For as long as I can remember, Baylor has been fiercely protective of its reputation, both as a university and an athletics program.
It’s often understandable. When Baylor makes a mistake of any kind, many in the media are quick to rip a page from the lazy columnist’s playbook and use the school’s Christian heritage as a weapon. Their argument being, “Look at hypocritical Baylor! Shouldn’t a Christian school be above such problems?”
News flash: Christians (and their universities) make mistakes, too. The only difference between sinners and saints is the redemptive grace of God.
In those instances when it finds itself in the crosshairs of criticism, Baylor has a tendency to hunker down behind its private school wall. Officials stay quiet as much as possible, waiting for the storm to pass.
Yet now, more than ever, it’s time for Baylor to engage in an open, honest dialogue. It’s time to speak up about sexual violence. The louder, the better.
When former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted Aug. 20 of the rape of a former Baylor soccer player, a firestorm of questions followed. How much did Baylor coach Art Briles know about Ukwuachu’s history before he transferred to the Bears? Could the school have handled the investigation of the victim’s case better? How are background checks of athletes performed? Why was Ukwuachu allowed to stay on scholarship after he was indicted?
Some of those questions have been answered. Many others have not.
When Briles held his usual game-week press conference Monday, he tiptoed around the three questions related to the Ukwuachu case. Baylor athletics director Ian McCaw offered a little more, but also retreated to “We’re supportive of Judge (Ken) Starr and the external investigation” as an answer to seven different questions.
The need for Baylor officials and coaches to be transparent in this case is vital. It’s about being more than honest, it’s about being forthcoming. This is an instance where a “no comment” echoes in a deafening way.
I completely understand that Briles and McCaw have likely been advised to avoid answering some questions for legal reasons. A lawsuit against Baylor by the victim is likely on the horizon, as she has already employed a pair of prominent Title IX attorneys.
But some of these questions demand answers. Baylor has been skewered in the media, and its reticence hasn’t helped matters. When the school has spoken out, it has actually helped its case. Briles’ statement detailing exactly what was shared in his conversation with Boise State’s Chris Petersen supported his earlier contention that he was unaware of Ukwuachu’s past violence toward women. When McCaw mentioned Monday that all the school’s student-athletes had undergone violence-prevention training over the past month, that news was well-received both on and off campus.
Going forward, Baylor should seek to start the conversation, not run from it. Starr’s move to bring in outside counsel to lead the investigation into the case was a wise one. The Baylor president would make an even bigger impact if the entirety of the investigation’s findings were made public once completed. That is the real point of an external investigation, as Starr well knows.
I also think it would serve Baylor well to hold a press conference, with Briles, McCaw and Starr all attending, to respond to some of the lingering questions in the Ukwuachu case. This could be conducted as a separate event from the usual Monday football presser. Then the school wouldn’t have to feel guilty about trying to cut off the train and steer questions back to football. It could respond and offer more of its side of the story.
Personally, this entire saga just saddens me. One instance of sexual assault is one too many. A 2014 government-commissioned study suggests that one in five college students will experience sexual assault while they’re in college. That statistic isn’t just sobering, it’s terrifying.
I’ve also been saddened by the response of many in my profession. The media can be quick to judge, quick to feign moral outrage and finger-wag and call for heads to roll. There is such a rush to judgment, such a bloodthirsty need for a scapegoat, in our society today. You’re expected to have an instant opinion on every subject, preferably in 140 characters or less. The idea of restraint, of waiting to form an opinion until all the facts come out, has vanished.
Shame on us.
And I’m disappointed that Baylor has not said more. I believe Art Briles and Ian McCaw are good, honest men. There is no doubt in my mind they consider sexual violence to be deplorable, something that “cannot be tolerated,” as McCaw said Monday.
Such statements can make a difference, especially when followed up with action. If Baylor officials speak up more boldly and openly in that way, a new picture of the school may emerge.
One where Baylor is more protective of its students than its reputation.