The best, most qualified voice to dissect Tennessee’s current plight can’t weigh in.
That’s a sad irony of the whole sordid situation in Knoxville, Tennessee. Two former players have been charged with aggravated rape. There’s a Title IX lawsuit alleging a “hostile sexual environment” and a “rape culture.” Peyton Manning’s name is even stuck in there somewhere.
The situation screams for Pat Summitt to say something, anything — everything. She can’t, of course. Not on this weighty issue or any other. The coach who did more for female empowerment than perhaps anyone remains afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Pat would know what to do, what to say during this Tennessee scandal. Her wisdom would reach beyond the eight national championships she won in a 38-year career. In a situation that is spiraling out of control, she would have been the voice of reason.
That’s not to suggest she would have necessarily defended the players, the university, its football coach Butch Jones or athletic director Dave Hart Jr. It is to suggest an air of authority and class and knowledge would have descended on Knoxville.
“What she said mattered,” said Mickey Dearstone, voice of the Lady Vols. “If she said it, they’d take it to the bank.”
Dearstone can’t be blamed for lugging around a certain sadness these days. He’s doing play-by-play for a team that has fallen out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in 31 years. It’s another sign that Summitt’s dynasty seems to be fading.
It’s another reminder his old friend isn’t on the bench. They were besties, Mickey and Pat. All the battles, the championships, the strides made. That Title IX law that is so central to the lawsuit turns 44 this year. It prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded activity.
You want to talk irony? Summitt was a Title IX pioneer, playing at Tennessee-Martin the year the law was enacted (1972). UT, a beacon of women’s opportunity under Summitt, is doggedly fighting allegations it violated federal law.It’s been four-plus years since Summitt was diagnosed. She soldiered on through that final 2011-12 season with equal parts determination and spunk.
“There’s not going to be any pity party,” she said that season, “and I’ll make sure of that.”
“I’m not sure that she knows who I am unless I tell her,” Dearstone said. “People that were really close to her, it’s really sunk in.”
Alzheimer’s is an insidious, degenerative, depressing disease. The afflicted may remember in detail what happened 50 years ago but can’t recall who they were talking to five minutes ago.
That’s what makes the current situation doubly frustrating. During her hall of fame career, Summitt was one of a kind. With her current malady, she is one of 5.4 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“It’s really a shame that she can’t contribute,” Dearstone said of the current Tennessee scandal. “I honestly think she is the type of person that could have stopped all of the panic. We really don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”
Summitt’s illness will be marked as a low point in Tennessee’s history. You can’t help the vagaries of age and nature. Meanwhile, you wonder how it ever got to this point at the school she covered in glory.
You don’t have to believe Tennessee is guilty of a thing to opine on that sham of a press conference last week. It was a cluster of coaches basically trying to save recruiting when the real story should have been sensitivity to sexual assault.
“There are very few of those coaches that people know who the hell they are anyway,” Dearstone said. “Pat Summitt was one of the faces — if not the face — of the university.”
Hart, at least, got the tone right a couple of days later, starting his press conference: “I have tremendous empathy and sympathy for the alleged victims and all victims of sexual assault.”
The point is not to offer a take on the scandal itself. For now, neither Hart nor Jones are likely to lose their jobs. They’re not necessarily absolved, just game pieces in the lawsuit. The school would be admitting to some sort of liability if they took any action now.
Regardless, Summitt would have been able to offer depth, perspective. This is not even a prediction of what she would have said, just that it would have been wise.
“[Tennessee hasn’t] been really good at PR,” Dearstone said. “That’s not a crime. That’s just something that probably needs to be worked on. Someone who is a figurehead like Pat could have squelched a lot of different things that have come up in the last month.”
Well, maybe “squelched” isn’t the right word. We’re certain Dearstone didn’t mean there is something to hide. Perhaps the verb for Summitt would have been “decipher,” “explain,” “illuminate.”
In this instant world, it’s easy to dismiss the wisdom of a 63-year-old former coach — even if she’s the best former coach ever.
This horrible situation at Tennessee needs resolution. It won’t be coming anytime soon. Meanwhile, the best person to put it all in perspective still watches basketball. She visits her son Tyler — head women’s coach at Louisiana Tech — now and then.
Pat’s peers know this should be the heart of her career. Almost four years after her final season, she still has the most career basketball wins of any NCAA coach (1,098). That includes the big names everyone knows like Wooden, Krzyzewski, Knight and a few others.
Tennessee’s current scandal will pass at some point. There is a different kind of shame that is just as certain.
“She’ll leave this world and not remember any of what she accomplished in this lifetime,” Dearstone said. “I still have a problem with it to this day, to be honest with you.”