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The Culture Question: Tennessee Athletics Department Accused of Influencing Student Discipline

With multiple sexual assault allegations and now accusations of the athletic department influencing student discipline to be more lenient on players, we revisit the question of culture at the University of Tennessee.

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Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A massive report from The Tennessean this week cites former UT Vice Chancellor for Student Life Tim Rogers in protesting the UT athletic department's involvement and influence in matters of student discipline, including the actions of both athletic director (and Vice Chancellor) Dave Hart and Chancellor Jimmy Cheek.  Rogers asserts the athletic department pressured and influenced decision making as to the way athletes were handled when facing discipline from the university.  In a memo obtained by The Tennessean, Rogers states:

"It is patently apparent that Athletics, enabled by the way of the Chancellor's directives and interference:

a. Wields undue influence and diminishes or eliminates independence of thought and action necessary for unbiased review within individual departments.

b. Places our institutional integrity at peril.

c. Places our students in peril.

There are a number of situations brought up in The Tennessean's report.  They include the Jenny Wright story, the former director of student judicial affairs who had allegedly engaged in inappropriate relationships with students, though an investigation found no evidence.  The story also includes the multiple sexual assault accusations against members of the football team, as well as Yemi Mankanjoula, who transferred out of the basketball program soon after.  The investigation into Marlin Lane was halted when the alleged victim refused to cooperate.  A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams are both facing two counts of aggravated rape.  In each instance Butch Jones suspended the players from the team at the time of the accusation, though in Marlin Lane's case the accusation was not known until nearly 18 months later.

The idea that a major athletics program would want to influence student discipline in favor of their athletes is likely met with "what else is new" for many.  The Tennessean story also cites a 2010 case involving a non-athlete, in which Jimmy Cheek believed Student Judicial Affairs was "too punitive and legalistic and not focused enough on student development."

There is probably an argument to be had on the letter of the law in judicial affairs for all students.  But if "student development" is the real concern - or I would say personal development, human being development - the culture in which that development is taking place must be rightfully questioned.

Nearly five years ago Tennessee had its third highly publicized arrest of athletes in 240 days in the Bar Knoxville fight.  As we mentioned at the time, it wasn't just troubling that one or two players were involved with poor or violent decision making.  These were group activities:  three players in a "robbery" at the Pilot, four basketball players in a car with drugs and a gun with an altered serial number, anywhere from four to ten players at Bar Knoxville at 2:00 AM on a Thursday in a brawl with an off-duty police officer.  The culture was a mess, with so little accountability from within the team and above administratively that large groups of players were acting out like this.  Since then, under the watches of Derek Dooley, Cuonzo Martin, Butch Jones, Donnie Tyndall, and Dave Hart, the group activities have been largely replaced with the individual bad decision making that will always threaten a group of 18-22 year olds, especially in a culture that worships them.  Developing leadership and character among players is crucial for bettering this part of the problem, as it can help not just in self-policing but overall growth and maturity.

Butch Jones in particular has handled the sexual assault situations in a manner that's drawn far more praise than criticism by suspending players immediately and indefinitely at the time of the allegation.  But sexual assault on college campuses is a dark and frightening culture of its own right, for students and student-athletes, and it is (hopefully) coming more and more into the light.

Two weeks ago Vice Chancellor Vince Carilli sent an email to all UT students with information on the university's response to reports of sexual assault.  He wrote, "It is important that victims are able to trust that our campus will support them if they choose to report a sexual assault."  This is the trust that is most important.  When people throw around words like trust and integrity, I'm not worried about how good any of the Vice Chancellors can feel about their reputation.  I'm far more concerned with the freedom, safety, and trust a victim feels and has in the reporting and recovery process, and far more concerned with the education and accountability presented by the athletics department and campus itself, for all students, so that real personal development might take place and these things might never see the light of day.  Not because they are reported less, but because they happen less, and are reported more when they do.  That's the culture we want to build, at Tennessee and everywhere.  When colleges and athletic departments tell the parents of 17 and 18 year olds they want to help make their children not just better athletes or better students, but better people, they really are talking about their most important work.  Situations like this make us question the honesty of that work, and hopefully in turn make us even more committed, from Jimmy Cheek, Dave Hart, Butch Jones, and all involved, to a culture that continually evolves into something healthy instead of something that needs to be tampered with when all parties involved didn't do a good job with student development.

For more on how you can help prevent sexual assault, check out It's On Us, which has partnered with, among others, the NCAA, SEC, and SB Nation.