Baylor needed to fire Art Briles to protect its bottom line
Before we discuss what Baylor's Board of Regents did Thursday, let's dispense with the hyperbole and use some common sense. This probably wasn't a watershed moment. This probably isn't the start of a trend. This probably doesn't have any deeper meaning for the future of college football. Thursday's firing of football coach Art Briles, demotion of president Ken Starr and sanctioning—whatever that means—of athletic director Ian McCaw didn't happen because the wealthy alums on the board suddenly decided to stand up and do what's right. This happened because they had no other conceivable choice. Occasionally, the right thing and the bottom line intersect.
As we discussed last week, Baylor University is in the business of selling a college education that costs about $54,000 a year in tuition room and board. Its current customer base of 16,787—better known as the student body—is 58 percent female. So when attorneys from Philadelphia firm Pepper Hamilton presented their scathing report that painted the university's handling of sexual violence claims as bumbling, inept and inadequate and the football program's handling of them as unhealthy, dangerous and possibly in violation of federal law, the board had no other real options.
Yes, Briles had turned Baylor football from a Big 12 doormat into a program that went 50–15 in the past five years and won two of the past three Big 12 titles. His success got $300 million McLane Stadium built. Yes, Starr presided over a renaissance for the school. But a report that Baylor's own regents paid for concluded that coaches favored football success over the safety of female students. The report concluded that the university, through poor management and incompetent choices, consistently favored the male accused over their female accusers. Of course the regents had to act. Had that report gotten out without high-profile action against the people who presided over the mess, Baylor was going to start losing customers.
At a private university, where the state legislature can't help with a budget shortfall, it isn't wise to publicly declare that the school doesn't care about 58 percent of the student body. That is precisely what inaction here would have declared. Giving that impression could make the student body considerably smaller. That would shrink the budget accordingly. Consider it this way: Baylor had 3,394 first-time freshmen enroll for the 2015 fall semester. Imagine that number suddenly dropped by a quarter, which is a conservative estimate given the seriousness of these issues. At $42,546 a year in tuition and fees, the school would lose $36.1 million a year in potential revenue. And it would keep losing that money if the school refused to address the issues raised in the report. So the board did the only thing it could. It made high-profile moves, and it can now try to begin restoring the trust of Baylor's constituents.
That should take time. Remember, Pepper Hamilton has a reputation for taking it easy on schools that hire the firm for these types of investigations, and Pepper Hamilton crushed Baylor's policies and culture even in the sanitized 13-page release the school put out Thursday. Some of the worst revelations involved the football program.
From the Baylor release:
Baylor failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University. In certain instances, including reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics. In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct. As a result, no action was taken to support complainants, fairly and impartially evaluate the conduct under Title IX, address identified cultural concerns within the football program, or protect campus safety once aware of a potential pattern of sexual violence by multiple football players.
In addition, some football coaches and staff took improper steps in response to disclosures of sexual assault or dating violence that precluded the University from fulfilling its legal obligations. Football staff conducted their own untrained internal inquiries, outside of policy, which improperly discredited complainants and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation, interim measures or processes promised under University policy. In some cases, internal steps gave the illusion of responsiveness to complainants but failed to provide a meaningful institutional response under Title IX. Further, because reports were not shared outside of athletics, the University missed critical opportunities to impose appropriate disciplinary action that would have removed offenders from campus and possibly precluded future acts of sexual violence against Baylor students. In some instances, the football program dismissed players for unspecified team violations and assisted them in transferring to other schools. As a result, some football coaches and staff abdicated responsibilities under Title IX and Clery; to student welfare; to the health and safety of complainants; and to Baylor's institutional values.
The final sentence probably was of particular concern to the regents. Though it has never happened, the federal government has the power to deny a school access to the federal financial aid program for violating the Clery Act. That would mean students could not take out federal loans to pay tuition at the affected school. Such action probably would get a university shuttered. It would be the academic version of the NCAA's Death Penalty*, and it would cost a lot more. While this would have been an extreme step, this was a particularly egregious case.
*Don't expect the NCAA to penalize Baylor for this. It has no applicable bylaw, and as the governing body of college sports learned when it went outside its usual process to punish Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, such penalties will only get the NCAA dragged into and embarrassed in court. The NCAA should stay in its lane and let the proper authorities deal with Baylor.
Did Baylor do enough? That remains to be seen. The school certainly released some damning information Thursday, but it did not release anything specific. True transparency would mean a release of the entire Pepper Hamilton report with redactions to protect the victims' identities. That isn't likely to happen, judging by this portion of Baylor's release Thursday: "Pepper Hamilton examined more than a million pieces of information—from correspondence to interviews to reports. The experiences of students impacted by interpersonal violence played a significant role in the investigation into the University's response. While those experiences informed the findings, the details of individual cases are protected by Federal law and will not be referenced in any document made public by the University."
Without knowing some details of individual cases, the public won't know how deep the rot went. The section Baylor released about the football program referenced coaches—plural—meeting with accusers and/or their parents. Briles was the only coach fired. As to who else was involved, the board included this in its release: "Additional members of the Administration and Athletics program have also been dismissed. Neither these individuals nor the disciplinary actions will be identified publicly." That isn't exactly transparent, nor does it offer any clue as to whether Baylor is doing enough to address the problems Pepper Hamilton found.
Multiple outlets reported Thursday that defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, a former SMU head coach, would take over on an interim basis. Presumably offensive coordinator Kendal Briles would call the plays*. A text message, reportedly from Art Briles to Baylor players, claims that Briles would be the only coach fired.
*There are only a few coaches who know Art Briles's unique offense. Dino Babers left Baylor in 2011, but he was just hired as head coach at Syracuse—a school that just lost its athletic director to Minnesota after an 11-month tenure. Tulsa coach Philip Montgomery is a former Briles coordinator, but he was at Baylor during the timeframe Pepper Hamilton examined. Sterlin Gilbert was a Briles graduate assistant at Houston and then worked for Babers and then Montgomery. But Gilbert never called plays under either coach, and he was just hired this offseason as the offensive coordinator at Big 12 rival Texas.
So what happened to the other coaches who decided to take rape investigations into their own hands? Had they already moved on to other schools? Are some being kept because it's too inconvenient to wipe out an entire staff in late May? Those questions aren't being answered yet, and the lack of a definitive answer suggests the interim plan isn't set in stone. Baylor staffers were wondering Thursday afternoon when the university would definitively state who will run the football program for the 2016 season. Until such a statement is offered, it's safest to assume nothing.
Baylor's regents began the process of reassuring the customers on Thursday, but that doesn't mean the scandal ends here. As long as the school opts for a selective release of information over complete transparency, it could find it difficult to restore trust. As with everything else, whether Baylor officials decide to be more forthcoming depends on how deeply this mistrust cuts into the bottom line.