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TN coaches address lawsuit referencing Manning

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Posted at 7:55 PM, Feb 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-23 20:03:05-05

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee's head coaches held a rare joint press conference Tuesday to say an unfair picture of the athletic department is being portrayed, two weeks after the school was sued over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student-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's policies made students more vulnerable to sexual assault and says that the school had a "clearly unreasonable response" after incidents that caused the women making complaints to endure additional harassment.

The suit also states the university interfered with the disciplinary process to favor male athletes.

The coaches had a lot to say in defense of the university, but declined to address the lawsuit.

Softball co-coach Karen Weekly, who said she has been at the school 15 years, said: "The culture here right now is the best it's ever been. ... The image that's being displayed of our culture is unfair."

Tennessee's 16 head coaches said they came up with the idea to hold a press conference on their own. Athletic director Dave Hart was not present at the event.

Athletic department spokesman Ryan Robinson said this was the best day to bring all the coaches together and that Hart was out of town.

Women's soccer coach Brian Pensky said the coaches wanted to return the support that the administration has given them.

Pensky acknowledged there could be a perception that this press conference is "just a big kumbaya lovefest," but he believed it was time to "be strong."

Pensky noted that even before the lawsuit, the athletic department already had received negative publicity for events such as the decision to remove 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."

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 people are using the lawsuit against them in recruiting.

"I do think it's real," Jones said. "Our competitors are using it against us."

Jones was asked how anyone filing 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 that has been sued over its handling of reported incidents.

Jones said "our hearts, our prayers, our feelings go out to the alleged victims" and that he's "constantly trying to educate our players" to make the right choices.

"I don't want you to think in any way, shape or form that we don't feel for the alleged victims," Jones said. "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."

Bill Ramsey, a lawyer representing the school, has said the university "acted lawfully and in good faith" in the situations outlined in the complaint.

David Randolph Smith, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said Monday night that Ramsey is "basically calling our lawsuit false and ludicrous. Well, all I can say is we have a response.

"You'll see it. It's in our amended complaint," Smith said.

An amended complaint has not been filed yet.

The suit focuses on five cases that were 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 involving an incident with 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.

PREVIOUS | Peyton Manning mentioned in sexual assault lawsuit filed against University of Tennessee

There have been several sexual assault complaints made against Tennessee student-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 has been suspended from all team-related activities.

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