With the Season Approaching, Scandal Still Casts a Pall Over Vanderbilt Football, Fandom

USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt football is coming off of a nine-win season and slated for success, but a rape scandal has stripped away the optimism behind this team. Can the university fix this as the wheels of justice slowly turn?

Vanderbilt football will have plenty to prove when they open up shop in three days. James Franklin's team will have several questions to address thanks to one big off-the-field scandal that has brought all the wrong attention to Nashville. A summer that should have revolved around replacing Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy has instead called the university's reputation into question and left one victim's life scarred forever thanks to an alleged rape that took place on campus back in June.

The university responded quickly to dismiss the four players involved in the case last month, but new revelations culminated with starting receiver Chris Boyd earning a felony charge as an accessory after the fact. This investigation and the following indictments have rocked a team (and, it goes without saying, a community, a campus, and a victim) that was otherwise looking forward to its most promising season in nearly a century. While James Franklin and university administrators have been proactive in taking punitive measures, all parties involved have been tight lipped when it comes to the matter.

Whether that's a side effect of an ongoing trial, conservative public relations from the university, or a combination of the two isn't entirely known. However, it's a position that is doing little to advance the narrative behind that story. Every day that winds on towards the closure of this case is just more time for this scandal to dig its ugly roots into the university's reputation. In one monumentally stupid and disgusting move, four former players not only ruined one woman's life, but their own lives as well. Now, their actions will test the strength of their teammates, their coach, and the entire culture of the university behind them.

Indeed, the university has done the right things when it comes to handling this situation. The players involved were swiftly disciplined to the point where they were even barred from campus. Beyond that, the limitations of what can be done publicly have been hamstrung by an ongoing legal process that will provide closure to this situation and justice for its victim. However, when a record free of NCAA violations and stellar GPR rates were the basis of what Vandy alumni had to hang on to for decades, an extraordinary case like this requires an extraordinary response.

What the university is missing is that student conduct has been a longtime standard of pride when it comes to alums and fans. When Vanderbilt football was suffering blowout losses against the Floridas and Tennessees of the world, we could point to those standards and feel good about supporting our athletes, win or lose. The problem now - and I understand how shallow this seems when there is a true victim who has had her life shattered - is that there's a slimy undercurrent that makes this support feel somehow...wrong. Commodore fans can understand losses - we're conditioned to. Now, the team has let us down in a way that was unfathomable to think of months ago.

It's unfair to blame James Franklin or this team for the actions of four (or five) young men, but it's impossible to deny their connection to Vanderbilt athletics. These players were a part of the community, and they are the direct cause of a headline that was plastered on the national landscape with a 40-point font and garnered a handful of responses from the school that registered at 12-point. While nothing that results from this case will ever match what the victim has had to go through, they are also responsible for turning the conversation away from the amazing work that Franklin and his crew are doing in middle Tennessee and towards one disgusting act that could define the university.

Before even playing a game, Vanderbilt alumni and fans have already been faced with managing their expectations for the season. Instead of having to explain why we're losing as in years past, we have to come up with reasons behind how such an awful thing could happen to this program, to this school, and to its students.

Ultimately, the outcome of Thursday night's game won't resolve anything. Wins aren't going to make anyone feel better about an alleged rape that took place on campus and involved four students that are supposed to be role models in their Nashville community. No matter what happens against Ole Miss, the biggest questions that will float around this week's post-game press conference are going to revolve around a terrible crime and its impact on this team.

I don't know how to fix that, but Robert Funke had some great ideas in his post. The onus is on the university now, and they don't have just one problem to fix. They have to prove that their campus is secure and that they are committed to ensuring the safety of all students. They have to ensure that this "no quarter" standard continues to apply to each and every member of the Vandy family. They have to give members of the community a valid response when someone questions the safety and culture of the school after a national scandal. To their credit, the school is working hard to get there.

Most importantly, they have to regain the sense of trust that every member of that Vanderbilt community has had shaken over the past two months. Then, Commodore fans can start feeling good about this team without reservation once more.

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