Put aside for a moment that Tennessee is paying eight women $2.48 million to settle their Title IX lawsuit against the university over how it responded to sexual assaults accusations.
The money is understandably the headline in a settlement like this. Tennessee will pay more to the eight Jane Doe plaintiffs and their attorneys than it spends on its two football coordinators combined this season.
Still, there's a very eye-opening part of the settlement that deserves more attention because it could help more sexual assault victims come forward without fear of intimidation. According to The Tennessean, Tennessee has agreed to stop giving out a list of Knoxville attorneys to athletes who are accused of misconduct. Instead, the university will refer athletes seeking attorneys to the local bar association.
Kathy Redmond Brown, who has tracked violence against women for decades as founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, said this is the first time she can recall an athletic department publicly saying it won't arrange lawyers for athletes.
"There is a very close relationship between an athletic department, a police department, a district attorney's office and the lawyers in the town," Brown said. "These attorneys often have box seats to football games. It's not like they're not given perks. I'm grateful that line came out of the settlement. If you look at a lot of these schools, that practice happens all the time, but nobody ever came out to say they will stop providing attorneys."
The NCAA and every school around the country should take notice of this stipulation. Every person has a right to legal representation. No one is saying otherwise for accused athletes.
But what far too many athletic departments do is line up the same go-to lawyer for arrested players. This creates the very real perception that while the university preaches "zero tolerance" for violence against women, the powerful sports teams have a lot at stake in a victim's accusation. This can lead to a chilling effect for women.
It's the secret everyone knows. Many major football and men's basketball programs have a team lawyer -- often times, they're boosters -- lined up on speed dial to help players when they face legal trouble. The NCAA allows schools to arrange for attorneys as long as the athlete pays the going rate for similar services as other students do.
Sometimes these lawyers show up at a police department or crime scene even before an athlete asks for a lawyer. In the Jameis Winston case when sexual assault allegations were brought against him, a Florida State associate athletic director did not let Tallahassee police detectives contact two witnesses who were also football players until after the associate AD had called attorneys for them, according to a civil lawsuit. That can allow players to get their stories straight or discard evidence.
"You hear all the time about the $500-an-hour attorney who does pro-bono for someone, charges the minimal level under the guidelines and can do it because he occasionally does that work for other people too," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, chairman of the NCAA Football Oversight Committee. "It's a pretty shady area. When the university is making arrangements for legal attention, it usually ends up resulting in discounted fees and things that will likely and appropriately draw scrutiny."
According to an open records request by The Tennessean, the Vols' list of six attorneys all are University of Tennessee College of Law graduates. Most have direct ties to the athletic department. One is a football color commentator. Two have served on the athletics boards.
Ex-Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams learned they were under investigation for rape not from police, but from their football coaches, according to The Tennessean. Knoxville's police chief and a detective made "professional courtesy" calls to football coach Butch Jones about the investigation, an act that can threaten the integrity of the investigation and runs contrary to best police practices.
Let me know the next time a university bends over backward to get the woman a good attorney, too.
"A lot of the victims don't have the resources to deal with this," said Brown, who speaks to NFL and college teams and has met twice with groups of Tennessee athletes. "The message to victims is basically the athletic department is almost scaring them to take those next steps - 'Go ahead, take us on' - which is why victims don't. That's why you see so often victims try to find other women and go in as a group."
The most important reason to do away with athletic departments lining up lawyers is the message it sends to players. They're watching the actions of their coaches and administrators. They're not stupid. Players see what level of real accountability they face if they get in legal trouble, or which coach makes a phone call to arrange for the team attorney to help.
"This isn't a humbling process for a lot of athletes, no matter what they say," Brown said. "This kind of stuff isn't like what you or I would think where it's humbling and you start looking introspectively of why you made this decision, and you know you need help. This is another battle and they thrive in that environment. It's coaches saying, 'Contact this attorney and meet with this PR person,' and you're going in like a person of power.
"That message is so unhealthy and so toxic for them to get right off the bat. For a lot of them to basically come from nothing and to have at their fingertips so much power that nobody else has at their age, how do you rein that in? It's why you see so many reports of problems once they leave college or the pros. They have no handlers anymore."
Tennessee still has more work to do after this settlement. It will be interesting to see who the university puts on its independent commission to make recommendations addressing sexual assault and misconduct.
"Maybe I'll throw my hat into the ring," Brown said. "I truly believe Tennessee's athletic department has a great opportunity to be a leader because they have some key players set up there who want that. If Tennessee wants to do something from a legacy standpoint, they will involve the female athletes in all of this because they're eyewitnesses to a lot of this. I spoke to them too. I found their perspectives to be hugely important and very knowledgeable."
Last month I spoke with Tennessee women's basketball player Diamond DeShields and asked about her impressions of violence against women by male college athletes. While DeShields spoke about a "sense of family" at Tennessee and said she wasn't very familiar with the Title IX lawsuit against her university, she expressed gratitude that Baylor's cover-up of rapes had resulted in accountability for coaches.
"At some point, some of that responsibility does fall back on coaches," DeShields said. "Some coaches let them get away with a lot of things, especially if the player is talented. Domestic violence, assault, college students -- being on a college campus, you really see it all the time. I think it's important to establish how you're going to handle these situations if these do occur and being honest as a coach and being honest as a player. Were you wrong or not wrong?"
It's unclear how Tennessee will enforce the settlement provision that the athletic department won't provide lists of attorneys to athletes. If a player facing legal trouble brings the bar association list of lawyers to an athletic department employee and asks who to choose, should the employee offer his or her opinion? What's to stop someone in the athletic department from verbally arranging for an attorney?
Still, the fact that the plaintiffs and Tennessee have this settlement stipulation is what Brown calls an "aha" moment for college sports.
"Just putting this out there on paper for the public is hugely vulnerable for Tennessee," Brown said. "This is the athletic department basically saying, 'Yeah, we did that and we won't do that anymore.' That's a big deal given what's documented of the close relationship between Butch Jones and the police department." (Under terms of the settlement, Tennessee did not admit to "guilt, negligence or unlawful acts.")
The NCAA and its members could establish rules related to athletic departments lining up lawyers for players. That would assume every other school that plays this wink-wink, nod-nod game actually wants it to end.
Perhaps lawsuit settlements are the only way to change something universities could fix themselves.