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Tennessee settles suit that claimed UT ‘created a... culture that enables sexual assault’

A legal black cloud that’s hung over the University of Tennessee in general and the football program specifically has apparently dissipated.

According to The Tennessean, the university has settled a federal Title IX lawsuit that had been filed by eight unidentified female plaintiffs. The newspaper writes that the settlement comes “two days before a response to the lawsuit from UT lawyers was due in U.S. District Court.”

As part of the settlement, the defendants agreed to pay a total of $2.48 million; the athletic department and the university will split the cost of that part of the settlement. The university estimated that it could cost upwards of $5.5 million if the lawsuit had gone to trial and their side lost.

No guilt was admitted on the part of UT, although the claims contained in the suit as well as other allegations will linger around Knoxville for years to come.

In the suit that was filed in federal court this past February, it was alleged that the university “has created a student culture that enables sexual assaults by student-athletes, especially football players, and then uses an unusual, legalistic adjudication process that is biased against victims who step forward.” Four former Volunteer student-athletes, including three football players, were identified by name in the lawsuit as having sexually assaulted the alleged victims — former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola, former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williamsand Riyahd Jones.

A fifth UT student-athlete is identified in the lawsuit only as a current football player named “John Doe.” One of the plaintiffs alleges that she was raped by a non-football player, also identified as a “John Doe,” at a football team party.

It was further alleged in the suit that a former UT football player, Drae Bowles, was assaulted by his Vols teammates after he had “taken Plaintiff Doe IV to the hospital the night of her assault and who had supported her decision to report the incident to the authorities.” Shortly after that November of 2014 attack, which came one day after Plaintiff Doe IV was allegedly raped, Bowles transferred out of the football program and continued his playing career at Chattanooga.

Eight months later, it was confirmed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) had launched an investigation into a lengthy list of sexual assault allegations at UT, a handful of which involved football players.

Following an investigation by local law enforcement that began in November of 2014, Williams, a then-current UT cornerback, and Johnson, a star linebacker who had just completed his senior season, were indicted in mid-February of last year by a Knox County grand jury on two counts each of aggravated rape. Both pleaded not guilty a month later, although Johnson had already seen his invitation to the NFL combine rescinded while it was reported in June that the Vols had “moved on” from Williams.

Those two are still awaiting trial.

According to reports that surfaced in mid-November, a 19-year-old UT student claimed that Johnson and Williams raped her at the former’s residence in a Knoxville apartment complex. The unnamed woman claimed that the assault lasted 45 minutes, and occurred during the course of a party being held following UT’s win over Kentucky. Another 19-year-old woman claimed she was sexually assaulted at the same location around the same time by Williams.

The first woman was treated at the UT Medical Center. The second alleged victim declined treatment and headed back to her home in Florida. She also initially declined to pursue charges despite claims of being sexually assaulted, but did cooperate with the grand jury.

Then, in late April of last year, reports surfaced that wide receiver Von Pearson was a suspect in the investigation of an alleged rape. Pearson had been indefinitely suspended by his head coach, and in August it was announced that Pearson would not face charges.

Those are the three incidents that have been well-publicized and chronicled; according to The Tennessean at the time, however, there were three other Vols football players who were on the roster in 2014 who had been accused of sexual assault.

In April of 2013, running back Marlin Lane, whose eligibility expired after the 2014 season, was on the receiving end of what turned out to be a two-month suspension that was attributed to “disciplinary reasons.” The paper writes that “Lane… was named as a suspect in the rape of an 18-year-old high school student in Lane’s dorm room on April 9, 2013,” four days before his suspension. No charges were filed after the alleged victim declined to pursue the case.

In February of last year, Riyahd Jones, who was on the team in 2014, was named as a suspect in a sexual assault that was reported to the Knoxville police. The Tennessean wrote that “[n]o charges have been filed, and police have declined to provide a copy of the full police report, saying that the district attorney’s office could still decide to pursue charges.” Ultimately, the alleged victim declined to pursue charges in that case as well.

In September of 2014, an unnamed football player was named in the sexual assault of a female freshman student. An internal investigation found that no sexual assault had occurred and that instead the sex was consensual. He remained on the team and in good standing.

A couple of weeks after the filing of the lawsuit, head football coach Butch Jones and 15 other varsity UT head coaches staged a pep rally to defend the culture in and around their programs. Vols quarterbacking legend Peyton Manning’s name was also dragged into the suit.