Baylor learns the hard way about failures to deal with sexual assault on campus

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)Baylor Bears senior Jay Lee (left) dunks Baylor Bears head coach Art Briles with Gatorade following the Russell Athletic Bowl college football game at Florida Citrus Bowl. Baylor won 49-38. Briles was fired for the program's handling of allegations of sexual assault on the part of its players.

WACO, Texas (Christian Examiner) – Baylor University has demoted President Kenneth Starr to the position of chancellor and fired head football coach Art Briles in the wake of a scandal over the school's mishandling of accusations that several football players committed sexual assaults against female students at the university.

Starr was given the new title, mostly honorary, and will remain a professor at the university's law school. Briles, however, was shown the door over systemic ethical failures in the football program's governance.

Accusations that the school had failed to act to address problems with at least four players over a two year period gained traction last year when Sam Ukwuachu, a former football player at Baylor, was sentenced to six months in prison for sexual assaulting a female athlete. He was also said to be responsible for another sexual assault at Boise State University, where he had played before coming to Baylor.

Ukwuachu's case, however, was not the first. Tevin Elliot, another player, was convicted of assaulting a freshman student and was accused of assaulting two others before that incident. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Since then, at least two more accounts of sexual assault by different players have also surfaced.

In February, Starr released a letter to Baylor students and alumni reaffirming Baylor's commitment to student safety and pledging to "eliminate the scourge of sexual violence."

"Our hearts break for those whose lives are impacted by execrable acts of sexual violence. No one should have to endure the trauma of these terrible acts of wrongdoing. We must never lose sight of the long-term, deeply personal effects such contemptible conduct has on the lives of survivors. Let me be clear: Sexual violence emphatically has no place whatsoever at Baylor University," Starr wrote.

Starr also wrote that Baylor's Board of Regents had initiated an investigation into the school's sexual assault policies and procedures last year, aided by the law firm Pepper Hamilton. He also addressed the criticism of many who say Baylor should have been more forthcoming about the sexual assault allegations at the school.

Starr said the school could not address specific cases because of federal privacy laws.

"These federal measures prevent universities, including Baylor, from speaking publicly about particular incidents. Reports of sexual violence necessarily involve intensely personal and deeply private matters. Even when students choose to come forward to share details publicly about their experiences, the U.S. Department of Education has been clear that that action does not constitute a waiver of FERPA student-privacy laws. The fact that information is a matter of general public interest, as it manifestly is, does not provide an educational institution with permission to release that information. While Baylor can speak generally to policies, procedures and practices, we cannot speak to individual cases and remain within the confines of governing law," Starr wrote.

In the wake of Briles's departure, Baylor has begun to lose football players who declared commitments to the school. Four of the six players who announced they would play for Baylor in 2017 have either put their commitments on hold or contacted other schools to explore playing there.

Briles has not spoken about his firing, but his daughter Staley Lebby – married to another Baylor coach – said in a letter on her Facebook page that the firing was unfair and the result of the media's desire for a fall guy.

"There is always so much more to a story than being told. This media witch hunt has been the most disturbing thing I've ever witnessed," Lebby wrote. "This situation has been blown so out of proportion. Sadly, Baylor was influenced heavily by the media and felt pressured to let him [her father] go. I guess a man that has resurrected your program and made you a top 10 program wasn't worth fighting for or defending."

Lebby said Briles was "a man of incredible character and faith." Briles was two years into a 10-year contract extension. He was reportedly being paid nearly $6 million a year.

FINDINGS

After the investigation by Pepper Hamilton, Baylor announced the law firm's findings. Baylor's processes, the firm said, were "wholly inadequate" in addressing claims of sexual assault, protecting female athletes and university students and creating a safe environment.

Some students, the findings said, were discouraged from pursuing claims against other students (student athletes) and, in one case, there was retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.

Three of the points in the final report directly addressed the football program. Among those were that the football program failed to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual assaults by one football player, that a culture of accountability was absent in the football program, and that the program and Athletics Department Director Ian McCaw failed to take action in response to reports of sexual abuse.

Ron Murff, chair-elect of the school's board of regents, issued an apology to students and alumni of the university. He said the school was "sorry for the harm that survivors have endured."

"Baylor's mission to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community remains our primary imperative. The Board has taken decisive action to ensure the University's priorities are aligned with our unyielding commitment to that mission," Murff said.

HOPE V. HYPOCRISY

Response to the Baylor crisis among the media most closely aligned with Baylor – the voices of the Baptist General Convention of Texas – are calling for the release of the full report completed by Pepper Hamilton, with the names of the victims of sexual assault redacted.

"The only way to save Baylor's reputation is for the regents and administration to own up to the university's shortcomings, implement a plan to correct them, and establish a campus culture that values the divine image and sanctity of every individual so highly rape and sexual assault become unthinkable," Marv Knox, editor of the Baptist Standard, wrote.

Knox also called for an in depth review of Starr's and Briles's actions. Both should be removed if they failed to act appropriately, he wrote, but they shouldn't be "scapegoats" if their discipline is unwarranted.

"These are sad days on the banks of the Brazos. Even before the gleam on that shiny new football stadium has dimmed, scandal has plagued the football program. Sexual assaults elsewhere also have raised disturbing questions—about campus culture, student safety and Baylor's honor," Knox wrote. "Baylor must attain the standards Texas Baptists who love it expect of it. An All-American is not worth a rape, neither is a national championship, a conference victory or even a single game."

"Baylor—and its ideals—are far bigger than football," he wrote.

David Hardage, executive director of the BGCT and a self-professed "Baylor guy," wrote that the university and its leaders and students are in need of prayer. His call for prayer, he said, was not an effort to encourage the university to change its actions with respect to Starr or Briles, but a "humble and simple call to prayer."

"In the midst of all the stone-throwing, I believe the better approach is to cast my burdens on the Lord," Hardage wrote.

One writer, however, seemed to revel in the hypocrisy of the situation. Amy Butler, a Baylor alumna and senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, wrote at Baptist News Global that Ken Starr was the special prosecutor who investigated President Clinton and broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal (Starr did not "break the scandal" and was appointed special prosecutor after the events investigated took place).

"Just look at the hypocrisy: the special prosecutor who investigated a sitting U.S. president for lying about sex, now implicated in covering up a culture of rape and assault at the university where he is president," Butler opined.

Butler then wrote that hypocrisy was not the main story. Sexual assault was, in her opinion. She wrote that surveys indicate nearly 20 percent of women attending college are sexually assaulted while in collge.

"Schools have a responsibility to address this crisis on every area of their campus, not just the playing field. But when it comes to athletics, a school and its leaders are directly incriminated when it fails to investigate (or puts on a sham investigation) in order to protect programs that bring in massive revenue," she wrote.

MOST RECENT INCIDENT

That Baylor has been slow in responding to claims of sexual assault isn't universally true. In March 2016, the university suspended the Phi Delta Theta fraternity chapter immediately after its president was charged with sexual assault. The school also pointed to underage drinking by members of the fraternity.

Jacob Walter Anderson, 20, was charged with sexual assault after he forced himself on a girl he allegedly drugged at a fraternity party. The woman awoke on the ground outside of the fraternity house and was taken to the hospital. Police were called after she was examined. 

In the statement from the university after the fraternity incident claimed "addressing and preventing sexual violence" on the campus is a top priority.