When LSU’s football team emerges from the north end zone tunnel in 102,000-seat Tiger Stadium for its traditional spring scrimmage on Saturday, players will take a field emblazoned with a logo recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
The logo symbolizes an effort to promote healing on campus, but also is a reminder of the inescapable challenges that LSU faces for the foreseeable future. It is unclear what impact investigations by the U.S. Department of Education and a state Senate select committee into how the university has handled sexual misconduct allegations, as well as a $50 million civil lawsuit in federal court, will have on LSU’s athletics programs.
But regardless of the outcomes, it will likely take time to remove the stain from LSU’s tarnished brand.
“LSU’s like my children. I’m always going to love it but I want it to do better,” said political pundit James Carville, an LSU graduate who teaches at the university and has one child enrolled there and another who graduated from there. “Right now, it’s not doing better.”
While no current LSU coach or official has been fired yet, the allegations from female students dating back nearly a decade caught up with former university leaders after they left the school. Recent revelations about how those allegations were handled were unsavory enough that former LSU football coach Les Miles and ex-university President F. King Alexander were run out of their most recent jobs elsewhere.
Miles, who won a national title while coaching at LSU from 2005 to 2016, lost his job at Kansas.
Oregon State fired Alexander as its president. He had the same job at LSU when allegations that Miles made improper sexual advances toward female students working in the football office were kept private by the university and its law firm in 2013 - despite a recommendation by then-athletic director Joe Alleva that Miles be fired.
There does not appear to be any imminent threat to the job of current LSU football coach Ed Orgeron. But he is choosing his words carefully, partly because of the federal lawsuit filed by current LSU associate athletic director Sharon Lewis. Her lawsuit alleges that certain current or former members of LSU’s athletic administration and football staff conspired to retaliate against her when she tried to report Miles’ alleged advances toward female students, which would violate federal Title IX laws banning gender-based discrimination, harassment or violence.
Orgeron declined this week to go into detail about what he tells current or prospective athletes, and their families, if they express concern about potential upheaval at LSU because of pending investigations or the lawsuit.
“We discuss that internally,” Orgeron said this week. “We have a plan. We have a lot of people that have a lot of talks and stuff like that, but I’m going to leave it at that.”
Orgeron wrote in a letter to the state Senate Select Committee on Women and Children that he supports the work lawmakers and others are doing to try to protect women at LSU.
Meanwhile, the football program has hosted speakers from advocacy groups such as Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR). Other speakers have included LSU Title IX investigator Jeff Scott and LSU general counsel Winston DeCuir. And there are more scheduled.
However, some view these as reactionary and token gestures that do not hold accountable those at LSU who for years did not aggressively push to have sexual misconduct allegations investigated.
“LSU is still not taking Title IX seriously,” said Tammye Brown, an attorney for Lewis, who remains employed by LSU as her lawsuit against the school goes forward.
Brown cited LSU’s decision to bar employees from appearing at a hearing last week held by the state Senate committee that is following up on a review by the Husch Blackwell law firm that scrutinized LSU’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints.
The 148-page review was campus-wide, also looking, for example, at cases against fraternity members. But some of the higher-profile cases involved football players including former running back Derrius Guice, who last year was cut by the NFL’s Washington Football Team following a domestic violence arrest.
Husch Blackwell concluded that LSU had come up woefully short in committing needed resources to Title IX compliance and instead tended to offer more resistance than help to alleged victims.
Lewis attorneys Tammye and Bridgett Brown wanted their client to be permitted to assist the state Senate committee. Instead, DeCuir was the sole person to speak on behalf of the university. Tammye Brown said LSU’s general counsel “used his time to attack my client,” portraying her as an opportunist out for personal financial gain.
Lewis’ lawsuit does not name Orgeron among the defendants; it does list 10 unnamed men and 10 unnamed women among the defendants.
Orgeron took over for Miles on a permanent basis in 2017 and coached LSU to an unbeaten record and national championship in the 2019 season. Allegations of sexual misconduct or physical abuse have been filed against at least nine former players under Orgeron, according to an investigation by USA Today.
Some were punished and ultimately left LSU, but others, like Guice, left the school in good standing and were selected in the NFL draft.
The recent Husch Blackwell review aimed criticism more at LSU’s administration than Orgeron, saying coaches generally lack the expertise to handle sexual misconduct complaints and should refer them to Title IX compliance officials.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that, in part because of the Husch Blackwell report and related media coverage, its Office for Civil Rights would investigate possible Title IX violations by LSU. Institutions found in violation can lose federal funding.
So far, the most severe punishment handed down to current LSU employees were suspensions of about a month to deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry and senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar, who were found to have mishandled multiple sexual misconduct complaints.
State lawmakers have said they see LSU’s disciplinary action as insufficient.
Students agree. Last month, some held a sit-in at LSU’s football operations building.
Bridgett and Tammye Brown said they expect Lewis’ lawsuit to not only provide compensation to their client, but also to cause changes at LSU and any other institution that has previously failed to dedicate proper attention to Title IX compliance.
“Sharon Lewis has made an impact not just for Sharon Lewis, but she’s a whistleblower,” Bridgett Brown said. “She’s blown the whistle and people are forced to stop and look at what’s in front of them. Will it change things in Louisiana? We’re about to see.”
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