Will female fans of Baylor football return to support their team even after the program's sexual-assault scandal?
As a female sports writer, I've always been discouraged when I've been asked to write about a subject just because I'm a woman. Female athletics director screws up? Joan, write. The WNBA team in town is good? I'll cover it.
By no means am I saying that I don't want to write about women or that writing about women is somehow inferior; it's just that sometimes I think writing about such issues from an informed male perspective is just as powerful. I am a sports writer. That I am a woman is a footnote. The story should be that an AD screwed up, that a basketball team is talented—regardless of the sex of anyone involved.
That said, ever since the reports of sexual abuse at Baylor began last fall, I've thought about the unfolding story differently than I would have if I were a man. That's not to say that I'm sadder about it, or more discouraged and outraged. It's just that I know the feeling of what it's like to wait at a party for a friend rather than walk across campus alone. On my college tours, my mother was obsessed with locating blue-light emergency phones on every campus, and when I left for Georgetown, she told me to never set down my drink and to travel in a pack. I'm almost certain she spent less time on these lessons with my brother.
And so as I've watched the story at Baylor unfold all summer, I've come back to the same question: What if this were my school? What if this were the place where I'd spent four years, met my best friends, found my career path? Could I still cheer, or would I turn my back, or is there some in-between those two extremes where my conscience would settle? It was impossible to say, but I decided to try to find out for this, my very first weekly column here at Campus Rush.
A year ago, I mostly stuck to features, writing about everything from Les Miles's last stand that wasn't to Paxton Lynch to Frank Beamer's final days as Virginia Tech's coach. Now, with a year on the college football beat behind me, I want to write more often and more topically, and every Tuesday from now until January, I hope this space will be full of weird perspectives and stories we at SI might not have otherwise told. It'll be light on hot takes and heavy on my own idiosyncrasies, so I apologize in advance if that's not your cup of tea.
But that's enough about me; back to Baylor. In July, I began thinking it would be the perfect subject for my first column, and I got in touch with more than a dozen women who attended the school, ranging in age from 24 to 40. (I reached out over Twitter, which I think explains the smaller age range of my sample.) Eventually, several of the women decided they'd rather not speak with me, but the 10 I did talk to shed light on what it's like to learn your team—and, more importantly, your school—has, at least among its leaders and athletes, fostered a culture that violates and marginalizes the rights of women.LM Otero/AP
I conducted all of these interviews before former Baylor president Ken Starr left his position at the law school on Aug. 19, and all but one occurred before the news broke that offensive lineman Rami Hammad had been allowed to remain on the team after being accused of sexual assault last fall. After the Hammad news, one woman, Jessica Kilgore, followed up with me. A 2003 Baylor grad, Kilgore had been hopeful when I talked to her on Aug. 2, but yet another instance of systemic failure left her appalled and outraged, she said in an email. "I want to believe Baylor is learning from its mistakes," she wrote, adding: "I am appalled at Baylor's Title IX office. I am banging-fists-on-table mad. Young women who are scared of going to police and just want some peace were told to believe that someone was advocating for them. And at this point, I don't believe anyone really did."
Still, Kilgore said, she'll attend games and cheer for her team in the fall. In fact, each woman I talked to said she'll continue to cheer. (Baylor fans bought a record 28,804 season tickets for 2016. After the Pepper Hamilton report was released in May, only about 25 season ticket holders ended up cancelling, Baylor athletics spokesman Nick Joos told The Waco Tribune.) Kilgore, though, says her support of the team comes with a caveat. "I have to believe good people still exist," she wrote. "I have to have optimism, otherwise the weight of these failures would be crushing. So I will cheer in McLane Stadium. But if there is a protest outside of the Title IX office demanding change, I will also be there."
Kilgore's loyalty was a common theme among the women with whom I talked, women who, in large part, seemed baffled by the systemic failure at a school where they say they felt safe. Still, none expressed doubt in the victims' accounts; rather, they believed that the climate on campus had changed since they graduated—or, among younger women, that they were simply unaware such a climate existed in other social spheres.Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportwire
Kelly Louis, a 2002 Baylor graduate, has worked for Child Protective Services in Texas for 14 years. She also has a master's degree in counseling. The mother of two girls, she still hopes her children will attend Baylor and believes the current culture can be remedied. "I want them to walk around campus and feel the same things that I felt," Louis told me of her daughters, "safe and protected and just as valued as someone who's playing a sport there."
In order for that to happen, each of the women agreed, Baylor's graduates and fans can't abandon the school. Simply stopping attending games and letting the football program founder—or hoping for some kind of death-penalty punishment from the NCAA—will do nothing to correct the bigger problem of sexual assault on campuses, both in Waco and elsewhere. "To use the analogy of if a family member gets addicted to drugs; you're not just going to turn your back and say, you screwed up, and so I'm done with you," Caroline Hutcherson, a 2008 Baylor graduate, told me. "You're going to use whatever power you have, however little or large it is, to try to improve their situation and get back to a state where you can be proud of them."
The issues that most concern the women are bigger than Baylor. Louis is mystified by the way football players are glorified, even in high school, and wonders how that contributes to the sense of invincibility inherent in the accused Baylor players' actions. Deanna Senaratne, a 2013 Baylor graduate, admits that many of her friends aren't informed about the situation, and she feels that she needs to use her voice to bring it to light. When she cheers for Baylor, she says, she'll explain to anyone who will listen what went wrong and how big of a problem sexual assault is, not only at Baylor, but also on campuses across the country. Louis says she hopes people will understand that sexual assault cases are often difficult to prosecute, and that victims who were scared to report or gave up on their cases due to external pressures did nothing wrong.
More than anything, the women I spoke to expressed an overwhelming sadness and, to a lesser extent, a feeling of powerlessness. One voice, Hutcherson said, can't do much to change the climate at Baylor or elsewhere. But banding together might, and continuing to show up to football games and alumni events while advocating for change might have a positive effect.
This is their school, and that's how they reacted. Did these 10 women's overwhelming loyalty answer my question? I'm not sure. I still don't know what I'd do in their shoes; I think it's an impossible extrapolation. But on Friday night in Waco, each of the tens of thousands of people in the stands for the Bears' season opener against Northwestern State will have his or her reason for being there. I hope most are like the women I talked to: thoughtful, hopeful, and present not to support a team no matter what, but to help bring a school and a sport back to the standards they expect.