(KNOXVILLE) The University of Tennessee has created a culture that permits bad behavior by male athletes and protects them when they commit crimes, including the alleged rapes of several young women in the last three years, a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.
As a result, many of the young female plaintiffs allege they remain emotionally scarred by their time at UT.
Nashville lawyer David Randolph Smith filed the action in U.S. District Court in Nashville on behalf of six young women identified as Jane Does 1-6.
"It’s an important case as to how UT handles these rapes, and the lawsuit alleges a culture that makes women more vulnerable,” Smith told 10News.
He referred further questions about the lawsuit to the document itself.
One of the young women, a former University of Tennessee student identified as "Jane Doe IV," is the alleged victim of a November 2014 rape by former UT football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams. The men are awaiting prosecution for rape in Knox County Criminal Court.
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The lawsuit identifies former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola and former football player Riyahd Jones and a current football player named as "John Doe" as young men who committed sexual assault. None of the three have been charged in Knox County with a sex crime.
The university and the Knoxville Police Department investigated rape reports made by several of the plaintiffs.
One alleged victim, identified as "Jane Doe V," did not suffer sexual assault, according to the document. Rather, according to the lawsuit, she suffered harassment and retaliation as the roommate of Jane Doe IV, the alleged victim of Johnson and Williams.
Smith also alleges she endured a "hostile sexually discriminatory environment" after trying to report an assault by UT football players on player Drae Bowles, who sympathized and tried to help Jane Doe IV. The lawsuit alleged the team had "a hit" out on Bowles in November 2014, and that some players threatened him in a few separate incidents. Bowles later transferred to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Last summer, the university confirmed it was the subject of a federal Education Department review of whether it had failed to follow federal laws, referred to as Title IX, that protect students against gender discrimination on American campuses. At least one of the women involved in Tuesday's lawsuit is believed to be cooperating in the federal review of UT.
UT is among dozens of U.S. universities currently being reviewed by federal officials for possible Title IX violations.
The university, under the name of counsel Bill Ramsey of Nashville, issued a statement Tuesday after word of the lawsuit circulated.
UT-Knoxville has devoted "significant time and energy to provide a safe environment for our students, to educate and raise awareness about sexual assault, and to encourage students to come forward and report sexual assault," the statement reads.
"In the situations identified in the lawsuit filed today, the University acted lawfully and in good faith, and we expect a court to agree. Any assertion that we do not take sexual assault seriously enough is smply not true," the statement reads. "To claim that we have allowed a culture to exist contrary to our institutional commitment to providing a safe environment for our students or that we do not support those who report sexual assault is just false.
"The University will provide a detailed response to the lawsuit and looks forward to doing so at the appropriate time, and in the proper manner."
The 64-page lawsuit names as defendants UT and the "director of the Office of Student Conduct & Community Standards."
It cites chronic bad or criminal behavior by UT football and basketball players going back to the 1990s, including a locker-room incident in which then quarterback Peyton Manning flashed or mooned an athletic trainer. That case was later resolved in a confidential agreement.
According to the action by the six Jane Does, the university has deferred to athletic leaders including coaches and athletic department heads when athletes got in trouble, whether it be a sexual assault, a robbery or theft.
The plaintiffs are from Knoxville, Chattanooga, Spring Hill, Tenn., Orlando and Rhinebeck, N.Y.
UT, according to the lawsuit, has ignored or been indifferent to bad behavior and has sought through cozy relationships with area attorneys including Don Bosch, a 10News legal commentator, to protect players.
It also, according to the women, permitted a social environment that allowed underage drinking, drug use and unlawful discrimination against sexual assault victims.
According to the women, former UT administrator Tim Rogers tried to alert Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and President Joe DiPietro through meetings and memos that there were "serious ongoing problems" involving assaults by football and basketball players.
Cheek, through a university spokeswoman, has said Rogers' communications with him have been mischaracterized. Neither Cheek nor other university administrators have been swayed or pressured by athletic officials to spare athletes from being punished, a university spokeswoman has said.
Rogers, who left the university three years ago, has not commented publicly.
The lawsuit addresses a number of specific alleged incidents involving athletes including an alleged attack by former basketball center Makanjuola in February 2013. The assault occurred despite protests by Jane Doe I, a former UT nursing student from Knoxville, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint alleges Makanjuola manipulated a university disciplinary hearing process until he was able to secure transfer to University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Makanjuola was not charged with a crime. Cuonzo Martin, coach at the time, said he and the player had agreed it was best if he left Knoxville and started fresh somewhere else. The alleged assault was not referenced.
Jane Doe II, of Chattanooga, was a freshman when she alleges she was raped in September 2014 at Vol Hall by a UT football player identified as "John Doe I."
The university reviewed the case and decided there were too many conflicting facts to verify that the young woman was a victim of rape and had not actually consented to sex with the player.
The third sexual assault is alleged to have occurred in October 2014 and was committed by a UT student - who was not an athlete - along with two students who attended Tennessee State University. The incident began at Vol Hall, the lawsuit states, where the woman, of Spring Hill, Tenn., was given alcohol by "several members of the UTK football team."
According to Tuesday's lawsuit, UT still is investigating the October 2014 incident.
Jane Doe IV, as previously reported, is the alleged victim of A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams, both of whom no longer attend UT. They face separate trials in Knox County Criminal Court, and each is alleged to have raped the Orlando woman and former UT student after the UT-University of Kentucky football game in November 2014.
Jane Doe VI, of Knoxville, alleges that she was sexually assaulted by former football player Riyadh Jones at a South Knoxville apartment in February 2015. Knoxville police investigated the case and completed their review in April 2015. No one was charged. Jones left the university in 2015.
Smith told 10News case law supports his clients' allegations, including a Colorado decision titled Colorado V. Simpson.
The plaintiffs claim that UT’s administrative hearing process, which is utilized by public universities across the state, is unfair because it provides students accused of sexual assault the right to attorneys and to confront their accusers through cross examination and an evidentiary hearing in front of an administrative law judge. The administrative law judge that hears the case is appointed by Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, the lawsuit says.
The Tennessean contributed to this report.