Sports

The NCAA Was Built to Fail Sexual Assault Victims

College sports’ governing body shrugged in response to the Baylor scandal. That’s by design.

A Baylor football helmet.
If the NCAA is capable only of policing things that no one should care about, then why should it exist at all? Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

The Baylor University college sports scandal of the early and mid-2010s wasn’t about a quarterback getting paid under the table or a booster who got a little too involved in helping the coaching staff land a four-star linebacker. It was about sexual violence, what the school knew about it, and what it failed to do. To put it another way: It was about something that mattered, to the school, its students, and society. And that explains why the NCAA announced on Wednesday that Baylor’s systematic failures didn’t violate its rules.

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The suffering that Baylor—led by football coach Art Briles, university president Ken Starr, and athletic director Ian McCaw—visited upon its female students has been well documented. If you want the full story, I recommend you begin with Jessica Luther and Don Solomon’s reporting at Texas Monthly from 2015 and 2016. That being said, we might never know the full extent of what happened at Baylor, because the university’s process for reporting sexual assault allegations was so inadequate. Baylor didn’t have a full-time Title IX coordinator until 2014 or a written Title IX policy until 2015. The university previously routed allegations through its judicial affairs office, where, according to the woman who eventually filled the Title IX coordinator job, the office received only about five complaints per year. In her two years as the coordinator, her office received 416 complaints, the NCAA said on Wednesday.

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The football team, then highly successful on the field, was no help. During Briles’ tenure, Baylor’s board of trustees later admitted in a 2016 report, “athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics.” Baylor’s board, after receiving its own investigative report from the law firm Pepper Hamilton, said that “football coaches and staff took improper steps in response to disclosures of sexual assault or dating violence that precluded the University from fulfilling its legal obligations.”

One Baylor alum alleged in a 2017 Title IX and negligence lawsuit against the school that two players had raped her after a party four years earlier. ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that Waco, Texas, police informed the university of an allegation matching the description of the 2013 assault at the time, and Baylor waited more than two years to investigate it. Another former player is now serving a 20-year prison sentence after a sexual assault conviction in a different case. And that’s only a tiny fraction of the accusations: that 2017 lawsuit alleged that 31 football players had committed at least 52 rapes between 2011 and 2014, including five gang rapes.

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Perhaps just for the sake of appearances, the NCAA felt obligated to investigate. The 51-page report that the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions released on Wednesday outlines Baylor’s lack of interest in keeping its own students safe in comprehensive detail, and in ways that go well beyond not reporting alleged assaults by football players. And yet, as the infractions committee succinctly put it: “Baylor admitted to moral and ethical failings in its handling of sexual violence on campus but argued that those failings, however egregious, did not constitute violations of NCAA legislation. Ultimately, and with tremendous reluctance, this panel agrees.” It handed out a few minor penalties to the school and a former staffer, but nothing significant for Baylor.

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Don’t mistake the NCAA’s expression of “tremendous reluctance” for genuine surprise. The organization’s shrug here is inevitable, a reflection of its long-held priorities.

In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt cajoled a group of university administrators to reform football’s rules so fewer players would be maimed or killed. Those administrators formed what would become the NCAA. Over the first half of the 20th century, the association’s eye gradually shifted away from player safety and toward amateurism. In 1929, an influential report by the Carnegie Foundation convinced many schools that amateur football was starting to look like a big business on their hallowed educational campuses. Over the next 25 years, the NCAA’s schools made anti–player pay initiatives their focus. By 1952, when the association banned Kentucky’s men’s basketball team for one season in response to the Wildcats’ role in a betting scandal, the NCAA’s North Star was to uphold amateurism. The punishments in that case came down more to players getting paid than the actual act of fixing games. As the NCAA put it, “athletes received pay for participation in athletics in violation of a constitutional principle.”

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The Kentucky case was the NCAA’s first big enforcement action, after years of jockeying to get the power it wanted. It was a precedent-setter, not just in proving the NCAA could punish rule-breakers but in showing which kinds of wrongdoing would fall under the association’s remit. NCAA rules would prohibit players getting paid and schools gaining competitive advantages on their peers. Did an athletic department go-between pay travel expenses for a player’s family? The NCAA won’t like that. Did an off-campus T-shirt shop give a recruit some merch, and the school knew about it? The NCAA won’t like that. Did a school arrange for a recruit to go hunting on a booster’s private land? The NCAA will not like that either. These are all real things, from just one case a few years ago.

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If Briles had handed a player a $100 bill, the NCAA would have had him dead to rights. Instead, the NCAA’s new report gave his lawyer cover to release a statement about Briles being “completely exonerated” of NCAA violations and cleared to return to college football. But there is nothing in the NCAA rulebook to approach the monstrousness of a football program and university leadership taking a laissez-faire approach, or worse, to rape.

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This incongruity has played out time and again across various NCAA cases, always revolving around the point that the NCAA’s rules exist to do two things: keep college athletes from getting paid, and promote competitive balance by making sure no one is intentionally giving athletes something they couldn’t get at other schools.

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In 2012, the NCAA did heavily sanction Penn State for its role in facilitating child sexual abuse by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. But it’s important to note that high-up NCAA staff members never thought they had the authority to punish Penn State, with one going so far as to call the strategy “a bluff” to get Penn State to capitulate to the NCAA’s desires. And ultimately, the NCAA rolled back those initial sanctions under legal and political pressure.

In other cases, the association has been more circumspect. The University of North Carolina perpetrated large-scale academic fraud, including in its men’s basketball program, but the NCAA didn’t find any violations because non-athletes were able to take fake classes, too. Larry Nassar worked at Michigan State for years after abuse allegations arose against him there. The NCAA, again, found no violations. And now there’s Baylor, which systemically failed to report sexual assault allegations against football players. The NCAA found that “did not constitute impermissible benefits to football student-athletes because of a campus-wide culture of nonreporting.” In other words, Baylor’s failure was so widespread as to not be an NCAA violation. Had it been confined to the football program, the Bears would have been in more trouble.

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When talking about Baylor scandals, it is best to be specific about which one. In the early 2000s, a basketball player named Carlton Dotson murdered one of his teammates, Patrick Dennehy. Head coach Dave Bliss had paid Dennehy’s tuition to get around NCAA scholarship limits, and Bliss then “tried to get other student-athletes to portray the young man as a drug dealer so as to explain how he had been able to pay his tuition,” the NCAA found. The association’s sanctions against Baylor were not for murder-related wrongdoing but for “impermissible benefits” and “inducements” and “financial assistance to prospective student-athletes,” as well as illegal tryouts and burying drug test results. In the course of this felony happening, those were the NCAA rules that were breached.

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The NCAA is at least right about one thing: that it is really in no position to adjudicate anything serious. It isn’t a law enforcement organization. It does not have subpoena power. It is essentially a mall cop, charged with enforcing the rules in an extremely limited space, with extremely limited recourse if an investigation does not go its way. When the NCAA does get serious about investigating things in its amateurism purview, it makes a huge mess of people’s lives, allowing teenagers to become pawns in power games played between rival schools. If the NCAA can cause real damage to livelihoods while investigating Mississippi’s Egg Bowl, it should probably stay away from felonies.

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The NCAA’s punishments also do not tend to land on the people who actually broke the rules. A bowl ban or scholarship reduction for Baylor’s football team will not affect any of the assailants who wrecked lives on that campus a decade ago. It will not bring any accountability for Briles, Starr, and McCaw, who have each found other work since this most recent Baylor scandal led to their exits. Briles has a high school coaching job even as college teams have declined to hire him. Starr and McCaw have respectively found recent work on the Trump impeachment defense team and at Liberty University—perhaps the two most fitting outfits for men with their resumes. Whatever you think each deserves, the NCAA is not the party that is going to give it to them.

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I say all this not to absolve the NCAA. Rather, the question this Baylor report raises is: If the NCAA is capable only of policing things that no one should care about, then why should it exist at all?

The NCAA’s member schools have designed it to be a front organization that manages and enforces rules that keep money in their accounts, and to sell the TV rights to a basketball tournament every year. That is just about the size of it. The NCAA plays little role in managing most of college sports, instead leaving that role to conferences and the schools themselves. I’m guessing another group could stage non-football national championships and maybe even do so in a less sexist fashion.

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So, what is the NCAA for, other than (poorly) protecting an amateurism model that a unanimous Supreme Court seems increasingly prepared to dynamite? The NCAA’s primary function is to protect an economic model that looks very much on the clock, in some part because the NCAA has dragged its heels on making incremental reforms itself. If that goes, the NCAA has little left on its plate. And if the NCAA cannot make a compelling legal case for its member schools’ vision of what college sports can be, and it cannot do a thing to punish even the most heinous acts in its ranks, then what can it do? At this point, the answer is not much, other than absorb headlines like this one so the schools who built it can stay quiet. The NCAA’s most powerful legislative committees are stocked with university administrators, none of whom will personally have to answer for the organization’s shortcomings on Baylor or any other subject. NCAA president Mark Emmert, a not-especially-competent executive who makes about $3 million a year, functions as a shield for all of them. It is tempting to call the NCAA’s inaction in this case a failure. The truth is, this is college sports’ machine working exactly as its builders intended.

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