Wiedmer: Butch Jones big winner in UT decision to settle

Wiedmer: Butch Jones big winner in UT decision to settle

July 7th, 2016 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee coaches appear at a news conference on Feb. 23, 2016, in Knoxville. The coaches held a news conference two weeks after a group of unidentified women sued the school over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student-athletes.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Funny how time can lessen legal bravura regarding a lawsuit.

In February of this year, a federal lawsuit just filed against the University of Tennessee by six women (it later grew to eight) who alleged the Knoxville campus condoned a "hostile sexual environment" — especially regarding sexual assault accusations against male athletes — UT outside counsel Bill Ramsey said: "In the situations identified in the lawsuit; the University acted lawfully and in good faith, and we expect a court to agree."

Five months later, UT's brass was apparently no longer so determined to have its day in court. Instead, in a move it probably should have made months ago, it settled, coughing up $2.48 million to the eight women while admitting no guilt.

So what happened to all that confidence of expecting a court to agree? Was the evidence more damning that first believed? Did Ramsey and the rest of the school's legal team underestimate both the evidence and the determination of the women and their lawyers?

Or was this a calculated money grab on some level by the plaintiffs? Something along the lines of, "We may not be able to put these jocks behind bars for what they did to us, but we're going to at least get enough money to let everyone know that something happened to us that wasn't right."

Who knows?

Sadly, how many people really care?

Mark Wiedmer

Mark Wiedmer

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

After all, this nettlesome legal stuff was about to get in the way of the most highly anticipated UT football season in at least a decade, and with UT football coach Butch Jones about to meet 1,200 or so of his closest media buddies at next week's SEC Football Media Days.

Neither Jones nor UT athletic director Dave Hart returned phone calls from media outlets after the settlement was announced and who could blame them? It's Football Time in Tennessee. Focus on the positive. Nothing to see here. Nothing but the possibility of a blindingly bright season now unencumbered by a potential off-field scandal.

In fact, it could be argued that the big winner here was Jones. Thanks to the settlement, Coach Cliche will be spared being asked, under oath, if he ever told former Vol (and former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Moc) Drae Bowles over the phone that he "betrayed the team" before calling him back later in the day to apologize.

Bowles was a fairly significant part of the lawsuit because he reportedly comforted the coed at the center of the A.J. Johnson-Michael Williams rape trial and supposedly told her to report the alleged rape. Part of the plaintiffs' argument in the lawsuit centered on the coach's treatment of Bowles and how it contributed to their claims of a hostile sexual environment.

Phone records reportedly show two calls from Jones to Bowles or a Bowles family member during the day in question, but no one knows what was said. Now we probably never will.

As for the rest of it, those defending UT might argue that while $2.48 million seems like a fairly large amount, it pales in comparision to a similar settlement involving similar charges at the University of Colorado in 2007.

In that case, two former Colorado University students who said they had been sexually assaulted reached settlements totaling $2.85 million after alleging that CU created a party culture to show football recruits a "good time" without proper supervision. The plaintiffs argued that the school was to blame for an environment that led to their assaults.

When you consider that nine years ago these somewhat similar charges delivered a $2.85 million settlement to two students while these eight will split whatever's left of $2.48 million after their legal eagles are paid, the simple math would seem to indicate UT got off light.

Then there is the rather strange quote from plaintiffs attorney David Randolph Smith, who said of the settlement: "We are satisfied that, while universities everywhere struggle with these issues, the University of Tennessee has made significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases. My clients and I are also convinced that the University's leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct."

While he's surely referring to changes made in the past five months, how "exemplary" were those efforts before this lawsuit was filed? Was that statement actually part of the settlement? And regardless, isn't anyone concerned that it took this lawsuit and the government looking into Title IX issues for UT to get its act together regarding this troublesome issue?

It's easy to argue there are no losers here. The plaintiffs got paid. The school avoided the possibility of not only paying millions of dollars more, but also having this story sully its image for years to come, given that the trial would likely not have begun until 2018.

That said, if you were one of those unfortunate souls who were hoping to discover the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth regarding the incidents that first encouraged those eight women to sue UT, you lost big-time.

Whether current and future UT coeds will now win or lose in the area of sexual assault will depend on how strongly the UT brass will demand exemplary behavior from all its students moving forward. To settle for anything less would be a crime.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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