In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, six women accuse the University of Tennessee of enabling and covering up sexual assaults committed by campus athletes, “fostering a hostile sexual environment,” and discriminating against alleged rape survivors through a biased adjudication system unique to Tennessee’s public university system.
The university violated Title IX laws, the suit alleges, by exhibiting “deliberate indifference” to sexual assaults and athletes’ misbehavior, depriving the plaintiffs of their right to an education and exposing them to further harassment. It names top university officials, including Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletics Director Dave Hart, as among those who knew of the athletes’ history of rapes and sexual assaults but “failed to take corrective action.”
The suit centers on six cases of sexual assault, five of which were committed by current and former student athletes—football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams, Riyahd Jones, and a John Doe, plus basketball player Yemi Makanjuola—and one committed by a non-athlete after a party in a campus dorm. It also mentions several other episodes of criminal behavior, sexual and nonsexual, committed by football players, including an incident wherein UT football players beat up a fellow player who assisted the woman who’d accused Johnson and Williams of rape.
The plaintiffs, some of whom dropped out of school soon after reporting their alleged assaults, are seeking tuition reimbursement and prepayment, payments to cover expenses incurred as a result of the sexual assaults, and damages for emotional suffering and their lack of access to equal educational opportunity. But they’re also trying to change the way Tennessee universities handle sexual-assault cases. The lawsuit asks for an injunction that would eliminate the state’s current court-like system of adjudication, which gives alleged perpetrators the right to an attorney, an evidentiary hearing, and a cross-examination of their alleged victims. The judge who presides over these cases is appointed by Cheek, allowing for any potential university biases to slip into a highly legalistic process.
“Athletes knew in advance that UT would: support them even after a complaint of sexual assault; arrange for top quality legal representation; and then direct them to the…hearing procedure that denies victims the right to a hearing and to the same equal procedural, hearing, and process rights as given to perpetrators of rape and sexual assault,” the lawsuit states. It also accuses the university of prolonging investigations of its athletes until the alleged rapists graduated or transferred to other colleges. Makanjuola, for one, decamped for the University of North Carolina Wilmington “with public well wishes from his coaches,” the Tennessean reports, soon after UT learned of his alleged assault. Johnson, too, was lauded by university officials who knew that he’d been accused of sexual assault.
“In the situations identified in the lawsuit filed today, the university acted lawfully and in good faith, and we expect a court to agree,” the university said in a statement. “Any assertion that we do not take sexual assault seriously enough is simply not true.” Since last summer, the university has been the subject of two separate and ongoing Title IX investigations launched by the federal government. UT has also come under fire in the past for failing to disclose rape allegations against student athletes. Florida State University recently paid a landmark $950,000 settlement to the plaintiff of a Title IX lawsuit that accused the university of covering up football player Jameis Winston’s alleged rape of a fellow student in 2012—an indication that schools may be finally held to task for preferential treatment of student-athletes.