Bottom line, not football success, could force Baylor to take action
It’s easy to surmise that King Football will win at Baylor. Coach Art Briles is 50–15 over the past five seasons. The Bears, irrelevant on the field for decades, have been so good lately that they raised enough money to build a beautiful stadium on the banks of the Brazos River. It doesn’t take a full-blown cynic to assume that, given all this, nothing substantive will change even after the avalanche of reports that Baylor athletics and university officials botched the handling of multiple accusations of sexual and domestic violence in recent years.
But before making that assumption, let’s consider the incentives for the parties involved. The business of college football is big, but the business of college dwarfs it. This isn’t only a football issue. This isn’t only an athletic department issue. This is a university issue, and that brings the interests, financial and otherwise, of the business of college into play. Those interests will almost always trump football wins and losses. As Baylor’s Board of Regents considers how it will respond to the report it commissioned from a Philadelphia law firm on these issues, it must wrestle with something much bigger than football. It must consider this question: Would I let my daughter go to Baylor?
That question, and the financial implications contained within its cousin Would I pay for my daughter to go to Baylor?, is why no one should assume football victories will keep anyone off the hook. The regents know that every time more ooze drips from this story, more parents ask that question. If prospective student deposits at Missouri plummeted because the school suddenly became PCU, how much will this situation affect Baylor’s enrollment in the future? If parents are worried the school takes a lax attitude toward rape and other violence against women, are they going to be willing to fork over more than $54,000 a year in tuition, room and board?
Attorneys from the law firm Pepper Hamilton briefed Baylor’s board on their findings last week. On Monday, board chairman Richard Willis told The Dallas Morning News that board members hadn’t been presented with a final report. On Wednesday, ESPN reporters Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach reported on more cases in which players were either accused or arrested in incidents involving violence against women. In several of those cases, players didn’t miss games. The story also revealed an apparent effort by the Waco, Texas, police department to keep some records hidden from view in spite of the fact that Texas has a very clear open records law in these matters. Meanwhile, stories of how Baylor’s administration handles sexual assault accusations, not only the ones involving athletes, continue to circulate. They do not paint a pretty picture, and they also suggest the issue is far bigger than football.
On SiriusXM’s Playbook show on Wednesday, ESPN’s Lavigne said she has spoken to more accusers who have yet to come forward. And while the Waco police department has released requested records, the Baylor police department had not at that point. There is more to be revealed. It will only get worse for Baylor in the coming weeks and months.
This is why it also isn’t necessarily safe to assume that Pepper Hamilton was hired to whitewash everything. The firm has received mixed reviews for similar investigations at other schools. In this case, whitewashing would be unwise. The case has the nation’s attention, and Lavigne’s fantastic reporting has produced a list of cases that must be accounted for by Pepper Hamilton’s attorneys. If they are trying to gloss over Baylor’s issues as they have been accused of doing at other schools, they’ll be exposed. If the Pepper Hamilton team didn’t interview everyone involved—Wednesday’s story claims they missed at least one accuser—it will cast doubt on the report. If the Pepper Hamilton team interviewed most of the people found by Lavigne’s reporting and found others Lavigne has yet to find, then it will give the regents even more incentive to make major changes. Besides, the U.S. Department of Education will almost certainly investigate to determine whether Baylor violated the Clery Act. Meanwhile, Baylor likely will have to pay settlements to victims or risk lawsuits that could reveal even more damaging information if they go to trial.
As a private school, Baylor has no legal obligation to release Pepper Hamilton’s report. That doesn’t mean it won’t. Occidental College, another private school, also hired Pepper Hamilton for a similar investigation and released the report on Oct. 27, 2014, five days after it was provided to the school. While Baylor isn’t subject to Texas open records laws, it is subject to the demands of its own constituents, many of whom have a lot of questions about these issues. This group includes students, parents, alumni, faculty and most importantly future students and their parents. Baylor doesn’t owe most of us anything, but it owes them an explanation.
On Thursday, Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw told SiriusXM’s Full Ride show that there was no cover-up of which he was aware. He may be correct, but only for the most pathetic reason. Cover-ups aren’t required when no one is looking. The beat writing corps that covers Baylor isn’t the most aggressive. Had these incidents taken place at Ohio State, Texas, LSU or any school that draws major coverage, they’d have been reported on almost immediately. Reporters would have noticed names on police blotters, or they would have team or police sources that would leak that sort of information. ESPN would not be uncovering incidents from years earlier because they would have been reported on all along. No one was looking at Baylor, so Baylor coaches and officials continued to make terrible decisions without being questioned about them. This doesn’t excuse anyone, nor should it lessen any punitive action that might be taken, but it helps explain how this mess continued for so long.
The most egregious case did not have a long paper trail that reporters could follow until after the player involved went to trial. It involves former Baylor defensive lineman Tevin Elliott. In January 2014, Elliott was sentenced to 20 years in prison after he was found guilty of two counts of sexual assault. Three women testified in court that Elliott had raped them in incidents occurring between 2009 and ’12. Prosecutors had evidence that a fourth woman had reported being raped by Elliott but did not call that woman to the stand. A civil lawsuit filed by Jasmin Hernandez*, whose 2012 accusation led to Elliott’s arrest and eventual imprisonment, claims that when a different woman went to report Elliott to Baylor chief judicial officer Bethany McCraw, McCraw told the woman she was the sixth female student to report being assaulted by Elliott and that Briles was aware of the accusations. If this account is even close to accurate, it would mean Bears coaches allowed a serial rapist to remain on campus when they could have taken more decisive action.
*SI does not usually reveal the name of sexual assault victims, but Hernandez filed the lawsuit under her own name and has participated in interviews regarding her case.
This is what the regents must consider as they deliberate. How thoroughly do these incidents damage the brand of a Baptist university that sells a more wholesome college experience than the ones available at secular and state schools. How much might inaction cost? If the regents determine the brand isn’t significantly damaged, they may get away with doing nothing. If the regents determine the cost to the school, in dollars and esteem, is high enough, they might just force out Briles, McCaw and president Ken Starr, who this time may find himself on the business end of a high-profile investigation into sexual impropriety. (If any regents have a political beef with Starr, don’t be shocked if they try to take advantage of the situation.)
There also is one long-term athletic consideration. The Big 12 nearly imploded in 2010 and remains fairly unstable. If it dissolves at the end of the current media rights deal (2025), it is highly unlikely another power conference would consider Baylor if it doesn’t handle this situation cleanly and completely. As a private, religious school, Baylor already faces an uphill climb if the Big 12 blows up. Also, the Bears took nearly a decade to dig out from a basketball scandal in which one player murdered another and then-coach Dave Bliss asked the other players to lie about their dead teammate to conceal NCAA violations. This scandal is far larger in scope. If other school presidents view Baylor’s handling of this situation to be inadequate, it could doom any chance of Baylor remaining in the highest echelon of college athletics if the Big 12 doesn’t survive.
While the most cynical among us may assume that Baylor’s recent football success will guide the regents to gloss over the school’s issues, the regents have some powerful incentives to take serious action. It’s quite possible the scandal has already begun eating into Baylor’s bottom line. If it has, football, and any desire to protect a successful coach, will be an afterthought.