Welcome to Fact or Fanatic, where today we continue our in-depth look into college athletics and how universities and the NCAA handle the growing problem of corruption, bad behavior, and sexual abuse. This problem is so widespread and so malleable that everything’s gone to pot since we published the first installment.
For example, in our previous column we extolled the Army-Navy game and how it represents everything good about college football.
Sorry about that.
As the Wake Forest spy ring story increases in scale, it appears that Army – along with Virginia Tech and Louisville – received Wake’s offensive game plans in the week prior to those games. So, our bad. We got sucked into the annual pageantry of the Army cadets versus the Navy midshipmen, and completely failed to discern that while the players were everything good about the game, the coaches were not.
In fact today the NCAA decided to fine both Louisville and Virginia Tech $25,000. Wow. Those amounts are so huge for programs that make hundreds of millions of dollars annually, we’re sure no one else will ever stop and say no when a disgruntled play-by-play announcer offers a coach his opponents’ game plan. Cheating, at least, hasn’t evolved as quickly as some other faults. It’s not that different from a situation involving Tennessee and Florida, a Kinkos, Ron Zook, and Steve Spurrier two decades ago.
In addition, the past few days have been uber-busy in Minnesota. Ten players were suspended for the bowl game due to a sexual assault investigation. The case, which allegedly implicates six players as participants in the assault, wasn’t prosecuted due to a lack of evidence. All six players were suspended, but so were four more. That on its own is bad enough, but what happened next is worse: The remainder of the Gophers’ football team announced they would “boycott” the bowl game and “stand in solidarity” with their teammates.
Wait – what?
The Minnesota football team announced they would boycott all practices for the bowl game and even the Holiday Bowl itself. For a couple of days it looked like the bowl was in jeopardy, until Saturday when the Gophers finally capitulated. The night before, the players were made aware of the details in the 80-page Equal Opportunity And Affirmative Action report that laid out why the 10 players had been suspended. That report, allegedly, was the catalyst for the players and the university reaching a compromise that would send the remainder of the Gophers to the bowl game.
The players also released a statement in which they acknowledged that sexual assault was unacceptable and that all women should be treated with respect, but – you know. Might have been nice if they’d thought that first BEFORE they decided to take a stand beside their teammates who blatantly didn’t share that point of view.
Both these new disasters play right into what we’re going to break down in this second installment of our series on NCAA athletes, criminal behavior, and who’s to blame. Our guests Laura Leigh Majernik and Kevin Lindstrom will be adding their expertise to our inquiry, and we are hoping to dig even further in our attempts to disinter the real roots of this ongoing disaster.
We last discussed the tragically flawed situation at Baylor, the entitlement displayed by Stanford University rapist Brock Turner, and the impact both situations have had upon college athletics, fans, schools, and media. This time, and with the addition of these two latest scandals, we’re going to expand our focus a bit and concentrate on one aspect that is a constant in all these cases:
The Buck Stops Here
President Harry Truman’s mantra is as applicable today as it was when he okayed the nukes that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to end World War Two. In college athletics, there’s a definite hierarchy of power and the coaches are the first power position in the chain. The coaches know their athletes intimately. They see and interact with them on a daily basis, season and off-season. They establish the code of conduct they expect their athletes to hold to, and if that code is violated they determine the first disciplinary actions.
But in the world of big-money college sports, coaches are kept busy doing all sorts of things in addition to the coaching they must do week to week: practice, scrimmage, meetings, and so forth. Many big-name school coaches have weekly television and radio shows on the local stations, and appear on sports-related media from ESPN to the college newspaper.
They are pseudo-celebrities in the towns that host their schools, and must make an appearance at every important school event. Have to keep both the media and the boosters happy, after all. Even during the height of the season, they are recruiting – setting up trips for recruits and their families to come to the campus, take in a game, hang with the current team in the facilities, and so forth.
And let’s not forget the community service these coaches are expected to do. They invite children with disabilities or challenges to their practices, or meet groups of them on the sidelines before a game. Recently, for example, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and several of his best-known players went to Chattanooga to meet the kids who’d survived a tragic bus crash the day before. Urban Meyer at Ohio State has paired with the Ohio Treasurer to create a system where the disabled can save money against future expenses. Every school has a story of its coach affecting positive change in its community, and that’s something we cannot overlook.
The positive impact these coaches have upon their communities is indisputable.
But beneath all those shiny PR moments lies big-time coaching’s soft, dank underbelly. Coaches affect more than you might think, and if a coach goes off the rails the program is not far behind.
The Petrino Effect
We write fantasy, so we love epic stories of disaster, love gone awry, and betrayal. Thank all the gods we have Bobby Petrino to keep us amused, because he’s a fantasy epic George RR Martin would revel in. Petrino’s history is one of the most checkered in college football history, between job-hopping, recruiting weirdness, and bimbo biking. But no one could have seen adding cheating to that list. The fact that no one could have seen it means that someone should have suspected it, because Petrino is that kind of coach.
Yes, we know Cardinal fans. Louisville hired Petrino the first time, and he got the school to the Orange Bowl and thinking big before he jumped ship to coach Atlanta (where he managed to last only 13 games before bailing out and returning to the college game at Arkansas). After a motorcycle accident shamed Petrino out of the SEC, he managed to last one season at Western Kentucky before getting re-hired by Louisville.
Here he is once more, ready to launch his Cardinals against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and what happens? His staff (yeah, right) accepted information from a disgruntled former Wake Forest assistant-turned-play-by-play-announcer without his knowledge (like we’re going to believe that) and got poor old Bobby stuck in a brand new mess.
Bobby Petrino is the poster boy for why neither the fans nor the media can wholly trust a college coach anymore. In the days of yore, no one would have dreamed of questioning iconic coaches like General Robert Neyland, Bear Bryant, or Bobby Bowden. But the birth of the 24-hour news cycle and the instant reporting capability of online new sites has made it correspondingly more difficult for coaches to have that nod-nod wink-wink relationship with the press that some of those old-school coaches claimed as a benefit to their offices. We no longer trust our coaches and we have no reason to.
Fans monitor flight traffic sites to see who their coaches are going to see – or conversely, which coaches are coming to be seen. Every minute of a coach’s press conference is covered on live stream, which gives the media the chance to color or taint the coach’s message at will – while the coach is still talking. And for a coach like Petrino, everyone becomes a journalist ready to break a new scoop.
This kind of sports media free-for-all is prevalent throughout college football, except for one place.
Waco is a small city, with fewer than 130,000 residents and a pleasant blend of small-town virtues and big-city amenities. Trip Advisor’s list of things to do there includes several museums, the Cameron Park Zoo, and the Texas Rangers’ Hall of Fame. At #9 on that list is a place that may sound familiar: McLane Stadium, home to the Baylor Bears, almost literally the “house that Art Briles built” at an astonishing cost of $266 million. The stadium is a fitting home for one of the nation’s elite programs, and an equally fitting monument to one man’s ego and power in this otherwise friendly and deep-rooted city.
For some reason, that 24-7 monitoring wasn’t going on in Waco. While Baylor football players were committing crimes and perpetrating sexual assaults, not one member of the local media reported on what was obviously a systemic problem at the university. And although alleged assault occurred as far back as 2011, it wasn’t until August of 2015 that Texas Monthly broke the story with “Silence at Baylor.”
A must-read article, by the way.
Not until that article was it confirmed to everyone who was whispering uncomfortably about the Baylor scandal (and in specific the Sam Ukwuachu case) and to the world at large that yes, the coaching staff at Baylor knew exactly what was going on, and didn’t give two shakes of a dog’s tail that they were bringing a sexual predator onto their campus. After all, why should they? The curtain of secrecy was drawn so tightly around the Baylor campus that everyone from the local media to the boosters to the alumni to law enforcement seemed to be in on it.
Let us be frank. Regardless of the full-page ads, the banners of support hanging from luxury suites at McLane, and the fervent protestations of anyone even peripherally involved with Baylor football, the chances of any coach, athletic department employee, or administration employee being unaware of the ongoing problem are slim to non-existent. The legwork required to hide such criminal acts is prodigious, which makes the Baylor Campus Police and the Waco Police Department also suspiciously negligent. In fact, PBS reports that a 60 Minutes report claimed an alleged “history of Baylor campus police and Waco authorities burying reports of sexual violence.”
Former Title IX Coordinator Patty Crawford sent a request to the Waco Police Department, asking for the records of any reported sexual assaults on Baylor students. She received an email from the Baylor Vice-President of Campus Safety that the WPD “do not want the actual police reports turned over to Title IX” – another example of university obstructionism that led to her very public resignation in October.
That VP is Reagan Ramsower and here’s what he said to CBS Sports about Crawford’s claims:
Ramsower said the Baylor campus police department he oversees had a history of burying sexual assault complaints that came to them.
Keteyian asked Ramsower about the investigation into the incident report. “Nothing ever happened for well over a year. What happened there? Was there an investigation? And if not, why not? You have a police report – ”
“There was a police report; I suppose it stayed with the police department,” Ramsower said. “It never came out of the police department. That was a significant failure to respond by our police department, there’s no doubt about it.”
Doesn’t it make you wonder?
Doesn’t it make you think about how the university was able to keep all this under wraps? And if Art Briles had avoided just one mistake – offering Sam Ukwuachu a position at Baylor after he was off Boise State’s team for being abusive to his girlfriend – he might still be sitting in his office today, the gloried head coach of an elite program, and no one besides the victims, the perpetrators, and the officials involved in the cover-up would have any idea that the Baylor athletic department was manufacturing not ways to win on the field, but ways to encourage players in their entitled behavior, and teaching them that with enough money and power anything can be made to no longer exist.
Baylor wasn’t producing future pro football players. Baylor was producing serial rapists and batterers. And the coaching staff and administration were in it up to their eyebrows, especially Briles.
As Laura Leigh Majernik points out, “The alleged crimes happened under his watch. For him to build the success of the Baylor football program to the level he did, he had to have a close watch over all the activities of the program. Consequently, he has culpability for the alleged crimes. He allowed this behavior to continue. He accepted transfers who were known to have abusive pasts.”
Her opinion gels with what Brenda Tracy, sexual assault victim of the 1998 Washington State gang rape case and advocate for tougher sexual assault penalties, observed during her visit to Baylor to talk to the football team about the victims of sexual violence. It wasn’t until after her talk with the athletes that a Baylor assistant coach pulled her aside and once again exposed that curdling, rotten underbelly of Baylor’s real agenda.
“He said this wasn’t a football issue. This was an issue on the rest of the campus. And he just went on and on that [former head coach] Art Briles did absolutely nothing and this was all unfounded and nothing happened and they were being treated unfairly and there was some conspiracy going on against Baylor football.”
This “conspiracy” was evidently huge. Ousted Baylor President Ken Starr claimed in August that Art Briles was the real victim of the Baylor rape scandal.
“A grave injustice was done to Art Briles,” Starr said of the coach’s firing, going on to say that he takes issue with media descriptions of Briles’ behavior. “Coach Briles has been calumnied…it’s completely unfair.”
Briles himself seems to agree, if you take his “apology interview” with ESPN as anything other than a blatant ploy to render him a legitimate candidate for a big-time coaching hire. An interview, we might add, where he never uttered the words “rape” or “sexual assault.” His lawsuit against Baylor last week asserts that the university and Baylor officials entered into a conspiracy to libel him and make him into the scapegoat of the ongoing scandal. The suit also contends:
that purported lies about him reflect a media strategy hatched by “spin doctors” at the public relations firm G.F. Bunting & Co. This company, which Briles not so gently directs the Texas court to observe is from out-of-state California, has “embarked upon a campaign of malice” against Briles, a native Texan. This “campaign,” Briles insists, “includes re-creation and invention of facts to manipulate public opinion and to cover the past and ongoing wrongdoing, mistakes and failures of the Baylor University Board of Regents.”
Briles also asserts that his inability to secure a new coaching job reflects a conspiracy by the defendants to dissuade other schools from hiring him.
Texas attorney Kevin Lindstrom offered his perspective on Briles when we asked about the coach’s potential culpability. “Unless the published information from the Pepper Hamilton Report is significantly inaccurate, he certainly contributed to the environment that led to the problem being systemic. If nothing else, it appears that his protection of the football program impeded investigations, and he certainly was not proactive about disciplining his players or coaches.”
We also asked if the response of the university, alumni, boosters, and fans was detrimental to both Briles’s case individually and the school’s. “To the second part, absolutely. We have seen it in multiple situations where cover-up and denial are making the efforts for justice more difficult, whether it be Penn State or Watergate. The aggressive nature of their denial of any wrongdoing by Briles, when compared to the suffering of the victims, is astounding to see.”
Coaching Pedestals with Feet of Clay
The local media in any big college town has dual allegiances. First off, if they want to survive in the post-print digital age, they must be able to attract the most views from their fan base. If you don’t think that absolutely impacts media coverage of college sports, then we’d courteously recommend a gut check – one thoughtfully provided by the International Business Times in its article “Sports Journalism in the Digital Age”:
With this explosion of information, however, come profound questions for the sports media industry and those who rely on it for news and entertainment. Technology has massively disrupted online sports journalism, bringing fans an unprecedented range and volume of content choices while simultaneously altering legacy business models in sports media. At the very least, sports journalists will continue to face powerful new competitors with unbeatable access. And one way or another, their old prerogatives will be challenged.
The Baylor case is one such episode, when old school journalism directly confronted new age media. During the five years of the alleged cover-up, local media never once undertook the investigative journalism that would have easily revealed what was going on. In fact, as late as this summer, Waco local television station KWTX-10 was still releasing articles with a decidedly pro-Briles and pro-Baylor slant. Apparently, “anonymous sources” report that:
Pepper Hamilton, the independent law firm the university hired to investigate the sexual assault scandal that engulfed the school’s football program, fumbled, according to university insiders and secret recordings of meetings with athletic staffers obtained by KWTX, which suggest that the firm’s investigators came to Waco with an agenda to purge members of the football program and had a racial undertone in their line of questioning.
Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently there are racial overtones present when a woman says “No.”
But here is where the flaws of the journalistic model are grossly apparent. In an age of mega-monster journalism like ESPN or Fox Sports, so many stories are reliant upon first being reported by local media. If the local media is on board with the university and the football coach, then those stories that can cause a winning program to implode are not filed. It’s not until an external media source, like Texas Monthly, breaks the story that the national outlets get involved. And when that outlet is ESPN and Outside the Lines, the story isn’t just broken, it’s nuked.
Waco media isn’t alone in this type of turn-the-other-cheek behavior toward a big-name coach for a national football powerhouse. That’s the way it’s always been in college football, unless a coach’s transgressions are so huge that they can’t be hidden. Think of Ohio State coach Woody Hayes’s little faux-pas in the 1978 Gator Bowl, when he punched a Clemson player.
Those mistakes you can’t hide from anyone.
But in 1978, it took a coach hitting a player on national television for the public outcry to be loud enough for a legendary coach to get fired. Not until 1987 did the sports world learn what it would take for an entire program to get nuked by the NCAA, when Southern Methodist University received the “death penalty” for paying its players. The story was broken by the local ABC affiliate in Dallas, WFAA, and investigative journalist John Sparks. The ongoing activity at SMU was an open secret in Dallas, especially as it involved big-name players like Eric Dickerson and a cadre of wild and woolly boosters working in conjunction with the coaching staff of the Mustangs. As Sparks himself said in 2011:
The story culminated more than two years of work. SMU’s president, athletic director, head football coach and recruiting coordinator abruptly resigned, and by the time the dust had settled, the NCAA handed down the death penalty that led to the cancellation of SMU’s 1987 and 1988 seasons, the university changed its form of governance, boosters were banned for life, the Methodist Bishops investigated and the trail led to Texas Governor Bill Clements – who admitted he had known about the payments and had ordered that they continue even while SMU had been on probation.
So the behavior of Baylor alumni, boosters, and fans along with that of university administration, officials, and coaches perhaps isn’t that shocking. Perhaps that’s just the way it is in Texas, or the South, or college football in general. Perhaps the golden rule of CFB coaching is “don’t get caught” – advice Petrino obviously is incapable of following. Or “don’t fib about emails,” like BCS-championship winning coach Jim Tressel did at Ohio State. Or maybe even “best not take that recruit to your house for breakfast,” like Ole Miss’s embattled head coach Hugh Freeze did. But a lot has changed in our society since SMU got the first, last, and only death penalty administered by the NCAA to date. As Sparks remarked:
After it became clear that the death penalty decimated SMU’s football program, the conventional wisdom was that the NCAA would never again hand down such harsh punishment. So an atmosphere where no one was going to let the death penalty happen again provided the perfect haven for “anything goes.” No one was going to do anything about it. What better environment for those who would cross over the line to operate in?
Indeed. And now once again, the college football world is looking at a private, church-affiliated university in Texas and wondering if obstruction of justice for elite athletes who commit crimes merits the same punishment that another private, church-affiliated Texas school received 30 years ago for their blatant payment arrangement with its players.
But there’s an element to the Baylor case that sets it apart from the SMU case. While coaches were involved in the Pony Excess scheme, the impetus and financing came from boosters, and the case was broken by local media looking into the story for over two years.
At Baylor, the impetus for the alleged cover-ups originated within the university itself, aided and abetted by local law enforcement and ignored by the local media for five years.
“Let me first state my personal bias as a woman from Dallas who was in junior high when SMU was given the death penalty,” Majernik begins. “That said, let me also state that the accrediting agency claims Baylor failed to provide ‘appropriate fiscal and administrative control’ over their athletic programs. Conclusion: YES, in my opinion, Baylor should receive the death penalty from the NCAA. SMU’s transgressions were nothing by comparison. The unfortunate part of such action is, of course, the players who did not commit any crimes but have to pay the penalty.”
Counters Lindstrom, “They have fired the enablers in the big leadership positions, which was not insignificant. We saw the president, athletic director and head football coach of a major college program resign or be terminated. How often has that happened? So to the extent that they recognized there was a significant issue and that current leadership not only wasn’t going to solve the problem, they were clearly contributing to it, they made very legitimate efforts.”
As an aside, we know two other places where the termination of the president, athletic director, and head football coach took place. One was SMU in the 1980s, and the other was Penn State just a few years ago when university president Graham Spanier, AD Tim Curley, and HC Joe Paterno all resigned or were fired. So it’s happened at least twice before. That being said, look at the gravity of both cases – and the Penn State case is one we’ll examine in depth in our next installment of this series – and that should reveal the scale of the Baylor situation comparatively.
Lindstrom continued: “On the other hand, clearly they have not been as aggressive about their Title IX program as they should have been, and they made a very selfish decision to keep the remaining coaching staff on board in order to not lose their players. While they are paying the price for that in some ways now, I sincerely hope that there were no other assaults or issues that any of those coaches could have impacted negatively, both for the victims’ sake and for Baylor’s.”
It didn’t quite work out that way, unfortunately. And Baylor’s lack of punishment for the assistant coaching staff under Briles’s regime has resulted in more embarrassment for the university in the wake of Baylor’s claim that Briles and other athletic department officials knew of a 2011 gang rape but didn’t report it.
Earlier in November, Briles’s son Kendal, the Bears’ offensive coordinator, and other members of the team’s staff issued a statement in which they claimed that the student-athlete’s coach had reported her rape to Judicial Affairs. They quoted that coach as saying that Art Briles had “handled the matter honorably.”
The Baylor “Culture”
Wow. The arrogance and insensitivity involved in Briles’s former staff releasing such a statement when confronted their current employer’s report is mind-boggling. If there were, for some reason, any lingering doubts that Art Briles’s influence permeated the entire investigative process during these events, or that it still hovers over like Waco like a miasma of doom, go ahead and set them aside.
There’s been a lot of talk about “culture” when it comes to the burgeoning disaster of sexual assault cases on American college campuses. In particular, culture is a hot-button word being utilized in cases allegedly involving student-athletes. But culture is a nebulous word, here used as a kinder way of saying cesspool or pigsty – a euphemism for what people are hesitant to come out and say.
At Baylor, however, the euphemism “culture” is very specific. Baylor University was so invested in winning football games, in having top-tier facilities, in playing the big-money game of recruiting top tier athletes, in gaining the prime time television slots, in having Heisman trophy winners, in beating arch-nemeses like TCU or Oklahoma, in straddling the top of the CFB world, that the university created a culture where it was all right for their players to assault “just a few” women sexually, where it was all right to threaten a victim with disciplinary action if she didn’t play ball, where it was all right to make a quiet phone call to the Waco PD about those inconvenient little matters, where it was all right to obstruct justice in order to get those wins, get those top draft picks, and hoist those trophies.
In case you had ever wondered what the “culture” part actually means, there you have it. And no, we don’t have to backtrack and tuck an “alleged” in there before the word assault, because Baylor players have been convicted of those crimes already. The culture isn’t created by the music played at games, or the uniforms, or the nightclubs that let athletes in for free, or the palatial facilities big-time programs have for their players. The culture is created by the head coach and the assistants, the athletic department the coaches answer to, and the administration that oversees the athletic department.
At Baylor, the culture was solidified when in June of 2014, Art Briles defiantly accepted Sam Ukuawachu as a player on his football team in the full knowledge that the athlete had been dismissed from Boise State because of domestic violence – and then that player sexually assaults a Baylor student just four months later. That one move by Art Briles sealed his “culture” and his legacy, and the resulting disaster has unfolded as a result.
Because what did that one action express?
Come to Baylor, where we don’t care about your past and will help you evade future punishment by enabling and protecting you in the present.
“The safety of all students on a campus should be a primary concern for a university. No one should be above the law or given ‘special treatment’ for being a star athlete if they break a law. I do not think universities are providing safe environments, and support for victims, overall.”
Majernik’s point is a good one, and one that plays right into how we want to close this article. Because it has become patently obvious that at Baylor, the safety of all its students was never the priority. The safety of those who played on Saturdays in McLane Stadium – that was the priority and the focus of the “culture” at Baylor University, and everyone bought into it.
Except, perhaps, for the 17 women who are claiming to have been sexually assaulted by 19 football players. But certainly, Art Briles and his staff and the university they represented handled the matters honorably. Or as Shakespeare brilliantly put it in Marc Antony’s funeral oration in Julius Caesar:
The noble BrutusHath told you Caesar was ambitious:If it were so, it was a grievous fault,And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–For Brutus is an honourable man;So are they all, all honourable men–
Unfortunately, there’s one more piece to this puzzle we have to investigate, one more element to factor into this issue, and that’s the role of the NCAA. Can we all at least agree on one thing? Regardless of the ominous silence resonating from the NCAA offices, the governing body of collegiate athletics must play a role in what happens next.
And to do that, there has to be a meeting of the minds between two diametrically opposed ideologies: big money sports, and Title IX.