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Coaches Defend University Of Tennessee Amid Sexual Assault Lawsuit

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At the University of Tennessee today, the school's 16 athletics coaches held an unusual news conference. They defended the university in the wake of a federal sexual assault lawsuit, a suit that alleges the university didn't properly handle complaints made against student athletes. Brandon Hollingsworth of member station WUOT reports.

BRANDON HOLLINGSWORTH, BYLINE: The press conference was a rare sight. All of the University of Tennessee's head athletic coaches - including football, baseball, diving and soccer - sitting on a stage, telling reporters that UT is not such a bad place. Robert Patrick coaches women's volleyball at the Southeastern Conference school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT PATRICK: I've been here for 20 years. We've had more SEC academic award honorees in those 20 years than any other SEC school.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Sam Winterbotham manages the men's tennis program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAM WINTERBOTHAM: So what's the perception out there is really incorrect.

HOLLINGSWORTH: And Holly Warlick coaches the women's basketball team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOLLY WARLICK: If I had a daughter, I would not hesitate for her one bit to come on campus. I've been here for 30-something years. We've got to be doing something right.

HOLLINGSWORTH: The University of Tennessee coaches say they organized the press conference on their own. They wanted to dispute what they say is an inaccurate description of the university they work for. A federal civil lawsuit filed this month paints a different picture. It alleges that in incidents from the past few years, and going all the way back to 1995, university leaders looked the other way when it came to sexual assault allegations against student athletes. The six accusers, all unidentified women, say UT didn't do enough to prevent assaults or respond properly when they were reported.

DAVID SMITH: The coaches didn't really address the lawsuit, which I understand.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Nashville attorney David Smith filed the suit on behalf of the women. He says the university didn't follow federal Title IX discrimination laws.

SMITH: UT is accused of violating Title IX by acting with deliberate indifference in a clearly unreasonable manner by creating and failing to remedy a hostile sexual environment.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Women's basketball coach Warlick doesn't agree. She says conversations about preventing sexual assault are a part of her relationship with students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARLICK: So we talk a lot about, just as you would your daughter, don't go out alone at night, know where you're going to parties, those types of things.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Allegations like those in the UT lawsuit are part of a growing trend of campus sexual assault complaints. Last month, Baylor University settled with a female student whose accused attacker was cleared by a university disciplinary hearing. Part of the UT suit takes issue with those hearings. Plaintiffs' attorney David Smith says they're stacked against the accusers.

SMITH: The right of confrontation, the right to call witnesses, the right to a hearing is not equal, and we believe that that's in conflict with federal law.

HOLLINGSWORTH: In a statement, a university spokesman said the school is required to hold the hearings, and that any allegation that they're tilted in favor of athletes is, quote, "ludicrous." Some of the accused players do have criminal trials scheduled for this summer. Football coach Butch Jones says the school's athletic culture isn't poisonous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTCH JONES: We have good people. And again, it's easy to sit out there and judge when you don't live our day every day. You're not around the student athletes, you're not around these coaches.

HOLLINGSWORTH: The attorney representing the accusers says two additional women plan to join the civil suit as early as this week. For NPR News, I'm Brandon Hollingsworth in Knoxville, Tenn.

CORNISH: And a note that WUOT's broadcast license is held by the University of Tennessee. Its newsroom is independent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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