Last week was just another week in the national spotlight for Baylor University. A high-profile ESPN commentator urged parents to not send their daughters to Baylor and said corruption in its athletics department “screams [NCAA] death penalty without question.” A prominent blogger called for the Texas Rangers to storm the university. Oh, and the Big 12 Conference put Baylor on notice by withholding millions of dollars in revenue.
For a year and a half, the Trib has focused almost daily on sober, source-based coverage of the ongoing scandal at Baylor involving a scourge of sexual-assault cases, some involving football players, and allegations of institutional indifference facing at least some of the victims. Almost daily, evidence of sharply diverging views on this controversy in the Baylor family and growing disdain by outside observers is served up, often in scorching fashion.
Forces behind this seismic upheaval: the lawsuits by student victims who reportedly feel a Christian university abandoned them while holding its football program’s stellar success above their welfare. Then there are the lawsuits from fired BU athletic officials who reportedly feel wronged by the regents’ decision to cast them adrift following the Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton law firm’s nine-month investigation into how sexual assaults were handled or mishandled on campus.
Generating much of this turmoil: Frustration at last May’s toppling of popular figures such as Baylor President Ken Starr, winning head football coach Art Briles and athletics director Ian McCaw, even as Baylor regents refused to offer stunned alumni, faculty and surrounding community sufficiently satisfying explanations. A growing chorus of critics has filled the silence.
While we in the news media haven’t made any of this easy — we’re not really supposed to make it easy — some members of our profession have taken extreme liberties in their coverage, relying on anonymous sources to indict others by name or aggravating matters when facts didn’t always justify it.
Worst of all: the long shadows that fell on student victims as a new football season ensued in a burst of optimism last fall.
If the phone calls and letters I field are any indication, many people view this saga many ways, often to the point of outrage. The other day a reader angrily complained by phone that not only had the Trib failed to cover the BU scandal aggressively, we also were wrong-headed to term it a scandal: “It’s a travesty!”
Contrast this view with that of another reader who complained that our coverage was incessant, redundant and that we needed to give our investigation a rest for everyone’s sake, including our commercial success. She noted that without the Baylor Bears and Magnolia Market “Waco would be merely a rest stop between Dallas and Austin.”
And a third reader asked us to cease our “rampaging” coverage in deference to beleaguered Baylor officials and students possibly accused wrongly of crimes against other students: “Those administrators are not these children’s parents when they’re off campus!”
Baylor regents haven’t helped matters in long refusing to elaborate on the turmoil beyond their bracing, bare-bones “Findings of Fact” released on May 26 along with Pepper Hamilton’s 105 recommendations for campus reform. Their reason for refusing to divulge more amid the handful of firings and reassignments: Details might compromise the privacy of student victims.
The unofficial reason given to us in whispers: What Pepper Hamilton unearthed was so damning that releasing it all might destroy Baylor’s prospects to heal, improve and strive.
Nine months later, we can stamp that strategy short-sighted. Since last spring we’ve witnessed a steady drip-drip-drip of acidic allegations, each more shocking than the last. The most recent, in a Jan. 27 suit filed by an alleged rape victim, claims knowledge of 52 rapes by 31 football players over a four-year period. And alumni, donors and fired athletic officials blame regents for skirting responsibility on such matters as full implementation of Title IX enforcement to adequately address assault victims and prevent more violence.
Yet regents have now clearly changed strategies, guided by a savvy public relations firm that possibly understands the benefits of transparency, however selective. In a Feb. 2 legal response to a defamation suit filed by former assistant athletics director Colin Shillinglaw, three key regents — J. Cary Gray, David Harper and chairman Ron Murff — cite text messages by athletic staffers including Briles expressing satisfaction they had avoided allegations of misconduct being forwarded to Baylor administrative higher-ups and frustration at the various decisions of assault victims.
By anyone’s estimation, it’s pretty toxic stuff for Briles, McCaw and their crew at the time. Notably, however, such details allowed by regents in the filing in no way compromise the privacy of student victims.
Should Shillinglaw’s lawsuit proceed, he may well offer context that puts a different spin on such evidence. But his suit has flushed out the regents. It has compelled them to be more transparent about this scandal and their actions than we’ve seen since May — even with the board chairman’s guarded Q&A in the Trib in July and a burst of seeming board honesty in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 28 in which regents acknowledged 17 women had reported sexual or domestic assaults involving 19 football players, including four gang rapes, since 2011.
“In declining to engage with the Baylor community and the media following the announcements in May 2016, the board unwittingly seeded an outcry among Baylor’s constituencies, including some of Baylor’s most ardent supporters,” the regents now acknowledge in their filing. “Some, including Briles loyalists, have used the silence as an opportunity to question the quality and objectivity of Pepper Hamilton’s investigation. Supporters of the Briles regime began propagating an inaccurate and self-serving picture of what had occurred.”
The three regents even vent over the Briles-or-bust movement that prompted some fans to show up for the critical Nov. 5 game against arch-rival Texas Christian University at McLane Stadium wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “#CAB,” advocating Briles’ return. As players and interim coach Jim Grobe focused on the field, a distracting banner unfurled from a stadium luxury suite read: “CAB.”
“When a college football coach goes 6-7, 5-7 and 5-7 for three consecutive years, no one blinks an eye when the coach is fired,” the regents stated in their defense filing. “But when at least 17 women reported sexual and physical assaults involving at least 19 football players, including allegations of four gang rapes, why is anyone shocked by his dismissal? Contrary to some people’s belief, Briles was not a ‘scapegoat’ for the university’s larger problems — he was part of a larger problem. So was Shillinglaw.
“Coach Briles admitted that he was operating an internal disciplinary system outside Baylor’s policies that left their team unaccountable under university procedures,” regents charge. “Shillinglaw aided Briles in doing this. Baylor had no choice but to change leadership — including parting ways with its prized football coach.”
Regents shouldn’t be given too much credit for their sudden and selective transparency, considering that this filing came only under the pressure of a lawsuit. One wonders if the board’s earlier failed strategy has already set a destructive momentum that even the G.F. Bunting + Co. public relations firm can’t reverse. Consider the latest:
• Big 12 directors voted to withhold 25 percent of future revenue distribution owed Baylor till an independent party can verify whether reforms have been fully implemented at Baylor. Interim BU President David Garland announced Baylor officials “pledge our full cooperation and we will work with the Big 12 Conference to conduct the audit as expeditiously as possible.”
• Former BU athletics director Ian McCaw, through his new employer, Liberty University, defended himself of regents’ Feb. 2 filing by in turn blaming Baylor for failing to properly implement Title IX protocols before November 2014. Kicker: Liberty paraded forth emails from BU regents touting McCaw to Liberty as a “trustworthy man who will do the right thing.”
• Most damning, 14 former BU regents last week released a letter questioning governance by current regents for past and present failures, including the possibility regents and Pepper Hamilton erred in limiting the scope of the latter’s report. They raise speculation “the investigation was not thorough, or complete, and perhaps was unfair.”
All things considered, regent leadership has nothing to lose by showing up at the Baylor Line Foundation’s Wednesday town-hall meeting at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame to explain matters with conviction, resolution and guts, even if it means debating attorney and Baylor donor John Eddie Williams, president of Bears for Leadership Reform and the man for whom the football field at McLane Stadium is named.
Sadly, there’s no indication any regents are ready to show that sort of leadership — the sort that relies on an ability to make a compelling and articulate case for one’s actions, the sort that highlights confidence in decisions made and steps taken. It’s one thing to make one’s case in a legal filing, another to step before fellow alumni to set matters straight.
The tragedy in all this goes beyond student victims. The establishment of the Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center (through a helpful $2.5 million gift from Bob and Laura Beauchamp of Houston) to help students fight addictions; faculty members performing in a band to raise money for refugee relief; and Saturday’s “law school” at Baylor Law School, allowing everyday folks to get free information about making the law work for them — in short, all of the good that continues to go on regularly at Baylor University is too often obscured by scandal, conflict and, yes, the increasingly inexcusable impotence of Baylor leadership.