In the fall of 2015, Baylor University hired a law firm called Pepper Hamilton to investigate claims of sexual assault dating back to 2013 and evaluate the effectiveness of the university’s response to such claims.
This report, which the firm compiled over a series of months, ultimately revealed an extremely troubling fact: the university had “failed to take appropriate action to respond to reports of sexual assault and dating violence reportedly committed by football players. … The choices made by football staff and athletics leadership in some instances posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University.”
In the wake of these findings, huge changes have taken place throughout Baylor’s administration. First, Baylor’s Board of Regents removed former President Kenneth Starr from the office. Next, it placed former Athletic Director Ian McCaw on probation. Finally, it suspended Head Coach Art Briles with intent to fire him. Starr was positioned to transfer into the role of a chancellor, but he resigned before the transition could take place. McCaw has also since resigned.
Briles, who still had eight years remaining on his 10-year contract, issued a statement a week after his suspension explaining that he had “made mistakes,” but that he was “contractually obligated to remain silent” about the report. Throughout his career, Briles brought several football players with histories of domestic assault into the organization including Sam Ukwuachu, who served 180 days of prison time after sexually assaulting a women’s soccer player.
Meanwhile, as Briles was making vague statements and repeatedly expressing regret, a whopping seven members of Baylor’s seventh-ranked 2016 recruiting class asked to be released from the letters of intent they had already signed.
It gets worse for the Bears. In a USA Today report of the events, the story included an anonymous source stating that “the Baylor Board of Regents did not view any of the three key leaders involved in the sexual assault scandal — Briles, Starr, or McCaw — as irreplaceable, and that the football program had reached a level of success that it would not backslide to the bottom of the Big 12 were Briles no longer the coach.”
And herein lies the larger problem. If the fact that these individuals weren’t irreplaceable factored into the board’s decision, what would have happened if they were in fact irreplaceable? If schools like Alabama or Ohio State became thrust into a situation similar to Baylor’s, would they boot Nick Saban or Urban Meyer? I would hazard a no. Would they place the prestige and importance of their athletic programs over the need to punish players for crimes committed against, oftentimes, fellow students? Unfortunately, I would hazard a yes.
College athletic programs bring in, for lack of better phrasing, absolutely insane amounts of revenue for their schools. According to statistics on ESPN’s website, Baylor ranks 57th on the list with annual revenues of $44,151,763. Those funds technically come from all athletic departments, but football composes an enormous fraction of that with its television contracts, hundred-thousand-person stadiums and so on. Alabama and Ohio State, two college football powerhouses, bring in over $115,000,000 in revenue annually.
The biggest chunk of those funds comes in the form of donations — Alabama brought in about $28,000,000 in ticket sales, but $29,000,000 in donations. Oklahoma State, to give another example, receives $54,000,000 in donations to a mere $17,000,000 in ticket sales.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Baylor football program is in a crisis. The school’s revenue breakdown was not available on ESPN — likely because it is a private school — but with a significant portion of its recruiting class bailing on the team and its head coach and athletic director out the door, the fan base that donated a total of $16 million to athletics just last year is likely questioning its undying loyalty.
Unfortunately, sexual assault committed by two former Baylor players —Tre’Von Armstead and Myke Chatman — are not isolated incidents. Last Wednesday, CBS Sports released an article discussing current scandals within the Tennessee and Mississippi State football programs. Five-star recruit Jeffrey Simmons violently assaulted a woman, but the school has yet to release a statement regarding whether or not he will be allowed to enroll in summer classes.
At Tennessee, eight women are suing the university over Title IX charges claiming that the athletic department created a hostile environment. When these types of schools see how the Baylor program has entered a downward spiral after truly addressing the issues of sexual assault as it relates to their football programs, we must as ourselves the question: What will they actually do when their most money-making program is at risk?
It is important to recognize that the steps taken at Baylor do indicate forward progress. The school’s success in firing responsible authority figures and addressing these past instances of sexual assault are meaningful within the broader context of the sexual assault epidemic on college campuses.
However, this situation at Baylor reveals what can happen to a college football program when it stops prioritizing its players and television contracts over protecting students on campus. In the short term, the Baylor administration should be applauded for taking rapid action in the aftermath of the investigation. In the long term, the question of whether or not large universities with prestige athletic programs will do the same is an entirely different story.
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