The latest reports of allegations of assault and sexual assault that went uninvestigated and ignored at Baylor highlight a broken system in which football won out over all else. It must not any longer.
[Editor's note: Eight days after this story was published, multiple reports indicated Baylor would fire head coach Art Briles.]
The incidents and accusations dot football’s recent history. Player X assaults female victim Y. Program Z protects player X. Police do the bare minimum. Fill in the blanks. It’s too easy.
There’s a pattern here, and the word “trend” doesn’t even begin to encompass the sexual violence and violence toward women that has become all too prevalent in football at the collegiate and professional levels. This is not one or two bad seeds or a handful of players for whom talent outweighed character risks in the eyes of coaches. This is a broken system, a crisis.
On Wednesday, it intensified. ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that Baylor, which had already come under fire for how it investigates and reports allegations of sexual violence, is in even deeper trouble. The story, by Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach, outlines allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence that had until now gone unreported—despite, according to documents, knowledge of said accusations by Baylor officials, including coaches.
Let’s back up. Baylor, a private, Baptist college in Waco, Texas, was a mediocre (at best) Big 12 team until 2011, when fourth-year coach Art Briles and Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III led the Bears to a 10–3 record and an Alamo Bowl victory. Since ’11, Baylor has compiled a 50–15 overall record and become a perennial conference favorite—while also, it appears, throwing all manner of decency to the wind in favor of building a top-flight program on the field.
Before Wednesday, the program was already in trouble. You’ve no doubt read the backstory: defensive end Tevin Elliott, who was sentenced in 2014 to 20 years in prison on two counts of sexual assault after five women told police he’d attacked them; lineman Sam Ukwuachu, who was convicted of second-degree sexual assault in ’15 and had a history of violence before transferring to Baylor; Tre'Von Armstead and Myke Chatman, who were named in a sexual assault police report that the school took two years to investigate; and, most recently, defensive end Shawn Oakman, who was arrested in April on one count of sexual assault and was accused previously of assault in ’13. Those incidents alone were enough to spur the university to hire Pepper Hamilton, a Philadelphia law firm, last fall to review its treatment of sexual assault claims—which is where things get more interesting (and disturbing).
Until Wednesday, the focus of attention on Baylor, right or wrong, seemed to be in the form of scrutiny of its process—how it reported and dealt with allegations of sexual violence. Pepper Hamilton, it seemed, would provide the school with a detailed critique of its practices, and measures would be taken to safeguard against further bungling. There were of course lingering questions of who had known what and when—with indications that too many people knew too much to do so little—but it looked as if the university had begun a process to put into place some framework for improvement.
Wednesday changed that. It’s not that the allegations ESPN describes are radically different from those the public already knew. It’s the volume and the hypocrisy that should make every one of us sick. This isn’t one or two—or even three or four—isolated incidents. Isolated has gone out the window. This is systemic failure, by both Baylor and the Waco police, who, according to Outside the Lines, are complicit in taking measures to keep multiple cases out of the public eye. This is a complete disregard for women on Baylor’s campus, for basic morality, for consequences, for safety—by arguably the most outwardly religious school to field a Power 5 football team.
The hypocrisy gets worse. According to the Outside the Lines report, an alleged victim reported that her boyfriend at the time, a Baylor player, had assaulted her twice. Who did she tell? The Waco police, of course, and the Bears team chaplain. Eventually, Briles and Baylor president Ken Starr were notified of her allegations, but the player was never disciplined. The woman didn’t press criminal charges because, she told Outside the Lines, “I’d seen other girls go through it, and nothing ever happened to the football players.” In addition, Pepper Hamilton never reached out to speak with her.
The report outlines multiple other alleged incidents, including the case of running back Devin Chafin, who was accused of assaulting a woman. The woman ultimately did not take legal action, and the school never investigated.
What emerges from ESPN’s report is a picture of a university, an athletics department and a city police force willing to obscure justice for the sake of a football program’s rise to power. Waco’s police have operated behind loopholes in the law to hide the truth. Baylor and its athletics department have hidden behind the religious tenets the school claims to stand for and its status as a private institution to fail to face the consequences of its players’ actions. And its façade of reform—the collaboration with Pepper Hamilton—comes across as incomplete at best.
What’s gone on at Baylor in recent years won’t be fixed by an audit of internal handlings of alleged assaults. It’s too grand in scope and wrongdoing. It’s an athletic department that is broken, that appears to think it can go rogue and operate in a world free of consequences. It’s not one bad guy; it’s a tradition of them, a tradition where players see what others have gotten away with, think they can, and do. It’s the Wild West, an absence of justice, and Baylor has had no incentive to fix the landscape it created—until now.
For years, it seems, football won out over all else in Waco. But it can’t any longer.