KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Following is the statement by University of Tennessee President Joe Johnson to the UT board of trustees concerning the recent arrest of UT Vol football players — one for rape, one for assault — and the dismissal of the one charged with rape:
“The past two weeks have been a period of emotional ups and downs for the thousands of people who care deeply about the University of Tennessee and its intercollegiate athletics programs. Some of the news during this period has been exciting. Our freshman class has the highest average ACT score in the history of the University. For the second year in a row, the Knoxville campus has been ranked among America’s ten best
buys for higher education. This is the kind of news that confirms the purpose of this Board and the mission of this University.
“Unfortunately, the progress we are making has been somewhat overshadowed by events that are disturbing to me, to this Board, and to the faculty and students of the University. A series of incidents involving some members of the football team have raised questions about the priorities of this University and the principles for which we are willing to take a stand.
“The University of Tennessee football program is one of the most successful in America. Some of the people around this table have made personal contributions to that success. I am among those who take pride in what the football program has meant over the years to the vitality and progress of the University. This university is the only one I know of that, in a stadium of 95,000 or so, 15,000 priority seats are occupied by donors to academic programs. You won’t find that anywhere else in the South that I know of.
“But I urge each member of this Board, and everyone who cares about the UT football team, to keep in mind that there is a burden that comes with this success.
“A team that appears three weeks in a row on national television must expect a comparable level of scrutiny from the media and the public when athletes break the rules or misbehave. We must understand that when a team recruits some of the best athletes in the country there may be people operating in the shadows who are willing to pay any price and ignore any law to exploit these athletes. A football program that in a matter of weeks can bring boys from small towns and Friday night games
to magazine covers must be prepared for the fact that a few of these kids will not handle the transition smoothly.
“Along with the crowds and the bowl games, every university in this country must come to grips with the fact that these burdens will always be part of a program that competes at the highest level. We operate in a society vastly different from what we knew even a decade ago when these kinds of problems confronted only a handful of schools. For the University, the stakes are high and the need to reaffirm a clear statement of principle has never been greater.
“As long as I am President, this institution will not compromise its high standards of conduct for any student at the University of Tennessee. We will not accept the excuse that similar problems occur at other schools around the country. What happens at other institutions and the policies those schools may have in place are not our concern. Whether it be violations of campus conduct, team rules, state law or NCAA regulations, I want the University of Tennessee to be measured by the certainty of our response and the priority we place on the basic values of honesty and moral behavior. Every problem, every report, and every suspicion will be investigated, reported to appropriate authorities, and resolved.
“We do not intend to bargain the University’s integrity for athletic talent. Any student who commits a serious violation of student conduct will be barred from athletic competition. Athletes who take gifts from professional agents will be suspended. We must speak to these young people in a way that all of them understand: If you break the rules, you will not play on Saturday.
“The Chancellor, the coaches, the athletics staff and the overwhelming majority of our athletes share this concern about the events that have been reported over the last several days. They have heard, read, and seen the stories. Most of us believe that some of those accused will be found guilty while others will be found innocent. The University’s policy will be to err on the side of caution. Until an investigation removes doubt, those athletes involved will not play. In the short run, this policy may jeopardize the success of a game or a season. But in the long run, such a policy is critical to the reputation and image of this University and its fine intercollegiate athletics programs.
“Allow me to close by attempting to put recent events into perspective. Contrary to some views, it is inaccurate to think the UT football program is out of control. This kind of overreaction would be true only if the coaches, athletes, and the administration were indifferent to the problem and lacked the resolve to deal with it. This 200-year tradition at the University of Tennessee is strong enough to withstand a few unprofessional people and a few young men who made significant errors in judgment and failed to follow basic principles of ethical and moral conduct. The football program retains a strong commitment to those principles.
“We will be guided by the policy that what is right and wrong will continue to be spelled out. And let me say I have reviewed all kinds of reports and records of what our coaches do. I don’t think anybody is ignorant of the rules. The rules are understood. The regulations are understood. And, as I said to somebody yesterday, you don’t have to have a new rule to understand that alleged attempted rape or rape is against the law. That’s fairly clear to most of us. So we’re going to continue to make sure what is right and wrong will be spelled out, that vigilance will prevail, and that discipline will be prompt, fair and decisive when the rules of the game or the rules of conduct are violated.
“As we seek to put these problems behind us, we must never forget that so long as the University of Tennessee aspires to greatness instead of mediocrity, we will confront the challenges that accompany success. I have confidence in this board, in our coaches, and in our players that we will be equal to this challenge. Let us always remember that a great majority of our student athletes behave well, play well.
“Folks, walk sometime with a group of athletes — whether it’s that remarkable Lady Vol basketball team, Rod Delmonico’s baseball team, Phillip Fulmer’s football team, the track team — and you’ll meet remarkable young men and women. You’ll be impressed. And you and I need to know that.
“Sometimes it’s easy to lapse into ‘What about the thugs?’ The thugs are in a very distinct minority. I wish we didn’t have a one, and you do too. We’ll deal with the thugs, if we have them. But think about those young men who represent us so well, who go through that program with success, that are stellar students, that are remarkable human beings. We need to remember that they behave well, they play well, and they set an wonderful examle for our young folks and those of us who are older.
“I have a lot of confidence in our athletics program — men’s and women’s — the coaches, the administrators.
“I’m embarrassed, and you are embarrassed. The most embarrassed person in the world is the head football coach. He’s done more and will do more than anybody I know. I’m going to do all I can; I think a lot of other people will. I’m going to help him enforce something that’s very important to him — if you commit a major violation, you’re not going to be here and playing very long. That’s important.”
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Can you assure us that anything you do will avoid any replication of this behavior ever?’
“No, can’t do that. That would be like assuring me that nobody in the University of Tennessee will ever steal money.’ And I said, ‘No, we’ve got great systems and great people. And not many people steal. We try to avoid hiring people who steal.’
“We’re going to try to avoid recruiting people who misbehave in a bad way. But you take your chances sometimes, when you employ people and when you recruit people and admit people. And some mistakes may be made.
“So I appreciate your listening to me on this. If I thought anybody involved with us — athletically, academically, administratively — if Bill Snyder and I felt that anybody was nonchalant or non-caring about what has occurred, I can assure you those people wouldn’t be here very long.”
Editors: Bill Snyder is the chancellor of UT-Knoxville.