NCAA Football

Miller: Beware the Bad News Bears

May 25, 2016

Heads have started to roll in Waco.

With Tuesday’s news that the Baylor Board of Regents intends to remove university president/chancellor Kenneth Starr from his post, it is clear the axe sharpened by the steady drip of sexual assault and violence incidents allegedly committed by members of the school’s football team – and the efforts to conceal them – has begun to fall.

And it may yet fall again. And it should.

To be clear: Ken Starr (who, ironically, was the chief investigator into the Monica Lewinsky scandal) presided over an institution whose judicial affairs process for handling cases of sexual misconduct between students was laughably inadequate, resulting in an unsafe campus environment certainly not conducive to higher learning. A well-respected jurist who was once a federal judge and a Supreme Court favorite, Starr should have known better. He should have done better. And for those shortcomings, he should no longer be the leader of what is supposed to be one of the nation’s premier Christian universities.

His legacy of public service, however unfortunately, will be forever tainted by both the actions of his institution’s football team during his chancellorship and the inaction of his administration to redress claims against players. Those are the consequences when your institution compromises its core values for the sake of on-field success; Baylor is not the first to sell out, and, sadly, will not be the last, either.   

But the responsibility for the current state of affairs in Waco is not Starr’s alone to shoulder. Though he is the scapegoat (for now), the axe wielded by the Regents should also come down on those with more direct control over a clearly out-of-control football program. Namely: head coach Art Briles. He is, at the very least, just as responsible as Starr for contributing to an unsafe campus environment, one that should have many families asking themselves: “Would I allow my daughter to attend Baylor?

To be clear (again): Art Briles’ tenure in Waco has been nothing short of a miracle, as he’s resurrected a moribund program into one of the nation’s most exciting and consistently successful. Since Briles assumed the reins in 2008, the Bears have gone 65-37 (including a 50-15 record from 2011 on), made six straight bowl game appearances (including two BCS berths) and have finished in the final AP top 15 in four out of the last five seasons. This recent boon came on the heels of a long era of embarrassment for Baylor football, whose last bowl victory and winning season prior to Briles’ arrival came in 1992 and 1995, respectively.

Under Briles, however, the list of his players either accused or found guilty of violent acts, including sexual assaults, has grown just as quickly as the program’s successes. One tally put the number of women alleging sexual misconduct by Baylor players since 2009 at nine – and that only counts those cases reported to the authorities. Given what we know about the rampant underreporting of sexual assaults on college campuses, that number could be, and likely is, higher.

Briles and his staff recruited those players. They brought them onto campus, awarded them scholarships and handed them uniforms. Two of those athletes – Sam Ukwuachu and Shawn Oakman – had already shown violent tendencies at their previous schools, and yet were still welcomed into the Bears’ program. In the case of Ukwuachu, Briles was “thoroughly apprised (by then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen) of the circumstances surrounding Sam’s disciplinary record and dismissal.” For the record, Ukwuachu’s previous girlfriend claimed he was “violently abusive with her.”

Not only that, Briles was aware of other incidents allegedly perpetrated by his players, but failed to remove them from the team and, unsurprisingly, allowed them back on the field. A sexual assault report was filed against Oakman in early 2013 (which, according a Baylor judicial affairs officer, Briles was informed about), but the star defensive end faced no public, team-issued punishment, eventually becoming the program’s all-time sack leader. In a predictable twist, Oakman was arrested last month for assaulting a Baylor graduate student.

The most egregious example, though, is that of Tevin Elliott, who was accused of sexually assaulting no fewer than six women from 2009-12. Briles, evidently, had knowledge of Elliott’s record, yet kept him on the team – likely because he led the Bears with eight sacks in the 2010-11 seasons. Elliott is now behind bars, serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of one of the rapes.

At the end of the day, Briles is his players’ boss, and he shares responsibility for their on- and off-field conduct. He recruited, retained and protected players whom he knew or reasonably should have known were threats to the Baylor community. For that, he should suffer that same fate as Ken Starr; he won’t because the program has been on a hellacious tear with him at the helm. Such is the moral compass of big-time college football.

Bottom line: Football players certainly are not the only students on campus to commit crimes (whether sexual in nature or not), but what has occurred at Baylor University is unconscionable. The athletic department, like any other campus unit, is tasked with upholding the institution’s values, furthering its mission and, above all, ensuring the campus environment is safe and thus conducive to learning. Baylor Athletics – its football program in particular – has blatantly abrogated that responsibility.

That’s not just Ken Starr’s problem. There’s an axe to grind against Art Briles, too.

Contact Cameron Miller at cmiller6@stanford.edu.

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