The Rise, Then Shame, of Baylor Nation


All the while, Ms. Hernandez was determined to follow through with her Baylor career. But she could not.

“I was extremely emotionally unstable,” she said. “It’s not that I couldn’t live my daily life, because I could, but it was very interrupted by turbulent emotions that I couldn’t exactly predict and that I didn’t know how to deal with.”

After posting poor grades during the 2012-13 school year — a decline that she attributed to her trauma — Ms. Hernandez was informed by Baylor that she had lost her academic scholarship. She dropped out of the school she once loved, returned to California and began therapy.

That fall, the Baylor Bears were 11-2, and won the Big 12.

In early 2014, Mr. Elliott was convicted of sexually assaulting her and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

That fall, the Bears were again 11-2, and shared the Big 12 championship with Texas Christian.

Baylor was moving on.

Not an Isolated Case

The first clear signal that the Elliott case was more than a Baylor aberration came in the late summer of 2015 — two years after a damaged Ms. Hernandez quietly dropped out — when Texas Monthly published a disturbing account of the alleged rape of another Baylor woman by another football player: the troubled transfer from Boise State, Sam Ukwuachu.

This episode was said to have occurred nearly two years earlier, in October 2013, while Mr. Ukwuachu was sitting out the football season as a first-year transfer student. According to Texas Monthly, Baylor officials had conducted only a cursory investigation in deciding not to pursue the sexual assault claim against Mr. Ukwuachu, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years’ probation.

Photo

Sam Ukwuachu

Credit
Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press

Testimony in the case against the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Mr. Ukwuachu was devastating. “He was using all of his strength to pull up my dress and do stuff to me,” said the victim.

Baylor’s president, Mr. Starr, promptly issued a letter addressed to “Baylor Nation.” It began:

“By God’s grace, we are living in a golden era at Baylor University. However, today we are filled with profound sadness.” He expressed grief for the victim, asserted that those who engage in sexual violence would “find no shelter” on campus, and announced that a faculty member with prosecutorial experience would investigate the circumstances of the Ukwuachu case.

That professor’s weeklong inquiry convinced Mr. Starr of the need for a more comprehensive investigation. The Board of Regents soon hired Pepper Hamilton, a Philadelphia law firm with experience in investigating potential violations of Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity in higher education.

Pepper Hamilton’s inquiry lasted several months. The complete results of its investigation, which included interviews with central figures and access to a million pieces of information, have never been made public — because, the university said, they were delivered orally to the Board of Regents. Releasing all of them in written form, several regents later said, would have taken an additional six months.

University officials have said they limited public information in deference to federal privacy law, confidentiality agreements and victims’ presumed feelings. But critics say that asking only for an oral report is a standard tactic for avoiding full accountability.

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“Success in athletics means that all boats rise,” Kenneth W. Starr, then Baylor’s president, told The New York Times in 2014.

Credit
Cooper Neill for The New York Times

The board’s public summary of that Pepper Hamilton briefing, in May 2016, was still damning. In a 13-page report, the board excoriated its own institution — and itself — for failing to adhere to a federal requirement that victims of campus sexual assault receive a “prompt and equitable response” from their college. In one instance, it reported, a student was retaliated against for reporting an assault; other students, it added, may have feared being stigmatized for reporting assaults that involved underage drinking or premarital sex.

Investigations, they wrote, “were conducted in the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’”

Most of the report addressed the entire university — though a few pages near the end focused squarely on the football program. Football officials, it charged, had set up a parallel justice system for their players, did not properly report complaints to the rest of the university and in some cases tried to keep law enforcement authorities out.

Mr. Briles, the revered coach who had led Baylor to gridiron glory, was effectively fired. Mr. Starr, the affable president who reveled in that glory, was demoted; he later resigned. Ian McCaw, the athletic director, was placed on probation with sanctions by the university for mishandling sexual assault allegations; he, too, later resigned, and now holds the same position at Liberty University.

The board also vowed institutional changes. And it apologized to Baylor Nation.

“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” Richard S. Willis, then chairman of the Board of Regents, said. “This investigation revealed the university’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students.”

The board’s confessional housecleaning may have been intended, at least in part, to begin putting this episode in the past. Instead, the scandal has continued to define — or redefine — Baylor.

Other women have followed the lead of Ms. Hernandez, filing lawsuits claiming sexual assault by Baylor students, athletes and non-athletes. One recounts the alleged gang rape of a young Bruins hostess by two football players, one of whom supposedly tried to “stare down” a worried young man who had dared to interrupt the moment.

Implicated football players have left or been expelled. Mr. Oakman, the 6-7, 287-pound defensive end who had transferred to Baylor from Penn State, became at least the third former player to be indicted on sexual assault charges. His criminal case, in which he has pleaded not guilty, is pending.

Some changes have come. Outsiders have taken over as football coach and athletic director, and a search committee is engaged in finding a permanent president. A few of the 105 recommendations concern the board itself, a structurally insular institution whose voting members are primarily determined by current membership.

In addition, the Big 12 took the rare, if largely symbolic, step of withholding a quarter of Baylor’s payouts — about $6 million this year, according to The Associated Press, and more in years to come — until promised changes are actually made and, as the Big 12 board chairman said in a statement, “systems are in place to avoid future problems.”

In its statement to The Times, Baylor said: “There should be no doubt that, rather than worrying about its ‘brand,’ Baylor leadership has been focused on doing the right thing.” The university went on to say that its efforts to address and repair the damage done far surpass those taken by any other educational institution.

“No other college or university has, at its own initiative, undergone such a thorough self-examination,” it said. “No other college or university has made such wholesale leadership changes based on that self-examination. No other college or university has eagerly embraced an ambitious slate of 105 recommended changes. And, despite the accusations of some, no other university has been as transparent about its failings.”

But some critics say that the university should not be so quick to flatter itself — pointing out that, among other things, it was slow to make a clean break from the Briles era. Although it hired an acting football coach last year, it retained nearly all of Mr. Briles’s staff, including his son and son-in-law. These Briles loyalists made known their continued allegiance to those accused of presiding over a football culture in which sexual violence seemed to thrive.

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Kendal Briles, center, a former assistant coach and Art Briles’s son, has been accused of enticing a recruit by saying: “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor and they LOVE football players.”

Credit
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The university has also been criticized for not being fully forthcoming about the scandal. A group of alumni and donors, Bears for Leadership Reform, has demanded full transparency, beginning with the release of all material related to the Pepper Hamilton briefing. Its members include Mr. McLane, after whom the football stadium is named.

Last month, the reform group called on the university to reveal how much it was paying in legal fees to have recommendations from the Pepper Hamilton report carried out. The group estimated that the scandal had cost Baylor $223 million in expenses such as legal fees and settlements as well as in lost revenue from projected contributions.

The developments are so numerous and the media attention so intense that Baylor’s website has a page called, simply, “The Facts” — as in “The Facts About the Sexual Assault Crisis at Baylor.” Here you can find links to “Latest Updates,” “University Improvements” and “Setting the Record Straight.”

The “Facts” page reflects how Baylor’s embattled Board of Regents, after months of silence, has adopted a new public relations strategy that is less opaque and more aggressive in a bid, officials acknowledged, to make the public narrative accurate.

For example, in responding to a lawsuit filed by a dismissed football staff member, university officials recently released text messages that seem to demonstrate how Mr. Briles sought to cover up various misdeeds by some of his players. Those text messages presumably came from the trove of information accumulated by the Pepper Hamilton investigation — the very information that reformers and others are demanding be made public without prejudice.

Mr. Briles sued for defamation — he dropped the suit just before the text messages were released — accusing Baylor of making a “scapegoat” of him, perhaps to make a case that the problem had been solved, like a limb amputated before gangrene has spread. University officials replied in a court filing that Mr. Briles was “not a ‘scapegoat’” but “part of the larger problem.”

Several donors asked last June that Mr. Briles, 61, be reinstated or at most suspended unless the Regents could offer more evidence of his complicity, which the regents declined to do at the time, university officials said in a court filing. After Mr. Briles’s text messages were released, Bears for Leadership Reform said it was “appalled.”

Then there are the likes of John Eddie Williams Jr.: a member of the Class of 1976, a former nose guard for the Baylor football team, a successful Houston lawyer and a benefactor so generous that the field at McLane Stadium was named after him. He is also a member of Bears for Leadership Reform, and he is furious at what he said was the university’s mismanagement of this crisis — including its lack of transparency.

“When you have horrible events like occurred at Baylor, you need to have transparency, and that’s the only way we’ll move forward,” Mr. Williams said. “Let the word come out. Let it come out, the good, the bad, the ugly. Put it all on the table.

“That’s how we learn from our mistakes and move forward.”

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