The University of Tennessee paid $2.48 million to reach a legal settlement involving the Title IX lawsuit and eight plaintiffs, and it was money well spent.
The settlement means the UT athletic programs can move on, and just in time for what has the makings of an SEC championship football season.
Maybe the school should have settled the civil suit when the opportunity first arose a year ago, but UT administrators felt it a battle worth fighting, defending the school’s culture even as the cases mounted.
It reached a point that, even had Tennessee won its case, the legal fees would have exceeded a reported $5 million.
The bad publicity that would have accompanied the case would have been even more costly.
Regardless of wins and losses accredited to their various athletic platforms, the Vols have been viewed as losers of sorts for some time, and the Title IX case accentuated that notion.
It has been nine long years since the UT athletic program has been at the top of its game.
In 2007, Phillip Fulmer won his final SEC East Division title, Pat Summitt won the last of her eight national titles and Bruce Pearl led the Vols to only their second Sweet 16 in 25 years.
The game of perception most often trumps reality, and in this Title IX case there was no way Tennessee was going to come out a winner, regardless of the verdict.
Settling for $2.48 million was a bargain.
Consider the USA Today report that Tennessee’s athletic revenue in 2014-15 ($126 million) was offset by $113 in expenses — leaving a net of more than $13 million from which to draw.
Some might argue that settling a case is akin to admitting guilt, and that Tennessee will receive some sort of public black eye.
That’s already happened.
It’s time to move on. Those speculating and casting aspersions will fade as football season approaches.
Had the case not been settled, there would have been two more years of media coverage, analysis, timelines and comparisons to Baylor’s renegade program. Tennessee’s Title IX trial was not scheduled to take place until May of 2018.
Baylor’s case was much different, and Knoxville SportsSource.TV analyst John Pennington has banged the drum that coach Butch Jones dealt with the Vols’ off-field issues with considerably more discipline than the Bears’ Art Briles.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the definition of “settle,” in a legal sense, is “to resolve a lawsuit without a final court judgment by negotiation between the parties.”
Tennessee isn’t admitting fault as much as it’s paying to get out of a perception game that it could not win — and would have spent millions more in attorneys fees to keep playing.
David Randolph Smith, attorney for the plaintiffs in this case, had this to say in the joint statement with Tennessee released by the school on Tuesday night:
“We are satisfied that, while universities everywhere struggle with these issues, the University of Tennessee has made significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases. My clients and I are also convinced that the University’s leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct.”
So there you have it. The accusers are “satisfied” and “convinced” that Tennessee has its act together.
Moving forward there’s reason to believe there will be better decision making over the athletics department.
UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who oversaw athletics since a 2009 restructuring, announced last month he’s stepping down from his post.
Under Cheek, Tennessee dissolved what was once a successfully run women’s athletics department, “merging” it with the men’s athletic department to become more cost effective.
Then, Cheek oversaw the process of UT stripping its female athletes of their “Lady Vols” nickname, save the basketball program — this despite a petition and former athletes begging the school to hold on to its proud tradition.
It has been one embarrassing episode after another in the wake of Lane Tiffin’s tumultuous 2009 football season as head coach for Cheek, who in all fairness was never really qualified to oversee athletics.
As for Kiffin, his UT program’s numerous “secondary” violations — numbers rivaled only by Nick Saban’s Alabama football program in that timeframe — sparked a costly NCAA investigation into Tennessee’s athletic department.
Before it was over, a shadow was cast over a football program that had been a top 25 staple without any major violations under Fulmer’s leadership.
The Vols also lost the most successful and popular men’s basketball coach in school history (Pearl) as a result of the fallout from the NCAA investigation.
Pearl made his fair share of mistakes, but they could have easily been overcome had the case not been mishandled by Cheek and the law firm the school hired.
The football program, meanwhile, took a historic dip that has been well-documented.
But now, with Cheek gone and the Title IX lawsuit settled, those dark clouds have dissipated.
Jones has done an admirable job building the football program the past three years and can cement himself as the future of the program with an SEC East crown this season.
The next step for the athletic program will be for the new chancellor to follow the spirit of the late Summitt.
Whoever replaces Cheek can attain instant credibility and popularity by restoring the Lady Vols name to all of the female athletic programs.
Tennessee couldn’t win the perception game in the Title IX lawsuit that it just settled.
But UT can make the right kind of Title IX statement in one fell (Nike) swoop on the front of orange and baby blue uniforms.