DALLAS — College football, I love you, but why do you continue to break my heart?
I’ve made my peace with ridiculously late kickoffs, diva-like players and coaches and absurdly high ticket prices. I don’t like everything I read about CTE, but I appreciate the research being done to understand and combat the long-term effects. I acknowledge and understand when players and coaches admit it’s a dangerous game but say they love it too much to quit. I find comfort in the heartwarming stories we hear and tell about perseverance. I love watching team chemistry explode out of a locker room in the form of touchdowns and picks and chest bumps.
What I do not like or appreciate or find comforting are the number of people in charge of this sport who just don’t get it. Sexual assault and violence against women are major problems in this country, and collegiate athletics, with its big money and big stage, has an opportunity to be a vessel for change. Instead, we continue to hear mixed messages from the powers that be about what’s really important.
Monday at Big 12 media days in downtown Dallas, you could practically see the words pass through conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s mind as he stood on stage in front of roughly 300 reporters crowded into the Omni Hotel: Please, God, someone ask me about conference expansion. That’s been the Big 12’s hot topic the last few years, but in the wake of a horrific sexual assault scandal at Baylor that resulted in the firing of a coach, athletic director and school president, Bowlsby was instead hammered with questions about the Big 12’s private Baptist school.
And as one reporter quipped on Twitter, Bowlsby clearly got his press conference prep from Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. To be clear, that is not a compliment.
Mullen made headlines last week when he came across as phenomenally tone deaf at his SEC Media Days press conference when he talked about Mississippi State’s decision to admit five-star recruit Jeffrey Simmons, a defensive end who was caught on video assaulting a woman. I watched Mullen’s press conference—in which he sidestepped a question about what if it were his wife or daughter being beat up by saying, “I don’t know that my family would be in that situation”—and shook my head. It can’t get much more ridiculous than this, I thought.
Then Bowlsby took the stage in Dallas, and we continued to roll downhill.
He addressed the Baylor situation in his opening statement by basically admitting defeat in the fight against sexual assault. “It almost goes without saying that when you combine alcohol and drugs and raging hormones and the experience of 18- to 22-year-olds, it’s probably unrealistic to think that these kinds of things are never going to happen,” he said.
Thanks for that winning attitude, commissioner. Sadly, you’re right—especially if people in charge (like you) don’t understand the problem to begin with. Let’s start with the fact that rape is not about “raging hormones.” Rape is not about sex, either. Rape is about power. “Raging hormones” do not cause rape. Rapists do. If you fail to understand that dynamic, we never will fix the problem. Bowlsby might as well have stood on stage, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, ya know, boys will be boys.”
Another thing that would help in this fight to end sexual assault on college campuses: administrators who call for transparency when the system fails. As it turns out, Bowlsby is in that position. How fortunate! Sadly, he doesn’t seem to be interested in demanding that Baylor lay all its cards on the table. Or, maybe he is. He appeared confused Monday. I’d like to give Bowlsby credit for answering an endless stream of Baylor questions, but in keeping with the contradictory tone of the day, I’m not really sure what answers he gave.
First he said, in regards to the information about what really happened in Waco, that Baylor has been “very forthcoming.” Then, when a reporter quoted that back to him and asked if “forthcoming” meant the Big 12 has been given everything they’ve asked for, Bowlsby responded by saying, “That’s not quite what I said.”
No, Bob. It’s actually exactly what you said. And we all have the transcripts and the audio recordings if you’d like confirmation.
Asked if he, and the Big 12, were going to get more information than the public, Bowlsby said, “Yeah, we will get more than the public. There isn’t any doubt about that. We already have more than the public on an oral basis.”
A note here: It’s become increasingly clear that Pepper Hamilton, the law firm hired by Baylor to investigate the football program, did not issue any sort of official paperwork findings, likely because Baylor wouldn’t want any of it to be subpoenaed. Still, there’s obviously a lot more information that can be shared. At least, I think there is. Again, Bowlsby seemed confused.
When asked about the assistant coaches who remain at Baylor and how he feels about that, as a father of daughters, Bowlsby said, “Well, I don’t know that I can adequately address that because I know what you know … I don’t have any inside information.”
Someone asked Bowlsby to clarify that later and he … well, he didn’t. In the post-press conference scrum in the hallway 10 minutes later, I asked Bowlsby if he felt that Baylor, which has not been transparent with the media, owed it to its female fans and students (some of whom likely do not at all care about football) to release all the information. Does he think they have an obligation to the public?
“They’ve told us that they’ve released everything they’ve had,” he said.
I interrupted him here. “But, you also know more than we do, right?”
“Well, I got additional information orally in the meeting that I had with the chair of their board and with the president,” he said. “It was a one-hour meeting, and so I have a modest amount of information that probably isn’t in either of those [released] documents.”
I’m not sure what that means either. But I am sure that asking someone to trust that everything will be different and better moving forward when you won’t explain to them exactly where it went wrong in the first place is unrealistic.
Bowlsby also talked at length about the Big 12 investigating Baylor and how he was committed to making sure no NCAA or Big 12 rules were broken. He described the Big 12’s image as “sullied” by the Baylor scandal. And then he acknowledged the Big 12 has no legal standing to punish Baylor. So short of kicking the Bears out of the conference entirely, what can the Big 12 do to one of its recent football powers? Again, no answers. As to why the Big 12 is even investigating Baylor—besides the fact that it makes them look big and important and like they’re taking this issue seriously—well, he didn’t have an answer for that either.
Another note: At no point during his public address to the media did Bowlsby acknowledge the survivors, their hurt or their courage. He did mention that he had empathy for the players and coaches and support staff who have fallen victim to being painted “with a completely broad brush.” Certainly everyone isn’t guilty, he said, and I agree—but maybe first he could stand in front of a crowd and talk about the empathy he feels for the women whose lives will forever be impacted by something they had no say in. I sat in the crowd and shook my head. My heart breaks for these women and I wonder if this sport is ever going to change.
It doesn’t bother me that Bowlsby doesn’t have answers to all these questions. It’s that he won’t admit that he doesn’t.
Sexual assault and sexual abuse are complex topics that need a lot of unpacking. In order for the general public to understand (and fully appreciate the long-lasting effects), we have to educate people on the language of sexual assault and the systems in place that contribute to it, and we have to agree that the only way to fix it is zero tolerance.
Instead what we get is one public relations nightmare after another. Whatever Baylor and the Big 12 are paying their PR firms, it’s too much, because it is unconscionable to me that in late July, both of these groups were fumbling around in front of the media when quizzed about the scandal.
And for all the praise Bowlsby heaped on the conference for its “national issues forums” and its work educating conference members, he obviously hasn’t been paying close attention himself. While citing his pride in the conference’s rule about not taking transfers with a history of misconduct (a rule the Big 12 copied from the SEC), Bowlsby was asked if he thought if Simmons, the Mississippi State commit, would have been admitted to the Big 12. Bowlsby said he had no idea what had gone on at Mississippi State. That’s like someone in the SEC furrowing their brow and replying, “Something happened at Baylor?”
Toward the end of Bowlsby’s question-and-answer session, a reporter asked him where this was all headed, and what conclusions can be drawn by asking Baylor to share all its information if the Big 12 doesn’t have an power to penalize them.
“To say that we have a vision for what the end game is would not be accurate,” he said.
Finally, a straight answer. One I understood—and one I didn’t find comforting.