COLUMN: Tennessee’s Tone-Deafness Hits New Lows

Photo Credit: Wandering His Wonders

Okay, folks. Bear with me. I’ve been thinking about this column for a couple of weeks–since the Florida game–and had pretty much talked myself out of it. But today something happened that made me change my mind and write this column anyway.

You know how I get when I get mad.

I realize that UT has an interim president and an interim chancellor and a brand new Board of Trustees. I realize that Tennessee had to hit the reset button at the moment Phillip Fulmer was hired as the Athletic Director. I get all that.

What I don’t get is this:

Tennessee is a state renowned for its hospitality. Our people are friendly, just like the great Ellie Mae Clampett who always said at the end of The Beverly Hillbillies, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”

Hollywood stereotypes are so insulting. But, that’s how Tennessee is viewed. We are the model for “and then one day he was shootin’ at some food when up from the ground come a’bubblin’ crude.” Our hospitality is famous, right? ‘

Except at the University of Tennessee, apparently.

When I attended the UT-UF game two weeks ago, the first thing I saw as I closed the final 100 feet to the stadium gates at Neyland was a police officer with a semi-automatic weapon held at the ready as families with little kids and old folks went by.

No, I am not one of the old folks, thanks so much.

Security is obviously of utmost importance at a place like Neyland Stadium, but let’s be honest, that’s not exactly a welcoming first impression, is it? In fact, that was the closest UT and Knoxville got to The Beverly Hillbillies the whole time I was there because that was nothing compared to what occurred after the game.

I don’t discuss it much–folks who follow my social media might have seen me talk about this, but no one else would know–that I am disabled. Oh, I can walk…as long as it’s not longer than half a block. I certainly can’t walk uphill. Getting to the stadium was barely manageable. The nice folks at Joyride got me two blocks away from the stadium gates.

But after the game there wasn’t a golf cart to be found.

There were reserved ones, of course, for recruits. And for emergency personnel and first responders. But for the disabled? Nothing. At least, not that I could find. I even limped over to a police officer and asked him for help.

Unfortunately, he had no help to offer, despite the fact that three people were holding me up because I was close to collapse and he was leaning against an empty golf cart.

It took three people over an hour just to get me to the top of the hill. Needless to say, the subsequent day was unpleasant, especially because it was complicated with a flight back home. But see–at the airports…at every airport, there are people there whose job it is to assist the disabled. I know for a fact I couldn’t deal with Dulles or O’Hare without that assistance. Heck, I’m not capable of making it from the gate to the baggage claim here at my home airport. So for me, it was inexplicable that Neyland Stadium and UT seem to have no system in place to assist the disabled or the elderly to and from the stadium as a courtesy. And if they do have some kind of system in place for this service, it certainly needs better advertising.

All of this, I’ve been seething over since the Florida game. I was so angry by the time I finally got back to my accommodations that night that I was nearly 100% convinced I would never come back to Neyland Stadium. A fib, of course, but that’s how mad I was. Then I got home and talked myself out of it, thinking everything had to be an aberration. Maybe I just caught UT on the wrong day or something?

Until Thursday.

Until the University of Tennessee demolished General Neyland’s last remaining free-standing residence in Knoxville, despite vociferous objections by fans, by neighbors of the house, and even despite the pleas from both the Neyland family and the family of local folk artist Russel Briscoe, who lived in the house after the General and his family moved out. Today, a structure that UT ran into the ground was bulldozed, creating a tiny patch of brown on a street just outside the university proper.

You see, today I realized that UT still doesn’t give a rip about what anyone outside of their circle of decision-makers thinks. Our opinions as fans or alumni or local media just don’t matter to them. Tennessee is still as tone-deaf as it was last autumn after Butch Jones was fired. The people in charge seriously think that no one’s opinions matter except for theirs.

And you know what? That may be the case. UT administrators may be sitting up on the Hill right now, smug-mouthed and smirking just like they did last fall because they just did something the fanbase didn’t want them to do. May even be smirking because no assistance for the disabled is easier and cheaper. I’ll tell you this much though–I hate Ohio State with a passion, but I’ve never ever had to struggle to and from the ‘Shoe just to get to my (overpriced and too-small) seat and then back to the car.

Never.

I realize the world we live in is no longer the idyllic world most of us remember from our youth. I realize that some concession must be made in order to make events at Neyland as safe as possible. But I also realize that even if I am hauling my carcass up a hill my orthopedic surgeon would smack me silly for even looking at, much less climbing, there are a whole lot of people in a lot worse shape than me who should not be placed in that position just because they have a genuine love of Tennessee football. And yeah, sure–the folks that pay for the privilege get the special passes and shuttles. I get that too.

But what about visitors?

What about fans like me, who live out of state and can only attend one or two games a year?

What about having some kind of help available to people who swallow their pride and ask for it, like I did when I approached the campus police officer? Or maybe listening to the fans who vocalized–loudly–that UT should preserve the General’s last residence?

Hopefully, Interim UT President Randy Boyd will change the atmosphere of tone-deafness that has dragged the university down from the heights and into the cement pond choked with algae where Rocky Top has deposited coaches, athletic directors, chancellors, presidents, and trustees in the past few years.

Hopefully.

But it’s hard to trust the university to do the right thing when all its recent history proclaims loudly its indifference in anything that would qualify as ‘the right thing’. Basic hospitality shouldn’t be a commodity like a parking pass or an elevator pass. Children shouldn’t see police officers with guns at the ready as they approach the stadium or bulldozers shredding a house with legitimate historic value to Volunteers everywhere.

We’ll see if UT’s new leadership is up to the challenge. But at the moment it seems like the university is more likely to continue on the path of least resistance–which if it doesn’t listen to the wishes of the people who support the school is any path regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. At the very least, sports facilities should make a feeble attempt at real hospitality, and not what I’ve seen out of UT in the past month.

After all, who wants a new catchphrase at this stage, right?

Y’all don’t come back now, ya hear?