Women

08.15.13

Did Vanderbilt's Football Team Gang-Rape a Girl?

Four Vanderbilt football players, including a star recruit, have been arrested and indicted for rape, and five more team members are on the witness list. Caroline Linton on the fallout on campus.

Earlier this summer, Vanderbilt University officials were combing campus surveillance footage when they saw an incident that involved, in the words of the Nashville police, “concerning behavior” that allegedly involved a sexual assault of an unconscious woman in a dormitory. Within days, the video was turned over to the cops and four members of the football team—including a star recruit—had been banned from play over their suspected involvement. This week, it was announced that the players have been indicted by a grand jury for rape, with the arraignment scheduled for August 21—the first day of fall classes at Vanderbilt.

The details of the alleged incident remain hazy. The defendants—Brandon Banks, Cory Batey, Jaborian “Tip” McKenzie and Brandon Vandenburg, who range in age from 18 to 20 years old—were rumored to have been hanging out at the local nightclub Tin Roof. Later, according to the Nashville City Paper, they ended up in Vandenburg’s Gillette House dorm room with the alleged victim, a 21-year-old woman who was “good friends” with one of the arrested men, according to Nashville metro police spokesman Don Aaron, who added that the woman “is very aware of the process and the result of our investigation thus far and I believe she will be a partner as we continue with this case.” While the D.A. declined to comment on the ongoing case, campus officials banned Vanderbilt athletes from fraternizing at the Tin Roof on July 18, two days after the suspects were identified. The bar has not yet commented on the supposed incident or the ban.

For its part, Vanderbilt issued a statement saying “our first thoughts are for the victim, a Vanderbilt student, and we convey to her and her family our deepest sympathies and sorrow. We will continue to offer her all of our services and support.”

This past Friday, the four former players were indicted by a Davidson County grand jury on five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated assault. Vandenburg was also slapped with two additional charges for unlawful photography and tampering with evidence. Banks was released on a $250,000 bond on Monday. McKenzie posted his $50,000 bond on Saturday, and he has pled not guilty to the five charges against him on Tuesday, waiving his arraignment next week, while the others have reportedly not yet taken that option. In fact, Batey and Vanderburg remain in jail on a $350,000 bond. While Banks’s attorney refused to comment on the case and McKenzie’s attorney did not return calls for comment, there have been reports out of Nashville that McKenzie’s bail may be lower than the others because he may be a cooperating witness in the case.

So far, Vanderbilt has downplayed the players’ role on its legendary football team, especially since all four have not yet played in any games. But Vandenburg was a star recruit for Vanderbilt, all set to start this fall. He was the nation’s number-one junior college tight end, and the Commodores’ highest-ranked recruit for the 2013 class. According to ESPN, the Commodores’ coaching staff “expect[ed] big things” from Vandenburg. And Vandenburg told ESPN in January that he didn’t “just want to be a starter…I want to be an impact player.”

On Vanderbilt’s website, Batey, initially from Nashville, is listed as having redshirted during his freshman year, and “displayed excellent hands and skill as route runner” in his role as a practice squad receiver. McKenzie also redshirted his freshman year, with the website describing him as a “key contributor the practice squad.” And Banks has a deep ties to the football world: his father played collegiately and is a prep coach in the D.C. area, while two of his older brothers played football for NFL Europe and Georgetown, as well as Middle Tennessee. Banks, who redshirted in 2012, is described on the team’s website as a “scout team player” and having “displayed excellent athleticism and coverage skills.”

On Friday, coach James Franklin said in a press conference “there’s not much more I can say about it” due to the “ongoing investigation,” but added that the situation “breaks my heart.” Franklin wouldn’t comment directly on whether he had discussed the situation with the team, calling it “family business,” although he conceded “everything that goes on in this program, we talk about.” He also wouldn’t comment about whether the team would be losing any more players, saying “the focus is on handling the things we can and can’t, and getting better." The team has been practicing this week in preparation for their first game against the University of Mississippi on Aug. 29.

“We removed some young men from our program, we dealt with it at that time and the team has moved on,” Franklin said Friday. But it might not be so easy: the alleged rape apparently goes beyond just the four accused players. Another five members of the team are on the witness list, including starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels—who hosted Vandenburg on his recruiting visit in January—and starting left guard Jake Bernstein. Also on the witness list are reserve tight end Dillon van der Wal, wide receiver De’Andre Woods and longsnapper Mack Prioleau. The only other witnesses are Vanderbilt University police officers, Metro police officers—and the alleged victim.

In a statement, District Attorney General Torrey Johnson said “although four people have been charged at this time, the investigation is still ongoing into the actions of the other individuals and the role (s) they may have played.”

On the forums for Vanderbilt alumni reactions from fans of the team of the team ranged from being “ashamed” to “proud of the university for doing the right thing.” One poster, AlbertCamus, who began the thread about the incident, wrote that “for the first time in 40 years of being a fan, this was the first day I chose not to wear my Vanderbilt Football tee shirt because I was ashamed. If this is what it means to compete in the SEC, give me something else … I know everyone wants to give Franklin a pass, but he is the one who brought these criminals to campus.” Another poster, known as Classof86, said “I am proudly wearing my Vandy gear today. I’m delighted to be an alumni [sic] and thrilled that CJF is our head football coach. Period.”

The students, meanwhile, have remained fairly silent on the incident as they trickle back to school this week. On Facebook, there has been some chatter about it, along the lines of “it’s about time sex crimes on Vandy’s campus start being reported and taken seriously.” What that means remains to be seen.