Tennessee's Butch Jones defends program's culture amid lawsuit

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee football coach Butch Jones defended his program's culture in his first public comments since a group of women sued the school over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student-athletes.

Jones didn't take questions regarding the specifics of the lawsuit in his three-minute media session Saturday before the Tennessee men's basketball game with LSU.

"We've worked very hard to build our culture," Jones said. "We'll continue to defend it, but we're very proud of what we have here."

The federal lawsuit filed Feb. 9 in Nashville by a group of six unidentified women alleges that the school has violated Title IX regulations and created a "hostile sexual environment" through a policy of indifference toward assaults by student-athletes.

The complaint states that 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.

Jones' comments Saturday came three days after Tennessee defensive lineman Alexis Johnson was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and false imprisonment. University of Tennessee police said Johnson was "play fighting" with a woman in a Knoxville apartment Sunday between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., and that it escalated until he placed his hands around her throat two to three times. Police say the woman indicated "the constriction was so tight that she could not fight back and she felt she was going to pass out."

Gregory Isaacs, the lawyer representing Johnson, has said his client "adamantly denies the allegations and intends to enter a plea of not guilty."

Johnson has been suspended from all team-related activities.

"We take all accusations very seriously," Jones said. "Can we continue to improve? Yeah, just like any team, company or organization. But our players have done a great job, and we have great people here at Tennessee."

There have been several other sexual assault complaints made against Tennessee student-athletes over the last four years, including former football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams. They were indicted on aggravated rape charges in February 2015 and have separate trial dates this summer.

Jones cited Tennessee's personal growth and development program and its improved classroom performance as evidence of his team's progress off the field. Tennessee's Academic Progress Rate has improved markedly since Jones' arrival.

"The people that know us, they know our football program, they understand what's going on here with all the positivity," Jones said. "They understand that. We just have to continue to work and grow and get better and let it galvanize us and bring us closer as a football team and a football program. People who understand what we're all about, they understand we have a good culture in place."