KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart stood by his embattled football coach Thursday and said his department doesn't interfere with the school's disciplinary process, two weeks after a lawsuit alleged that the university mishandles sexual assault complaints against athletes.
"I trust Butch Jones implicitly," Hart said. "I know who he is. I know what his work ethic is. I know what he's meant to this university, well beyond the department of athletics, and I know how he's represented the university."
Jones was at the center of an amended complaint filed Wednesday. The complaint stated former Tennessee football player Drae Bowles assisted a woman who said she had been raped by two other players and that later he was attacked by teammates and told by Jones he had "betrayed the team."
The coach has said he only tried to assist Bowles.
Hart, who said he couldn't address the specifics of the lawsuit, did say he has tremendous empathy and sympathy for alleged victims and all victims of sexual assault across the country.
"It is simply an unacceptable act," Hart said, adding that university Chancellor Jimmy Cheek has made this his top priority. "This has to gain the attention of everyone."
Hart added that Tennessee athletes who have allegedly committed a crime don't get treated any differently than general students facing the same circumstances.
"We are not the judge and jury," Hart said. "We have to remember that each person is entitled to due process. We don't engage in that. We don't engage in the investigations that take place, be they with law enforcement or student conduct. That's not our role."
The lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 9 in Nashville, states Tennessee has violated Title IX regulations and created a "hostile sexual environment" through a policy of indifference toward assaults by athletes. It also states the school interfered with the disciplinary process to favor male athletes. The suit now includes eight unidentified women as plaintiffs.
According to the suit, Tim Rogers stepped down as Tennessee's vice chancellor in 2013 "in protest over the violation of Title IX and the UT administration's and athletic department's deliberate indifference to the clear and present danger of sexual assaults by UT athletes." The amended complaint submitted Wednesday included a signed declaration from Rogers confirming the accuracy of statements made about him.
"My response (to Hart's comments) is read the lawsuit, read the declarations under oath under penalty of perjury, and we'll go from there," said David Randolph Smith, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
Hart said he was proud of the athletic department's culture but acknowledged improvement is needed.
"We should take a leadership role in trying to address (sexual assault)," Hart said. "That has been our intent and will remain our intent. We're not perfect. We're far from it. I think anybody that would claim they've got everything under control is probably drifting around with blinders on."
Outside the studio where Hart was speaking, about 20 students gathered in protest. They carried signs bearing such messages as "Stop UT Rape Culture" and chanted "Vols For Jane," in reference to the eight "Jane Does" listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
According to the amended complaint, a woman called 911 from Bowles' car to report a rape in the early morning hours of Nov. 16, 2014.
The complaint also states that Bowles suffered a bloody lip when teammate Curt Maggitt punched him in the mouth later that day and that he was confronted by teammates Geraldo Orta and Marlin Lane the following day.
Bowles called Jones to tell him about being punched, and Jones said he was very disappointed in Bowles and that the receiver had "betrayed the team," according to the complaint. It states Jones called Bowles several hours later to apologize for his comments.
The woman's report of the attack led to the arrests of former linebacker A.J. Johnson and defensive back Michael Williams, who were indicted on aggravated rape charges in February 2015. Hart said Thursday that "obviously we're concerned" with the number of sexual assault complaints made against Tennessee football players the last two years.
The amended complaint included an affidavit from Bowles that stated the allegations in the suit "are true with respect to the statements and descriptions of events pertaining to me."
Bowles transferred to Chattanooga after the 2014 season.
"The assertion that I ever attempted to belittle or demean a young man for taking action to help another person is absolutely false," Jones said in a statement late Wednesday night. "To the contrary, I did all I could to assist the former student in question. During the course of the judicial process, campus officials, as well as the young man's own words, will clearly establish that I have done nothing wrong.
"I will fight all of these false attacks on my character, and I know that once this process has been completed, my reputation will be affirmed."
Tennessee's lawyer, Bill Ramsey, issued a statement Wednesday saying that the university has reviewed the amended complaint "and we continue to stand by our actions."