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Baylor, Sexual Assault, and When College Football Becomes Too Big to Fail

Baylor's horrifying sexual assault scandal raises a bigger question, one as old as college football itself: Can schools chase success without losing their souls?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Not long after Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor in 2011, and not long after Art Briles breathed life into a moribund football program by emphasizing a breathless sense of offensive speed, applications to the university spiked considerably. Those two occurrences, of course, were not mutually exclusive, which is why this is as good a place as any to start when you attempt to wrap your head around the insidious sexual assault scandal that has now enveloped both the football program and the university and toppled several of its leaders.


"It's big-time college athletics and people want to take part in that experience," a Baylor spokesperson said about the growing number of applicants at the time. "It's even better when you're successful. When you're a winner, everyone wants to be a part of that success."

That quote feels particularly chilling in the wake of the "Findings of Fact," released on Thursday, that resulted in the firing of Briles, the removal of Baylor president Ken Starr, and the sanctioning of athletic director Ian McCaw. Prepared by a law firm and coming in the wake of dogged reporting by ESPN and Texas Monthly, the report details the extremes school's football program went to in order to ensure that the on-field winning and success would continue, and thereby ensure the university's ability to maintain its public-relations momentum and construct a lavish new football stadium, among other things. The central idea that athletics, and college football in particular, can somehow elevate the status of a university—while also considerably enriching its coffers—is pretty much the reason the sport has grown into such a an unruly behemoth in the first place. It dates back to the 1800s, to a moment when Harvard University president Charles Eliot began to decry the overemphasis of football on Ivy League campuses. Unless the system is radically altered, it will most likely never change.

Read More: The NCAA Should Ban Football at Baylor for at Least a Year


On some level, then, it's no surprise that the people in charge at Baylor chose to act with such blatant impunity. That temptation is always there, and as Briles and his staff won more games and garnered more admiration within the university and the community, I imagine it was that much easier for them to continue to consolidate their power, and to either overlook or sweep under the rug or simply forgive the alleged transgressions of their own players. This, after all, is the way it has long been done in major college football; as ESPN's Ivan Maisel pointed out, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden once "lamented the passing of the era when a phone call with the chief of police would clean up any mess his players might have made."

If there's anything positive to come out of Baylor, it's that maybe, finally, this idea is on life support, at least when comes to violent crimes like rape and sexual assault. Baylor's investigation was trigged, at least in part, by journalist Jessica Luther, who also wrote a book about the epidemic of sexual assaults by football players on college campuses (Luther has also contributed to VICE Sports). If the ultimate result is that crimes like this are no longer tolerated even by the rabid and often reflexively defensive fan bases that have come to define college football, then that certainly feels like a positive step.

Will schools finally stop turning their backs on sexual assault when it threatens their football programs? Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

However, the larger question still lingers, as it does every time something terrible like this happens: Is it possible for schools to chase the benefits college football can provide—the excitement, the school spirit, the enrollment uptick, the alumni giving, the boosted national profile—without corrupting their very souls? Is it still feasible, in this age of massive money and television ratings, for college football to elevate a university rather than eventually bring it down?


I don't know that I have any answers to that question anymore. For years, I thought my alma mater, Penn State, was the exception to the rule, until it proved not to be the exception but the primary example of how any sort of Grand Experiment could ultimately curdle. You as a fan may think your school is not capable of such things, but you have no real idea. Right now, the University of Alabama is in the midst of an academic renaissance triggered at least partly by Nick Saban's dynastic success as a football coach, but after the recent arrest of tackle Cam Robinson and the dismissal of an assistant coach, even that momentum feels as though it can't be sustained forever.

The arc of the Baylor story is slightly different, because of what the school's football program was before Briles' arrival—a Big 12 doormat—and because of what it became, which was one of the most thrilling and influential programs in the sport. What has happened in Waco feels like the worst possible iteration of that central idea; it feels like Baylor sold its soul at the crossroads to achieve college football success.

According to Thursday's report—a frustratingly vague document that fails to name names—Baylor systemically and habitually discouraged women from reporting sexual assault accusations, and even went to far as to retaliate against at least one woman who had the courage to do so anyway. School administrators "engaged in conduct that could be perceived as victim-blaming," with many believing that "sexual violence doesn't happen" at Baylor. Members of the school's football staff repeatedly refused to report assault allegations to those same administrators, even after meeting directly with accusers and their parents; more appallingly, they ran their own system of self-serving ersatz justice, disciplining players in-house and conducting their own investigations into sexual assault reports that "improperly discredited complainants and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation, interim measures or processes promised under University policy."

This, of course, is outrageous. And why? Why do it? Because the school felt like it had to find a way to compete with the other high-profile programs in the state? What was wrong with Baylor as an institution when its football program was terrible? Hell, what would have been wrong with Baylor's program if Briles and Starr and the others involved stuck to building the program with seemingly exemplary players like Robert Griffin, and chosen not to recruit athletes accused of sexual assault elsewhere, nor protect athletes accused of the same at Baylor? Would it have made that much of a competitive difference, really?

Was it worth it? Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, I imagine this was more about power than anything else. This was about the notion that the football program could police itself—that in order to keep building and building and winning and winning, it needed to be free of any real oversight. Baylor football became too big to fail. I guess the best we can hope for at this point is that such an atmosphere will no longer be tolerated, that the central idea every major-college football program clings to will be subject to the kind of ethical scrutiny that it should have been starting back in the 1800s, when this whole thing first began to spiral out of control. Maybe it's better when you're successful. But then again, maybe it's not.