There is only one word I can use to describe the 2020 season of Vanderbilt football: embarrassing. Nothing better summarizes how this season went for the Commodores than the final three weeks. The only bright spot in the last three weeks, and really the entirety of the season, was Sarah Fuller making history as the only woman to ever play and score in a Power 5 football game. In those final weekends of the season, outside of Fuller’s historic and impressive feat, the Commodores first suffered a horrendous 41- 0 loss to the University of Missouri in which they were incapable of making it into field-goal range the entire game. Then, the Commodores proceeded to be demolished 42 - 17 by in-state rival, the University of Tennessee, due to a depleted defense and stagnant offense. Finally, they were forced to cancel the last scheduled game versus the University of Georgia due to an insufficient number of active players. Outside of Fuller’s debut, the end of this season was plagued with nothing but losing and embarrassment. However, one other positive thing came out of this season of disappointment: the firing of Derek Mason.
Despite the unfortunate conclusion of Vanderbilt’s 2020 football season, there comes a hopeful new transition for the program this year. That is, the era of Clark Lea. On December 14th, Athletic Director Candice Lee announced the hiring of a new head football coach, just eight days after the end of an incredibly tumultuous season. On the heels of a 0-9 season, Lee announced the hiring of former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea in replacement of Derek Mason in hopes that Lea will introduce a new era at Vanderbilt. Particularly, an era that will not be defined by losing streaks. However, I hope that Lea brings something additional to Vanderbilt football. I hope that Lea is not only committed to winning, but also committed to tearing down the abhorrent rape culture at Vanderbilt that was only worsened by the previous coaching staff.
I am glad Derek Mason was relieved of his coaching duties. After six years of losing, I am pleased that Lee and the rest of the athletic department have finally decided to move past Mason, as inspiring such action was the goal of my previous article on his shortcomings as head coach. That article reached many in the Vanderbilt community and outside of it, and I am grateful for that. However, I believe that it would be disingenuous for me to speak as if I think that it had some influence on Mason’s firing. I cannot in good conscience claim that the previous article was a part of the reason for his firing because it is not lost on me that if this team would have gone 9-0 instead of winless, there would not have been a coaching change. Even if this team had won 6 out of their 9 games, I do not think that Lee would have relieved Mason of his coaching duties because the success of a team is often treated as if it is more important than protecting women against sexual assault.
Although I do not know if Athletic Director Lee read my previous article, I do know that she has read the stories of numerous survivors. I know that many people in the upper levels of the athletic department have also read these horrific stories, but would have likely still advocated for keeping Mason if he had been able to execute a successful season. Mason was not fired because of his role in perpetuating the rampant rape culture on this campus, but rather because his football team’s play this season was an embarrassment to the university and the SEC.
This is the case because those in charge of college athletic departments often treat the safety of women as if it is expendable, and the Vanderbilt athletic department is not innocent of this behavior. More often than not, head coaches are fired based on wins and losses, and not the issues that exist off the field. When they are fired for off-field issues, it rarely has to do with their mishandling of player misconduct related to women. To be clear, I am not asserting that I disagree with Lee’s decision to change coaches. However, the athletic administration was made aware of the allegations of sexual assault long before this semester or last summer, but still it took a winless season (and embarrassment on a national scale when the team had the opportunity to make history) to inspire a coaching change to be made. These administrators are allowing women, and especially Black women, to be terrorized all in the name of making a profit. When a head coach proves to no longer be profitable, that is when they finally make a change.
Despite the message Vanderbilt’s athletic department has sent, I believe that no profit or win can ever be more important than the safety of women on campus. Women are more important than football, and six years of these complaints should not have been disregarded in hopes that the coach might be successful in the future. If the athletic department cares for women as they say they do, this prioritization of wins and losses over women cannot be carried into the Clark Lea era. Although firing Mason was a very important and necessary first step, getting rid of the head coach was only one of the steps that needs to be taken in order to eradicate the culture that is present on this campus. Lea has the opportunity to change the entire culture surrounding the team, however I think that the athletic department also has a duty to change their administrative priorities. It should not have taken a winless season and losing almost every game in a blowout to fire a coach who has been complicit in these instances of sexual assault for six years. The athletic department cannot continue to value contracts, buyouts, and wins and losses more than the livelihood of women on campus.
It is not fair that the safety of women is treated as an acceptable trade-off for football, and it is not fair that I know in the back of my mind that Mason would still be the coach of this team if he could actually win games. This is not an issue that is going to be fixed by coaches “starting conversations” and players wearing “set the expectation” t-shirts. Vanderbilt needed a coaching change, but there also needs to be structural change that comes from both Lea and the athletic administration in which they stop valuing the potential success of the team more than welfare of women. I do not believe that it is acceptable to sacrifice the safety of women for wins, and it is my hope that Clark Lea rejects this behavior as well. I want to see Vanderbilt football win, but even more than that, I want to see Vanderbilt football care about women in the way that they claim to on Twitter and in press conferences. I hope that Clark Lea not only ushers in an era of winning football, but also an era at Vanderbilt in which the safety of Black women on this campus is protected by the football program and the athletic department with the same vigor that they previously used to protect abusers.