KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's coaches held a rare joint press conference Tuesday to say that an unfair picture of the athletic department is emerging amid a lawsuit that states the school mishandled sexual assault complaints against athletes.
"We don't want the stereotype that there's something out there that's not true," said Rick Barnes, the men's basketball coach.
The federal suit filed Feb. 9 in Nashville by six unidentified women states Tennessee violated Title IX regulations and created a "hostile sexual environment" through a policy of indifference toward assaults by athletes. The suit also states the university interfered with the disciplinary process to favor male athletes.
Coaches defended the university, but declined to address the lawsuit.
"The culture here right now is the best it's ever been. ... The image that's being displayed of our culture is unfair," softball co-coach Karen Weekly said.
Tennessee's 16 head coaches said they decided on their own to hold a news conference. Athletic director Dave Hart wasn't at the event. Athletic department spokesman Ryan Robinson said this was the one day all the coaches could gather together. Robinson said Hart and chancellor Jimmy Cheek were out of town on a prior commitment.
Women's soccer coach Brian Pensky acknowledged there could be a perception that this press conference is "just a big kumbaya lovefest," but he believed it's time to "be strong" and support the school's administration.
Pensky said that even before the lawsuit, the athletic department was criticized for moves such as the decision to eliminate the Lady Volunteers nickname for all women's sports other than the basketball team.
"Instead of us continuing to lay down and just kind of take it and take the beating," Pensky said, "we felt like as a coaching unit we want our administration to know that we have their back and we have each other's backs, and we have our student-athletes' backs."
David Randolph Smith, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said while everything the coaches said sounded good, it missed the point.
"It's nice that they share facilities and have great programs and support each other and they've got money and they have this positive atmosphere," Smith said. "That sounds great. But we're talking about very specific cases in relation to the administration and the hostile sexual environment in the football program and the basketball program. That's what our lawsuit relates to."
Women's basketball coach Holly Warlick said the questions looming over the university have been mentioned in recruiting. But she said that "if I had a daughter, I would not hesitate one bit for her to come on campus."
Football coach Butch Jones agreed the lawsuit could have a recruiting impact.
"Our competitors are using it against us," Jones said.
Other coaches also discussed how well women are treated at Tennessee, but they often focused on opportunities given to female athletes rather than the safety of the general female student population.
Women's golf coach Judi Pavon said her players "don't know what to believe" when they hear about allegations against male athletes.
"For them, it's inexplicable," Pavon said. "They know that they're treated well here. They know that they have every opportunity that every other athlete has here, so they're just shocked by what they're hearing."
Jones was asked how anyone making a sexual assault complaint in the future might react to seeing all the head coaches at a major university praising the culture at a school being sued over its handling of reported incidents.
"I don't want you to think in any way, shape or form that we don't feel for the alleged victims," said Jones, who added coaches are constantly trying to educate players. "We feel for them. I hurt for them. We all hurt for them. I want to make sure people understand that. That hits at our soul."
The suit focuses on five cases reported between 2013 and 2015, but one paragraph in the 64-page document refers to a sexual harassment complaint made by a Tennessee trainer in 1996 including an incident involving Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who was then the Volunteers QB.
Smith has emphasized the focus of the lawsuit is on the university itself and that Manning's situation was referenced only to show how Tennessee has handled reports of player misconduct dating to 1995.
The school filed a motion Tuesday to strike the Manning reference from the lawsuit. Bill Ramsey, the lawyer representing Tennessee, said in his motion the paragraph should be removed "because of the utter lack of relevance the decades-old allegation against Peyton Manning has to this lawsuit."
In an earlier statement, Ramsey said the university "acted lawfully and in good faith" in the situations outlined in the plaintiffs' complaint.
There have been several sexual assault complaints made against Tennessee athletes over the last four years, including former football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, who were indicted on aggravated rape charges in February 2015.
Eight days after the suit was filed, defensive lineman Alexis Johnson was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment. Gregory Isaacs, the lawyer representing Alexis Johnson, has said his client "adamantly denies the allegations." Johnson was suspended from all team-related activities.