to protect themselves from similar fallout.
New York Daily News – Shaun King
Sports Illustrated – Greg Bishop, Thayer Evans, and Ben Baskin
The Tennessean – Anita Wadhwani and Nate Rau