In the midst of ongoing questions surrounding a federal sexual assault lawsuit and the culture on Tennessee's campus, today all 16 Vol head coaches were together at a unique joint press conference. You rarely, if ever, publicly see every head coach at any university in the same place at the same time, let alone speaking to a situation like this one.
The press conference lasted right at an hour. The coaches did much of what you would expect: support the university and each other, praise the vast majority of their athletes, and share their belief that the culture on campus is good. I thought they did a fair job communicating this belief while leaving room for the truth that things can always improve; rowing coach Lisa Glenn shared this idea particularly well:
Lisa Glenn: All of us as D1 coaches don't have in DNA to be satisfied & comfortable. .. Not say everything great & fine. Find ways be better— John Brice (@John_BriceVQ) February 23, 2016
This is similar to what Butch Jones said at an impromptu press gathering before the LSU basketball game on Saturday, where his statements can seem blunt in print but, if you listen to the audio, his tone is much more appropriate.
Some of the reaction to the joint presser is about what didn't happen: Dave Hart wasn't there (he was out of town, today was the best day that worked for coaches' schedules), details of how allegations are handled weren't discussed, not enough comparison to other schools, etc. There are certainly some things these coaches wouldn't or couldn't address, whether because of the lawsuit or because of the things the lawsuit speaks to that happen above them on the university's chain of command.
But if one of the concerns is deliberate indifference, having this press conference at all was a good step.
It cannot be, of course, the only or last step. If the point of this was to say, "We're good, nothing to see here," then it will ultimately make things worse for the next victim, as a question late in the press conference alluded to. But that wasn't the overall sense I got from watching it.
All of the coaches spent time today sharing how it wasn't a first step either. I'm for increased transparency in the educational component with all Tennessee athletes, not just for the additional accountability but because it also allows the university to tell more of the good stories that are out there, stories these coaches know more than any of us. There was always going to be a bit of, "damned if you do..." with this presser: have it and you catch some heat for what you didn't say. But don't have it, and you catch heat for allowing an ongoing culture conversation to take place without your voice.
My initial takeaway here is more to note the presence of that voice - that this joint presser happened at all - than any individual statement that was made in it. The statements were generally what you would expect:
Barnes: "We have to stand up and tell you all the good side of it too. We have to do that."— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
Weekly: "The image being displayed of our culture is unfair."— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
Warlick says if she had a daughter she would be very comfortable having her go to UT.— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
Jones: "Have we had some individuals make some poor choices. Yes we have."— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
Jones: "It's not who we are ... We have a very good culture in place."— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
But the visual of all 16 coaches together speaking to the culture? That's not deliberate indifference. Tennessee's presence in the conversation helps validate it, and hopefully continues to drive it forward.
I also kind of appreciated that Dave Hart wasn't there for that visual: that this wasn't a forced gathering led by their boss, but something a little more organic.
Rick Barnes is up. Says the coaches did this on their own and the athletic department didn't have anything to do with it.— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
Make no mistake, those issues higher up the chain need to be addressed as well, and Dave Hart's voice is an important one in this conversation. But I'm totally fine with that voice being separate from what we saw today.
The presser also drifted into some of the issues in the combining of the men's and women's athletic departments. There were a couple of noteworthy statements in that regard:
Patrick: "Our young ladies are better off right now than they were five years ago."— Dustin Dopirak (@TennesseeBeat) February 23, 2016
Warlick: A couple of former employees here, maybe 1 percent, were not happy when they left and said some unfortunate things.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) February 23, 2016
There's a good conversation to be had about the ways these two issues bump against each other, both impacting the overall culture.
I still have no idea if Tennessee should settle the lawsuit or if they'll win or lose if they don't. But in the ongoing effort to make the culture on campus healthier, this joint presser is good if it serves to further the culture conversation and not shut it down.
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.