In 2011, the most awful scandal in the history of college athletics was exposed when it was revealed that Jerry Sandusky, a longtime coach at Penn State, had groomed and sexually abused teenage boys in the locker room of the school’s hallowed football stadium over a period decades, and that further the abuse had been covered up by university officials who deemed the sanctity of their football program to be paramount to any form of tangible justice for the victims.
The scandal continues to produce routine horrors, such as the fact that head coach Joe Paterno—the man who won the most games in the history of college football—may have known about Sandusky’s abuses as early as 1976. After punishing the university, its football program, and Paterno itself, the NCAA rolled back several of its sanctions in January 2015, a year ahead of schedule. It was a tacit argument that Penn State—and by proxy, the NCAA at large—had cleansed itself of its sins.
But revelations regarding the football team at Baylor make it abundantly clear that institutionally, nothing has changed within college football. A few weeks ago ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a report stating that Baylor as a football program and university has conspired with local police in Waco, Tex. to shield its players from investigations and punishment stemming from allegations of sexual and physical assaults against women. OTL reported on three new incidents, which when combined with previously known stories painted a picture of a university—led by president and onetime Clinton antagonist Ken Starr, and head coach Art Briles—that systematically protected star athletes at the expense of women who said they were victims of violence.
To a certain extent, the public was aware of some of the incidents, since two of the players involved have been found guilty in court and sent to prison. In 2014, Tevin Elliot was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping a Baylor student in the mud outside a party in 2012. Four other women also say they were raped by Elliot, and two of them testified at his trial. In an interview with ESPN, the victim of the 2012 incident, who was identified only as Tanya, said that the university offered no support in the wake of her rape:
“They didn’t just not respond; they responded by turning me away and telling me that it was not possible for me to receive help from them,” said Tanya, whose identity is being kept private by Outside the Lines because she was the victim of a sexual assault.
One of Elliot’s victims, Jasmin Hernandez, announced in March that she would be suing the school for, in the words of her attorney, being “deliberately indifferent to complaints by student victims of rape.”
In August 2015, Sam Ukwuachu was sentenced to six months in prison and ten years probation for raping a Baylor soccer player in 2013. A story in Texas Monthly describes the viciousness of Ukwuachu’s attack:
After she resisted his initial advances, Doe testified, he began to grab her. “He was using all of his strength to pull up my dress and do stuff to me,” she said. “He had me on my stomach on the bed, and he was on top of me.” Doe testified that he pulled her dress up, pulled her underwear to the side, and forced her legs open with his toes, her head pressed between his bed and his desk, then forced himself inside of her. Doe was a virgin at the time.
That Texas Monthly story also details the ways in which Baylor and its football program put its students in harm’s way and continued to do so even after the incident. The 2013 assault was not Ukwuachu’s first act of violence. His college football career began at Boise State University, but ended after a year when he was kicked off the team for physically intimidating his girlfriend and her roommate. According to paperwork obtained by Texas Montly, Baylor coaches were aware of the nature of Ukwuachu’s behavior at Boise State but decided to accept him onto the team anyway.
Ukwuachu committed the rape he was eventually sentenced for shortly after arriving on campus in 2013, and was indicted on two counts of sexual assault on June 25, 2014. Ukwuachu did not play for Baylor in 2014, but the team never publicly specified why—which is to say that the school did not make its students or the public aware that one of its football players had been indicted for rape. The Texas Monthly story notes that in June of 2015 Baylor defensive coordinator (and current interim head coach) Phil Bennett told an audience at a luncheon that he was anticipating Ukwuachu being on the field for the coming season:
We know that when asked about Ukwuachu a few weeks ahead of his scheduled trial date, rather than acknowledge the charges or decline to comment, Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett told Baylor fans that the team was expecting to have him on the field.
Though Waco police eventually funneled their investigation up to the district attorney, which triggered charges, Texas Monthly reported that the school’s investigation into Ukwuachu appeared to be directed solely toward clearing him of any wrongdoing:
Meanwhile, the details about the investigation conducted by Baylor that came out during the trial reveal one that was shockingly brief: It involved reading text messages, looking at a polygraph test Ukwuachu had independently commissioned—which is rarely admissible in court—and contacting Ukwuachu, Doe, and one witness on behalf of each of them.
Texas Monthly described the synchronized obfuscation on the part of the football team, university, and police department:
When a student at Baylor leveled accusations of sexual assault against the player, the school’s investigation—in which the burden of proof is significantly lower than in a court of law—ended without action, despite the fact that the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office found cause to take the matter all the way to a trial on second degree felony charges. We know that officials in Baylor’s football program describe rape accusations against players on the team as “some issues” or “violating a team rule,” the same language they might use to describe a player who broke curfew—even after the player has been accused, indicted, arrested, and, in the case of Tevin Elliott, convicted. We know that the Waco Police Department took months to bring the case to a prosecutor, but that when they did present the case to the DA’s office, the DA took the felony charges all the way to court.
In those two instances, the Baylor football players involved were at least brought to some sort of justice. But more accusations of abuse at the hands of Baylor football players have trickled out in recent months. The latest of these were hidden from the public, and only came to light due to tips received by journalists.
The affidavit, drafted by Waco police Detective Sam Key, said the woman met Oakman at a Baylor-area bar on Speight Avenue and Oakman asked her if she wanted to go to his residence. They walked to Oakman’s duplex and Oakman “forced” her into a bedroom, according to the affidavit.
Oakman “forcibly removed” the woman’s clothes, “forced” her onto the bed and sexually assaulted her, the affidavit alleges.
The woman left, but told police she left her panties at the duplex and lost an earring in the bedroom.
That alleged assault took place after Oakman had graduated and left Baylor. But a few weeks after, news broke that Oakman had been accused of domestic violence in 2013. Again via the Waco Herald-Tribune:
According to the incident report posted on Twitter by Alex Dunlap of RosterWatch.com, and confirmed by Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton to media to be authentic, Oakman grabbed the alleged victim under her armpits and shoved her into brick walls and cabinets at her South Waco apartment.
The victim, who was called a “slut and a whore” by Oakman, was left with a swollen lip and bruises on her arms. A police spokesperson told the Waco Herald-Tribune that nobody at his department notified the football coaching staff or the university of the incident, and further stated there was no rhyme or reason as to why they would—or more often wouldn’t—make anyone at Baylor aware of an investigation into alleged misconduct by a football player:
Swanton said there is no indication that a Waco police officer notified any Baylor employee about the incident report. Swanton also said if an officer had contacted Baylor, it would not necessarily be included in the report. He said there is no requirement for Waco police to notify any Baylor employee when a student or student-athlete is named in any police report.
“Some of the officers have different working relationships with some of the Baylor folks and will pass things along from time to time,” Swanton said. “Sometimes we share information on cases that involve their students, and sometimes we don’t. There’s no reason why we do or don’t, and again, there’s no formal policy and requirement or law that says we have to.”
Like Ukwuachu, Oakman ended up at Baylor after being kicked out of his first school for committing violence against women. While at Penn State in 2012, Oakman assaulted a female cashier who attempted to prevent him from stealing food from a convenience store. Nonetheless he was accepted onto the Baylor football team, where his career flourished. He amassed the most sacks in school history and likely would have been selected in this year’s NFL Draft had it not been for the alleged rape that got him arrested in April.
Then, a few weeks ago, the Outside the Lines report brought to light three more players who had sexual assault or domestic violence allegations against them buried by some combination of the football program, the university, and the police department.
In 2012, safety Ahmad Dixon was accused of assault by a woman who later refused to cooperate with police, and because the investigation remains open basically no details are known about the incident. But in 2011, a 911 caller reported seeing Dixon pulling the same woman by her hair and shoving her into a car. Dixon was never disciplined and was picked in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
Also in 2012, cornerback Tyler Stephenson picked up and threw his girlfriend against the exterior wall of an apartment building. ESPN reported that an arrest warrant was prepared by police, but the case was closed when they were supposedly unable to contact the victim. Stephenson played sparingly in his final two seasons at Baylor before being accepted as a transfer at Houston Baptist.
With Dixon and Stephenson, it’s unclear if police notified the football program or school, or if either entity found out about the incidents in another manner. That’s not the case with running back Devin Chafin. Chafin was twice accused in 2014 of assaulting his girlfriend by slamming her arm into a car door and also picking her up slamming her to the ground. The woman said she notified the Baylor football team chaplain of the assaults, who funneled the allegations up to Briles, the head coach, and Starr, the president. But she says she didn’t press charges because she figured nothing would happen anyway:
“I’d seen other girls go through it, and nothing ever happened to the football players,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling to see it continue to happen. I can’t understand why. I think as long as they’re catching footballs and scoring touchdowns, the school won’t do anything.”
And it does not appear that Chafin was disciplined by anyone at the school. He played in 9 games in 2014 and 10 games last year. This past March, Chafin was suspended after getting popped on a weed charge in Oklahoma.
The pattern here is clear. Waco police protected Baylor football players by failing to report investigations to the football program or school. In the most extreme instances (in the cases of Elliot and Ukwuachu), where police eventually did help push charges up through the DA, the school—headed by Kenneth Starr, an attorney famous for staging a witch hunt based on adultery—was completely derelict in its duty to prioritize the victims of those crimes. Further, the school and the football program, led by Briles, allowed alleged rapists and alleged perpetrators of assault to mingle among unsuspecting female students, where many of them continued to commit crimes.
Yesterday, Pepper Hamilton—an outside firm hired in recent months by Baylor to investigate how the school handled the above incidents—issued a report that was unsparing in its findings and language:
Pepper’s findings of fact, as set forth in greater detail in this statement, reflect a fundamental failure by Baylor to implement Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 (VAWA). Pepper found that Baylor’s efforts to implement Title IX were slow, ad hoc, and hindered by a lack of institutional support and engagement by senior leadership. Based on a high-level audit of all reports of sexual harassment or violence for three academic years from 2012-2013 through 2014-2015, Pepper found that the University’s student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX, that Baylor failed to consistently support complainants through the provision of interim measures, and that in some cases, the University failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, or address its effects for individual complainants or the broader campus community. Pepper also found examples of actions by University administrators that directly discouraged complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes, or that contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment. In one instance, those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault. In addition to broader University failings, Pepper found specific failings within both the football program and Athletics Department leadership, including a failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player, to take action in response to reports of a sexual assault by multiple football players, and to take action in response to a report of dating violence. Pepper’s findings also reflect significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor’s football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of athlete misconduct.
Along with the release of the report, the school removed Starr as president. Save your tears, though, because he’ll stick around as chancellor, and also will remain a professor at Baylor’s law school, where he will, I guess, teach students about the mechanics of justice.
More surprisingly, and more importantly, the school announced its intention to fire head coach Art Briles. At Baylor, like at most large universities with football teams, Briles was a more revered figure than anyone at the school, and even in the entire town of Waco. (This is traditional in a place with a strong football program; at Penn State, fans are still trying to reinstate a bronze statue of Joe Paterno that once stood in front of the football stadium.) Briles had been enormously successful at Baylor. This story in the Waco Herald-Tribune attributes the existence of the team’s new $266 million stadium directly to high-profile games the team won during his tenure as coach.
Colleges—including Baylor, clearly—go so far out of their ways to protect their football programs that there was some expectation that Baylor might drag its feet on disciplining Briles, or might even guillotine as many people as they could (including Starr) if it meant being able to keep Briles at the wheel of his wildly successful football team. His firing explains columns like this one, by longtime ESPN college football writer Ivan Maisel, which heralds Baylor’s decision to axe Briles as a “new era in college football:”
Mark this day down. Turn the corner of this page in the college football family bible. Someone in the gridiron-industrial complex stood up and said some standards are more important than winning.
Baylor will fire head coach Art Briles, who in the past five years has won 50 games and two Big 12 Conference championships. The university also forced president Kenneth Starr to relinquish the job and reprimanded athletic director Ian McCaw. But Starr will be university chancellor, and McCaw will still be AD. Briles received the harshest punishment.
Maisel goes on to compare the dismissal of Briles to “Facebook turning on Mark Zuckerberg” because “both of these CEOs created something where nothing existed.”
But in reality, a new era in college football is not, of course, one in which the most powerful institutions in an entire city band together to shield sexually violent star athletes, several of whom the school knew had committed crimes against women in the past. It is not one in which victims have to go to the press to tell their stories of being neglected by their university. It is not one in which incredibly rich and powerful individuals atop that university are only forced to reckon with their actions years later because anonymous sources got so fed up that they leaked police reports to the press.
All of that is definitively already within the current era of college football (and the entirety of college athletics), which has privileged players since its inception. Whatever “new era” people like Maisel are imagining exists only in the future, in some utopian fantasy where we can be 100 percent certain that no coaches and chancellors and police chiefs have decided that a certain player is too important to be ensnared in the legal system.
College football has been through this before, and recently. A school with one of the most famous teams in the history of the sport looked the other way on serial child rape. If Baylor actively obscuring numerous instances of rape and domestic abuse seems somehow different, it’s only because violence against women has long been normalized within society. Which means it’s true that, in some sense, Baylor’s players are not outliers—men everywhere get away with similar crimes. But on a micro level, it’s impossible not to feel like the organizations that run an entire city in Texas privileged these specific men, first and foremost, because they played football.
There was a basic lesson to be learned from Penn State—to do right, first and foremost, by victims of sexual violence—but the saga at Baylor makes it clear that even that little bit of morality has not quite taken root at colleges across America. Here, I guess, is yet another chance, but you can’t blame anyone for being pessimistic.