This afternoon, we found out that Baylor University has relieved Ken Starr of his role as President. That’s right – the man who became famous for investigating and reporting the lurid details of a presidential sex scandal has been canned because his administration failed to investigate sexual assault allegations, or at least failed to do anything about them.
At least six women have reported sexual assaults committed against them by Baylor football players. The university has done nothing about it, neither helping the victims or disciplining the players. Neither has now former coach Art Briles.
If this were any other university, I probably wouldn’t write anything about it. Don’t get me wrong, violence against women is always a big deal, and there should be much written about it, but I’m probably not the guy to do it.
This is different, and for a couple of reasons.
Not long ago, Baylor was known more for its prohibition against dancing and the long-disaffiliated college of medicine bearing its name. Over the past couple of decades, Baylor has spent a fortune morphing itself into a top tier university, a nationally-ranked research institution, and one of the few that proudly claims a Christian heritage and commitment.
I feel compelled to write about it, because by claiming to be Christian and protecting abusers, Baylor has committed an awful hypocrisy. They’ve claimed Christ, while bowing at the altar of athletics, or rather, the money and prestige a winning football team can bring.
I’m also writing because of the framed piece of paper that hangs on the wall next to me. As a Baylor grad, I’m disgusted by their lack of action.
These were female students that, seeking a top-tier education, paid exorbitant tuition costs and relocated to downtrodden and crime-ridden Waco, Texas. They moved onto a campus that, albeit beautiful, is bordered by an interstate highway and dilapidated neighborhoods. There is plenty of violence that happens in Waco, but I imagine these women never expected to suffer violence at the hands of fellow Baylor students. And I’m sure in their wildest nightmare, it never occurred to them that their “top-tier,” “nationally-ranked,” “Christian” university wouldn’t do much of anything about it if they were.
Many of my fellow Baylor grads have distanced themselves from the school, and for a number of reasons. Among them, its perceived theological conservatism, Southern Baptist ties, lack of diversity, and yes, its failure to take sexual violence against women seriously. I don’t blame any of them. But even years after moving on from my Baptist upbringing, I still recall my years at Baylor as hugely important in my own personal growth and development. More than anything, I’m appreciative of the fantastic faculty I had the privilege of studying with.
There was a music theory professor, beloved by all his students, who confronted me about my giving excuses as to why I couldn’t possibly master the difficult rhythmic sight-reading. I’m sure I’d have blown it off from most people, or been offended by the suggestion that my laziness could be a sin problem. From him, it was different. I listened. I still think about him when I’m tempted to slide by on talent instead of giving my full effort.
I think about the freshman English professor, who taught me more about writing in one semester than I’d ever learned previously. She also taught me through consistent encouragement that I was good at it.
Then there was the tenured philosophy professor, with whom I only spoke personally once or twice, but who insisted I use inclusive language on every written assignment, because women deserve full mention in conversations about humanity.
Most of all, I remember my voice professor, a university Master Teacher, whose students sing today in opera houses and concert halls around the world. He knew I didn’t have the same flair for performing, but he taught me with as much energy and passion as his greatest performers. He wasn’t afraid of having tough conversations with me when I wasn’t taking my studies, or life in general, as seriously as I should. I remember how he bragged on me in front of his whole studio, not because I’d won some huge contest or landed a prominent gig, but because I’d been accepted into a graduate theology program, and would pursue a career in church music. He cared deeply that I learn how to sing, but even more that I become a person of confidence and conviction, and accomplished all the things I had inside me to do.
I don’t know Art Briles personally. Maybe he’s taught his players some good life lessons on the way to building a successful program. But who cares? Who cares if he doesn’t bother holding them accountable for their actions? That’s one of those things that isn’t found in a textbook or a playbook, but it’s an essential part of becoming a productive member of society. I know schools have long put up with a little more crap from their athletes: poor academics and all manner of personal failings. But that’s a ridiculous double standard, one that any university should unequivocally reject.
If the coach’s name was Dave Roberts or Kevin Steele or Guy Morriss, he’d have been gone long before now. They were all losers by football standards. I was there when they fired a guy they never should have hired named Dave Bliss. They knew he was slimy when they hired him. His history of ethical violations was well-documented. But they believed he was a winning coach, and let him operate a corrupt program that eventually blew up in his face with a scandal involving murder, slander, blatant rule violations, and shady financial dealings.
The fact that Art Briles allowed this culture of abuse meant winning football games mattered more to him than the safety and well-being of Baylor students. Winning mattered more to him than it should ever matter to anyone involved in college sports. Whatever success and fame and fortune he has brought Baylor, it doesn’t matter. If he knowingly recruited players with a history of violence against women, he deserved to be fired. If he failed to act on allegations of sexual assault by one of his players, he deserved to be fired. If he simply prioritized the on-field product above personal character and ethical standards (let alone Christian standards), he deserved to be fired. He should have known better. Not just as a representative of the university (a “Christian” university, for God’s sake). As a mentor. As a role model, an authority figure. As a human being, let alone a husband and father.
Let me let you in on a little secret, Baylor. In the grand scheme of things, football doesn’t matter. And if you’re serious about this Christian focus you talk about (although you never seem to explain just how this faith matters to your educational pursuits), football really doesn’t matter. It’s foolishness. It’s a violent game that draws its vast appeal by wrecking the bodies and minds of those who play it.
Yeah, maybe a winning football team builds camaraderie and excitement. It increases visibility. It brings in tons of cash. But it doesn’t matter to Christ’s kingdom. Not in the least, especially if you’re failing at the important stuff.
If you can’t care for innocent victims of sexual assault for fear of losing the money, the power, the prestige, it’s time to give up the idol. If you can’t run a clean program, with clear standards and accountability, you should just shut the whole thing down, and keep it that way until the heart of the campus becomes a place where money isn’t allowed to corrupt, and where abuse is taken seriously.
And let the McLane stadium complex stand empty, an awkward, embarrassing, painful reminder of how you compromised your identity as a faith-based institution. You played the part of the rich fool. You tore down your barn to build a bigger, $266 million barn. Let it sit there, and let all of us bow our heads in repentance every time we pass by.
Otherwise, don’t bother calling yourself top tier.
And while you’re at it, forget about the “Christian” part, too.