Gerber: Openness is always the best choice

Members of the media are often quick to call out public officials who operate behind a wall of secrecy. But we're not as good at calling out those who act with transparency.

So here goes.

University of Tennessee football Coach Butch Jones did the right thing last week when he admitted two of his players were involved in a rape investigation. He didn't have to. The athletes had not been charged with a crime.

He could have cited the ongoing investigation, an out that law enforcement departments often lean on. He could have argued that it was not fair to name athletes who had been accused but not charged.

But that would not have stopped the rumors flying around Knoxville and the rest of the state. It would not have silenced social media speculation and accusations. It may have even made them worse. And it would have made the UT football program look like it was hiding something.

Instead, Jones stated the facts and, by doing so, cut out the rumor and suspicion.

"We have a lot on the line," Jones said. "We're representing the state of Tennessee, Vol Nation, the city of Knoxville, our student body, our fan base, our boosters, our alumni."

The facts weren't pretty, not the kind of stuff positive publicity is made of: Two University of Tennessee football players, including star linebacker A.J. Johnson, the Volunteers' leading tackler, and cornerback Michael Williams are suspects in a rape and sexual assault reported by two 19-year-old women. The incident occurred at an off-campus apartment complex.

The two players have been suspended from all team-related activities pending the conclusion of the investigation.

Such ugliness usually is hidden behind the familiar tap dance of camouflage -- which many coaches, not to mention public officials, would do without hesitation. Don't forget the hemming and hawing done by Baltimore Ravens and NFL officials after video of running back Ray Rice knocking out his girlfriend hit the newsfeeds. Before the video, these same officials had suspended Rice for two games, saying it was an appropriate punishment. After the video, when the officials could no longer hide the facts, Rice was fired from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the NFL.

Jones didn't hide the facts. He just said what he knew.

"Every situation that occurs, just like in life, I treat it as a teaching opportunity, a teaching moment," he explained. "We spend an inordinate amount of time in that in our Vol for Life program, our character education program, all that. We'll discuss it, but it'll be business as usual."

Many public officials don't get the value of the truth. They don't understand that the simple act of stating what is happening -- even if it's negative -- makes them look good. It makes them look honest and clean, and it makes it clear that they're not hiding anything and not trying to spin anything. (Hint: The public doesn't like spin. It's insulting and we expect better of our public officials).

When officials deny public information, they only make members of the public suspicious. People wonder: What are they hiding? The act of secrecy invites even more scrutiny.

Jones apparently understands something many public officials don't.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at