Vanderbilt fans support team despite charges

6:50 AM, Aug 12, 2013   |    comments
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This undated photo provided by Vanderbilt University shows Brandon Banks, 19, of Brandywine, Md.(Photo: AP)

(THE TENNESSEAN) -- A Vanderbilt football team cloaked in controversy remains a team supported by thousands.

On Sunday, even as details of the rape case involving four former Vanderbilt University football players continued to unfold, an estimated 5,000 people attended Dore Jam, the annual fan day activity for Vanderbilt's football team.

Gold- and black-clad supporters stood for hours in the sultry sun, holding team posters, waving pompons and seeking autographs of the 2013 football squad.

The absent few - former players Brandon Vandenburg, 20, from California; Brandon Eric Banks, 19, from Maryland; JaBorian "Tip" McKenzie, 18, from Mississippi; and Cory Batey, 19, of Nashville - were in jail or out on bond after being charged on Friday with five counts each of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery.

Banks, the last to be apprehended, surrendered to Metro Police just after 7 p.m. Sunday and is being held on $250,000 bond. McKenzie was released on Saturday after posting a $50,000 bond; Batey and Vandenburg are being held on $350,000 bonds.

Fans called the rape of the 21-year-old unconscious female "alarming." They said they were "sickened and mad." A mom of a current player was "shocked" by the news. A Nashville father called it a "black eye for the program."

But consensus among the supporters seemed to be that the actions of a few don't reflect the character of many.

"Seeing this right here, it does my heart good," lifelong Vanderbilt fan Dana Cothern said as she surveyed a line of fans that stretched nearly three blocks in each direction outside the John Rich Practice Facility on campus.

"Because these kids deserve this. Because what those four did, the heinous crimes they committed, should not reflect on these good children and these good guys."

Similar incidents

Mike Tyson. Kobe Bryant. Ben Roethlisberger.

All accused of rape. One was convicted. One case was dropped. One settled out of court.

It happens at every level of athletics.

In March, two Steubenville, Ohio, teenage football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl while she was unconscious. Around that same time, four Torrington, Conn., high school football players faced sexual assault charges for incidents involving two 13-year-old girls.

Then there was April's arrest of four Morehouse College athletes who were charged in connection with two separate sexual assaults. The three allegedly had non-consenting sex with an 18-year-old.

Former Mt. Pleasant quarterback and SEC recruit Princeton Harlan was sentenced to 10 years in jail in July for violating probation because of his arrest last month. He was given 10 years' probation in March after pleading guilty to facilitation of child rape. Harlan was arrested in June and charged with two violations of the sex offender registry and one felony drug charge.

"Situations arise where they feel more empowered than what's available or given to them," said Rod Turner, a Houston physician whose daughter Rachel is on the Vanderbilt Dance Team. "I don't think it's anything intentional. I think it's just they get caught up in the moment sometimes. Because most people are inherently good. Very few people start out wanting to be wrong or do the wrong thing."

The four Vanderbilt students were dismissed from the team and banned from campus on June 29, when it was announced a sex crimes investigation was taking place. The university revealed the identities of the players on July 15. On Friday, Metro police released details of the rape of the unconscious female student in the Gillette House dormitory on June 23.

Statistics show that one of every five women on a college campus will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape, said Abigail Boyer, director of communications and outreach at the Pennsylvania-based Clery Center for Security on Campus.

The university, in a statement issued Friday after the charges were announced, offered condolences to the student and vowed to hold athletes accountable for their actions.

"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," the statement said. "We are shocked and saddened by the allegations that such an assault has taken place on our campus and that they include members of our football team."

The university said it was "focused on doing everything we can to prevent any future incident like this on our campus."

While Vanderbilt police assert their campus is much safer than those national statistics indicate, Boyer said sexual assault victims frequently decide not to report the crime because they know their assailant or fear how the incident will look to others.

'It's the hype'

In the celebrity culture of athletics, indictments often seem horrific but isolated.

It's "human nature" to put athletes on pedestals, said Lisa West Snearl, who came up from Baton Rouge to surprise her son - Vanderbilt senior defensive back Andre Hal - at fan day.

"It's the hype," she said. "It's always been like that."

And that's part of the problem, she said. "You don't put anybody on a pedestal."

Still, it happens.

When Bryant showed up at a court date in Colorado in 2004, people were there wearing "Free Kobe" T-shirts, shouting "Kobe, we love you." At the time, they had been presented no evidence as to whether the NBA star was innocent or guilty of the rape of which he was accused.

So, too, Vanderbilt fans wait to understand the case and the facts. They continue to support the team, even as the story of those dismissed athletes comes to light.

"I was disappointed, but you also learn not to judge until you know the full, full story," said 41-year-old mom Shannon Tucker, whose 21-year-old daughter, Courtney Signoracci, works at Vanderbilt.

Regardless of what comes to light, she believes the fan base may be "divided."

"We know that Coach (James) Franklin has really stepped up and made it a family-oriented football team," she said. "A lot of discipline and definitely respect. And for this to come out from his players, one, it's shocking, two, it may put a damper on opinions regarding Vanderbilt as a football team."

"Myself, it hasn't changed my opinion in them," she said. "I am a No. 1 fan."

Fans show support

And so, too, were many others at Vanderbilt Sunday.

A freckle-faced boy arm-wrestled offensive lineman Ryan Brockway - and won. A flirtatious toddler commanded the adoration of a circle of Commodore cheerleaders. Lifelong Vanderbilt supporters shook Coach James Franklin's hand as iPhone cameras captured the moment.

The fan turnout was larger than ever before.

After a day spent signing posters and offering young fans high-fives, starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels stood in the middle of the practice field and reflected.

He would not comment on the rape case, citing the ongoing investigation. A witness list accompanying Friday's indictments indicates that police plan to subpoena Carta-Samuels, along with four other athletes, as witnesses in the case.

But he did offer his thoughts on athletes as examples.

"For us, we all desire to be NFL athletes, but we have four or five years of college guaranteed," he said. "We believe that we're role models to the younger generation. Those you see on TV nowadays a lot of times aren't seen in the highest of lights. And this is time for young kids to come look up to their role models and meet them, and we want to make sure that we show them the respect that they hopefully give the younger generation in the future."

Reach Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 or jbliss@tennessean.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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