The XX Factor

Baylor Cares More About Winning Football Games Than Dealing With Its Sexual Assault Crisis

Head coach Art Briles of the Baylor Bears celebrates after his team beat the Oklahoma State Cowboys 45-35 at Boone Pickens Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the website Horns Digest reported that Baylor University plans to fire President and Chancellor Kenneth Starr—yes, the one-time Clinton-hounding special prosecutor—due to an investigation into the school’s repeated mishandling of sexual assault cases. Though that report was confirmed by a Texas TV station, another station reported that Starr “is still the school’s president,” at least at this very moment. As of Tuesday evening the school is saying that it “will not respond” to reports about Starr’s ouster.

While Starr’s reported firing is something of a surprise, it would be far more shocking if the school did anything to damage its football program. As soon as the Horns Digest report came out, the private Baptist university was accused of sacrificing the school president to save Art Briles, the football coach who took the Baylor Bears from irrelevance when he was hired in 2008 to an all-time high No. 2 ranking in 2015. “The feeling is if the board got rid of Art (Briles), they’d be sitting in a $300 million mausoleum instead of that new football stadium,” one anonymous source told Horns Digest. The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein called the possibility that Starr might take the fall “a superficial ouster that would not threaten a program that has produced 32 victories in the last three seasons.” And the Sporting NewsKami Mattioli wrote: “While it seems logical to conclude that axing Starr amid the growing scandal is necessary, doing so without also giving head coach Art Briles the boot would send the exact wrong message—that the football program is, as always, untouchable.” 

Placing the Bears’ winning record above all else seems to be what got the school into its current mess. Baylor’s questionable institutional behavior first drew nationwide attention in August 2015, when a football player named Sam Ukwuachu was sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years’ probation for sexually assaulting a BU freshman two years earlier. As Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon reported in Texas Monthly, school officials “either knew, or should have known, that Ukwuachu had a history of violent incidents at Boise State,” where he’d played before transferring to Baylor. When Ukwuachu was accused of raping a fellow student-athlete, Baylor “cleared” him without even looking at the rape kit a hospital had collected. “To be blunt, Baylor seemed mainly interested in protecting its football player,” wrote Joe Nocera in the New York Times.

Ukwuachu’s case isn’t the only one in which Baylor is alleged to have ignored serious accusations, nor is it the only one in which a Baylor football player has recently been convicted of sexual assault. In 2014, former defensive end Tevin Elliott was sentenced to the maximum of 20 years for raping a Baylor freshman twice at a party near campus in 2012. The woman, Jasmin Hernandez, sued the university this spring for failing to take action when she reported the attack. Hernandez’s lawsuit claims that her parents called Briles, but received no response except a phone call from a secretary. It also states that Hernandez wasn’t the first person to be victimized by Elliott—and that Baylor was fully aware of his treatment of women. Another woman who was allegedly assaulted by Elliott, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Roe, allegedly reported the incident to Baylor, and was informed by the school’s chief judicial officer, Bethany McCraw, that she was the sixth person to make a claim against him. (Two of the women reportedly were not Baylor students.)

According to the lawsuit:

Roe and her mother asked if Briles knew of these reports, to which McCraw responded that Briles was aware of the reports. McCraw told Roe and her mother that there was nothing the school could do for Roe unless there was a court determination that Elliott had indeed raped Roe. Otherwise, McCraw said, it would come down to a “he said-she said” situation, and the school could not act on it.

In this case, and others, Baylor appears to have been in flagrant violation of Title IX—which, in fact, requires that schools take action when students experience sex-based harassment or discrimination. A deep dive by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, published last week, turned up allegations against at least three more football players who played under Briles. Former safety Ahmad Dixon was accused of sexual assault in 2012; he told OTL that his coaches were aware of the charge and mentioned it to him. In the same year, then-cornerback Tyler Stephenson was accused of violently assaulting his girlfriend when she attempted to break up with him; in this case, it’s unclear whether Baylor was notified. In 2014, running back Devin Chafin was accused of assaulting his girlfriend on two separate occasions, one of those in front of his teammates. She told OTL that Briles and Starr knew of the incidents but never punished Chafin. She didn’t press the issue, she said, because “I’d seen other girls go through it, and nothing ever happened to the football players. … I think as long as they’re catching footballs and scoring touchdowns, the school won’t do anything.”

Amazingly and horribly, that’s not the last of it: Shawn Oakman, a former All-American defensive end, was arrested last month on charges that he sexually assaulted a Baylor graduate student. It was later revealed that Oakman, who graduated from Baylor in December, had been accused of attacking a former girlfriend in 2013.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Baylor said it would announce the results of an external review of the school’s actions by June 3. The fallout from Horns Digest’s report gave Baylor a taste of the anger it will face if Briles remains at the head of his football program—but that may not be enough to counterbalance the glory of “catching footballs and scoring touchdowns.” As for Starr, Horns Digest’s anonymous sources suggest that he may be reassigned to Baylor’s law school with his salary intact—a move that would suggest that the school isn’t all that serious about cleaning up its act.