What Tennessee Athletics Coverage Could Learn from SB Nation

Its been two weeks and the “Peyton Manning” story cycle has finally turned its attention to the Title IX lawsuit, party due to the amended complaint filed Tuesday that added two more women bringing the total up to eight who claim the University mishandled their allegations of rape or sexual assault.

In the parade of coverage and opinions that followed, women were largely ignored. Early on Jessica Luther, a writer who has written extensively on Title IX and allegations like these at colleges across our nation, and who is a valuable resource with good insight, made an appearance on a local radio show in Knoxville, Tennessee to discuss the matter.

Since then, its been a parade of exclusively while male members of the media taking turns commenting on the matter, with occasional interspersing from some of those involved such as AD Dave Hart speaking for the University and current player Marlon Tank Walls purporting to speak for the players and the University.

Yesterday evening, Wes Rucker, who covers the Tennessee Volunteers for 247 Sports, apparently went on Bomani Jones show and victim blamed all over Jamie Naughright, the accuser in the Manning case. He then spent some time doubling down on social media and saying her credibility was shot because of things that had transpired some years after the original incident and after not one but two separate settlements paid to her for what she alleges was done.

His ignorance isn’t uncommon but its incredibly damaging to the conversation. Rucker, like many who don’t have knowledge or understanding of sexual violence and harassment of women, failed to recognize those things have little bearing on the credibility of the original complaint nor that victims often exhibit difficulties in later years tied to post traumatic stress disorder and other scars related to what they had experienced. This isn’t simply lack of empathy its also lack of understanding of the issues involved.

This speaks to a larger problem and that is the only voices chosen for these young women, and for the accuser at the heart of the Manning case, have been white males who cover the University. Its always an ongoing problem in these situations but it has been incredibly frustrating to watch it play out nonetheless.

These women deserve better. They deserve someone with understanding of Title IX, sexual assault, its ramifications, and the intricacies of coming forward in these cases to speak for them. They deserve a voice with understanding of the emotional and financial struggles victims often face when they come forward. That has been denied to them.

This coverage could learn a lot about what happened to SB Nation in its ill conceived, disastrously executed and ultimately damaging effort to write a “longform” piece on Daniel Holtzclaw, former cop and serial rapist/murderer of 13 black women while using his badge of office.

The SB Nation incident is made more gross because at least there was a voice there with the sensitivity and understanding to check the piece, in the form of Elena Bergeron, a black woman hired as a lead editor and who did her best to get the piece killed or at least delayed. Had they listened to her, they would have been far better off.

Greg Howard, a brilliant writer at Deadspin, had this to say about the process.

greg howard

greg howard 2

Bergeron had the sensitivity and knowledge to understand the issues with the piece. While her pleas were ignored, it shows how much better these decisions can be, and ultimately how much the coverage could be as well.

The analogy certainly isn’t perfect but its instructive. When you don’t have diversity in your ranks your coverage can be tone deaf. It can ignore very real issues and be lopsided. It can result in a large amount of harm being done, not just to the subject but to the larger issues as well.

The Tennessee coverage implicitly recognized that Walls could speak for the players but completely and utterly ignored the lack of a voice for these young women as well as Jamie Naughright. That these men felt capable and were largely allowed to serve as surrogates for possible rape survivors in a situation to which they cannot comprehend isn’t something we should ignore and sweep aside.

Of course, diversity means nothing if you aren’t willing to listen as SB Nation learned the hard way. Yet, that no one even thought it necessary to bring in that point of view speaks volumes. In the outcry over the coverage, many people questioned whether the coverage was one sided yet no one stopped to ask where the women’s voices were in this story.

That isn’t to say some of these men haven’t supported these women nor to say that at least some have had good discussions on the matter. Some have done fine jobs while others not so much. Rucker isn’t isolated in his victim blaming. Yet, it still ignores the fact that they felt comfortable and capable of speaking for possible victims of rape, sexual assault and/or harassment without any recognition that perhaps they weren’t the best surrogate.

Its fair to ask how balanced and complete the coverage can be when women’s voices are still left out of the discussion. There are too few women involved in these matters from the ground floor to the top. There is no one to check these male voices, nor anyone called upon to serve when the airwaves start to roll.

When issues that are significant, pertinent and involve in large part women, its fair to ask where they are in the conversation.

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