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With the number of Tennessee football players accused of sexual offenses piling up, it's time for Vols coach Butch Jones to make changes to the program and speak up about them, writes columnist Jay Greeson.
some text Jay Greeson
Something has to change.

Period.

The University of Tennessee football program has had too many run-ins with the law concerning sexually related offenses. Yes, in a perfect world, one is too many — but this is far from a perfect world, especially in the college setting with hormones and potential alcohol and who knows what other variables involved.

That is not intended as an excuse or a rationalization. It's simply a fact. Colleges across the country are wrestling with ways to fight sexual offenses, and college athletic programs are no different.

Tennessee defensive tackle Alexis Johnson was arrested Wednesday night on charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment. A football spokesman told Times Free Press reporter Patrick Brown: "We are aware of the report concerning Alexis Johnson. He has been suspended from all football activities. We will have no further comment at this time."

The "no further comment" move could have been anticipated. Time is needed to investigate. Little can be conveyed about Johnson's case in the immediate fallout following the arrest — he was picked up after 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and Brown got the quote a few hours later.

That said, someone needs to step forward with a pretty good-sized comment pretty soon.

Butch Jones was brought to Knoxville to reverse the fortunes of a very proud football program that had become an also-ran during a six-year stretch in which Jones was the fourth head coach. By comparison, Tennessee had four head coaches from 1964 to 2008.

Jones has embraced the challenge, changing the talent level and the expectations. In fact, the Vols will be a clear favorite to win the Southeastern Conference's East division next fall and will likely be among the top 15 teams in the national preseason rankings.

His work has been amply rewarded. Jones was given a $500,000 raise last December, and he will make $4.1 million annually on a contract that runs through 2020.

Now his work must focus on how these Vols treat women.

Johnson was arrested after being accused of choking a former girlfriend and busting her lip on Sunday. Mack Crowder, who earlier this year completed his final season as a Vols offensive lineman, was arrested as part of a sting operation Tuesday in Florida. He faces five felonies and has been accused of transmitting materials harmful to minors after trying to hook up with what he thought was a 14-year-old girl he met online.

Last week, a federal lawsuit against the athletic department was filed that alleges the university, and especially its athletic department, has created and allowed a culture of sexual assaults. Three former players — A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams and Rihyad Jones — and one current football player (listed as "John Doe") are accused of sexual assaults in the suit, filed Feb. 9 in Nashville.

A.J. Johnson and Williams are accused of raping another UT student-athlete and will go on trial this summer.

These allegations are troubling, both in nature and especially now in frequency. That's six players accused of sexual offenses in three years for a program that has roughly 100 total, including preferred walk-ons. That's a rotten percentage that supersedes randomness.

And to be fair, the reports of allegations that former football player Drae Bowles was beaten and threatened and eventually transferred to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after trying to help the victim accusing A.J. Johnson and Williams magnifies those numbers two-fold.

All of this also, at least indirectly, supports the claims that this culture exists. That's not to say UT or Jones or any of the athletic officials encouraged it — that would be incredulous — or even worked to allow it. But this many incidents certainly give credence to the culture existing.

And it's time for Jones to end it.

Now.

Take the mic and talk about a zero tolerance policy. Yes, we're all for due process, and A.J. Johnson and Williams may be found not guilty, and Alexis Johnson's scenario could be something entirely different than what we have been told so far.

But the stance should be: you hurt a woman, you're done. Period.

And if you think that will hurt the roster or recruiting — well, if you think that, then you likely need to reexamine your priorities — know this: Steve Spurrier had a zero tolerance policy for crimes against women for as long as he was a head coach, and things worked out pretty well for the Ol' Ball Coach.

Read more about UT's recent legal battles

And that policy should be extended beyond zero tolerance for being found guilty. Reward teammates for helping each other avoid potentially dangerous situations. Discuss ways to avoid those situations. Talk to team leaders about what's happening in the lives of the younger players who may not be as prepared for the wild ride that is big-time college football.

Start with something and look at everything, because the appearance right now was magnified by the program's "no further comment" after the most recent arrest. Yes, refusing to discuss it in one case makes perfect sense, but refusing to discuss this entire problem in a bigger sense is pennywise and 300-pound foolish.

Speak out, Butch — not on the multitude of ongoing cases per se — and tell everyone what you are going to do to help the players who have helped you be in position to make more than $20 million between now and the end of 2020.

Right now, the numbers and the stories paint an awful shadow on what could be a very bright moment in the sun for the program in the future.

And as great a job as Jones has done at fixing the talent and the culture on the field, it is high time for him to put the same kind of energy and effectiveness into fixing what appears to be a dangerous culture off of it.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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