Deborah (Debbie) Jennings filed a lawsuit in Federal court against the University of Tennessee and Dave Hart, UT’s Athletic Director. Ms. Jennings was the long-time Media Relations Director of the UT Women’s Athletic Department. She was an employee since 1977, became the first Lady Vol Sports Information Director in 1978, and ran the Media Relations Office until 2009 when the men’s and women’s Media Relations Departments were consolidated.
Jennings later resigned under pressure, as recounted in court papers.
But it was recently when the lawsuit gained national attention after Pat Summitt was made part of the legal festivities that the damage to hundreds of thousands of alumni and friends of the University was done.
One of Dave Hart’s assignments as Tennessee’s AD has been to consolidate the men’s and women’s athletic departments.
Among other things, the suit brought by Ms. Jennings alleges that during this consolidation process, she was marginalized and ostracized, was denied employment opportunities due to her gender, and/or age, and was gradually stripped of her duties and responsibilities.
The suit gets messy as it recounts how Jennings’ computer was confiscated and emails “had been deleted or removed from her Outlook email directory.”
The suit also paints a picture of Dave Hart’s professional background as one where he routinely engaged in gender discrimination when an administrator at East Carolina and as AD at Florida State.
Prior to the original filing of the case by Ms. Jennings, Coach Summitt was asked if she would provide testimony. She submitted an affidavit dated August 10, 2012.
In the affidavit, Coach Summitt describes her working relationship with Debbie Jennings in a very positive and complimentary light. She described Jennings as somebody who “was not afraid to speak her mind and that was one of her strengths as an employee.”
Summitt indicated that she was not consulted by Dave Hart prior to Jennings’ termination, but would have asked Hart to reconsider or “try another alternative, such as disciplinary action, if he felt that was necessary.”
She also wrote that during a February 15, 2012 meeting with Hart, the AD wanted to discontinue using the Lady Vol logo, intending to place all UT women’s and men’s athletics under one logo. “I was angered when he came out in an interview with the media in May 2012 and denied that he ever intended to do away with the Lady Vol logo.”
Summitt’s meeting with Hart in the now-famous March 2012 meeting had the AD telling Summit that she “would not be coaching the Lady Vol Basketball Team in the next school year” and she found that “very surprising… and very hurtful as that was a decision I would have liked to have made on my own at the end of the season after consulting with my family, doctors, colleagues, and friends and not be told this by Mr. Hart. I felt this was wrong.” She also indicated that Hart told her she “would still have an office in Thompson-Boling Arena and (her) title could be Head Coach Emeritus.”
Coach Summit indicates that, being upset, she shared information about this meeting with several people, including Debby Jennings.
Then, the most curious part of Summitt’s affidavit is the last part:
“Unbekownst to the individuals I shared this upsetting news, Dave Hart spoke with me again, subsequent to the March 14, 2012, one-on-one meeting, and indicated that I misinterpreted what he said.”
That’s the end of the affidavit. Nothing more. No explanation. No extended commentary on the last sentence.
In response to Summitt’s affidavit, UT spokesperson Margie Nichols said that the “statement is absolutely not true. It was Pat’s idea to be head coach emeritus.”
And this is when the collateral damage was inflicted.
The media of all types and all locations basically began to report that the University of Tennessee had forced Pat Summitt out and was now calling her a liar.
Dave Hart was now the hired henchman, presiding over an immoral and perhaps illegal act.
It didn’t really matter that Coach Summitt issued a written statement on Friday to set the record straight from her perspective.
“It was entirely my decision to step down from my position as Head Coach of women’s basketball at the University. As I stated at my press conference in April when I announced my decision, I loved being the Head Coach for 38 years, but, after consultation wity my son, my doctors, my lawyer, and several close friends, I concluded that the time had come to move into the future and step into a new role. I have welcomed and enjoyed my new role as Head Coach Emeritus, and I am excited for the opportunities that now await my dear friend and colleague Holly Warlick as Head Coach.”
“I did not then, and I do not now, feel that I was “forced out” by the University. Anyone who knows me knows that any such effort would have met with resistance. If my affidavit has caused confusion on that point, it needs to be dispelled. In connection with my move from Head Coach to Head Coach emeritus, the University has treated me with the utmost respect and graciousness, as it always has throughout my tenure as Head Coach.”
Yes, it really doesn’t matter from the perspective of what will be said five, ten, or more years down the line. Somewhere down the road, we will all find ourselves in a conversation with someone saying “Yeah, Tennessee. How could they fire a legend who changed the face of her sport?”
It won’t matter if Debby Jennings’ claims hold water or not. It won’t matter if Dave Hart acted legally or not.
It won’t matter if Coach Summitt had forgotten the details of a conversation and/or if she was talked into modifying the original language of her affidavit.
The only thing that will matter is that perception rules over whatever the truth might be. And we will all have to bear the burden of that.