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America’s Rape Culture: Football, Art Briles and Baylor University

With just under 100 days until the beginning of the college football season, Baylor University has suspended head coach Art Briles with the intent to terminate his employment. This is a staggering, almost unprecedented, move. Prior to Briles arrival, Baylor had very few 10-win seasons in its storied history. Under his leadership, Baylor installed a groundbreaking ‘wide open’ offense that rocketed the Bears into national prominence. In 2013 and 2014, the team either won or shared the Big 12 title. This is no small feat with Juggernauts like the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas playing in the same conference. Therefore, the firing of Briles is significant; yet, to be honest, it should have happened years ago.

The university and athletic department failed to take seriously the allegations of sexual assault filed by female students against a number of Baylor football players. Some in the football department went so far as to intimidate young women who came forward. This amounts to a culture of misogyny at Baylor University. Parents were essentially paying tuition to send their daughters to a school where they would neither be protected from nor taken seriously if they reported sexual assault.

To be sure, this is not just a problem among football players. Last year an Association of American Universities survey of over 150,000 students at 27 universities across the nation found that 13.5 percent of female seniors had experienced “non consensual penetration involving physical force or incapacitation.” Yet, the issue of sexual assaults involving college football players is a problem. As Mother Jones reports, College Football has had a 40-year history of mishandling sexual assault allegations. I see two primary reasons for this.

Uneven power dynamics

College football is big business. Oregon, Texas, Michigan, and Alabama reported over 150 million dollars of income in 2014. The vast majority of this revenue is because of the football program. That is why the highest paid state employee in many states is the head coach of the local college football team. When the football coach makes more money than the Athletic Director or the College President, it can create a power imbalance where coaches and players at universities are largely above reproach. This was no different at Baylor.

In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) was paid an annual salary of $706,426 as president of Baylor University. It was also reported that Ian McCaw (who just resigned as Athletic director amid protests) was paid $498,226 for being the athletic director. Head coach Art Briles? He was paid $4,000,000. That’s four million dollars for those who want it in words. In a capitalistic context where one’s labor is commodified and used as a measure of one’s worth, it is clear who is more valuable to the university. Compound this with the fact that Briles is the winningest football coach in school history, a central part of a football program that brings in over $35 million in revenue, and it is clear why this power imbalance exists. Yet, it was only a matter of time before something likes this happened.

Bad Seeds

Sam Ukuwachu was convicted of sexually assaulting a Baylor women’s soccer player in August of 2015. This is not his first run-in with the law. While a player at Boise State, Ukuwachu put his fist through a window and sent threatening messages to a student at the university. This resulted in his being dismissed from the football team. When asked if he knew about this troubling past, Briles emphatically denied being informed. Yet, Chris Patterson, who was a coach at Boise State at the time said:

“After Sam Ukwuachu was dismissed from the Boise State football program and expressed an interest in transferring to Baylor, I initiated a call with coach Art Briles. I thoroughly apprised Coach Briles of the circumstances surrounding Sam’s disciplinary record and dismissal.”

But Ukuwachu is not the only player recruited by Baylor that was dismissed from his football team for violent behavior. Shawn Oakman was dismissed from the Penn State Nittany Lions in 2011 because of ‘character issues’ including a violent altercation with an employee at an on-campus convenience store. He transferred to Baylor in 2012 where he was investigated for assaulting an ex-girlfriend, but there were no charges filed because the alleged victim declined to press charges.

He was charged with sexual assault last month.

Briles knew he was bringing in players with checkered pasts, but he did so anyway. Why? Because it is his job to win football games—even if that means putting students on campus in harms way. The temptation is to turn this into only a sports story. It is not.

An independent report commissioned by Baylor found a “fundamental failure” on the part of the university to effectively implement Title IX as required by the United States Department of Education. This means that there was an institutional wide failure to put the pieces in place to combat sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender-based microagressions on campus. The university not only took two years to investigate claims of sexual assault against football players, they were also inept at investigating claims made by female students in general. Ken Starr failed to allocate enough resources to the Title IX coordinators and, because of this, the university still has investigations pending. Starr’s demotion to chancellor is insufficient. As a Baylor student who survived a sexual assault said assiduously on Outside the Lines, “Starr needs to go.”

While this is not only a sports story—it still forces me to think deeply about my choice to watch college football. While I love and appreciate the competition and athleticism, I am conflicted about the cases of domestic abuse and sexual assault involving football players that local media fail to report and universities sometimes cover-up. We are kidding ourselves if we think this is only a problem at Baylor University. In March, Nick Saban dismissed defensive tackle Jonathon Taylor after his second arrest for domestic abuse. In December, news of a video surfaced showing University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon hitting a young woman. A court battle over this video ensued with the Oklahoma Supreme Court finally ruling that the video is public record. Mixon is, of course, still on the team.

No, these kinds of things don’t just happen at Baylor. From the tendency to blame the victim by asking a sexual assault survivor what they were wearing, to cover-ups on both professional and collegiate teams, rape culture permeates all of American life—no place is truly safe.

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Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

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