Baylor University announced today that they will fire head football coach Art Briles after months of controversy surrounding the program’s handling of multiple sexual assault cases. In addition to Briles, the school’s President and Chancellor Ken Starr will be demoted and Athletic Director Ian McCaw has been sanctioned and placed on probation.
Back in June 2014, Sam Ukwuachu, a transfer player to Baylor from Boise State, was charged with two counts of sexual assault. The football program didn’t reveal this to the public and even intended to allow Ukwuachu to play during the 2015 season until he was convicted of one of the counts last August.
It wasn’t just the silence regarding a player charged with sexual assault that was problematic. It later came out that when Ukwuachu played at Boise State, multiple domesmtic incidents were reported involving him and his then-girlfriend. And in 2012 a different Baylor football player, Tevin Elliott, was arrested for sexual assault, which Baylor also attempted to cover up. At least they suspended Elliott at the time, although they would only admit publicly that he had “violated team policy.”
Last fall the Baylor Board of Regents hired the law firm Pepper Hamilton, LLP to conduct a review of the university’s handling of sexual assault cases both within the football program and in the school as a whole. The review concluded that the “University’s student conduct processes were wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX,” and “actions by University administrators directly discouraged some complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes and in one instance constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.”
Firing Briles and demoting other members of the administration (who may still be fired in the future) is without a doubt overdue. The fact that the university didn’t punish Briles at all last fall when the Ukwuachu case came to light is unacceptable. (Ironically Ken Starr, the University President and Chancellor who’s been demoted, is the very same person who investigated Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.) And while Baylor received a lot of criticism for their handling of the situation and cannot be wholly commended for today’s actions, this is still an unprecedented moment in college football’s handling of sexual assaults.
Before the 2014 college football season, a sexual assault allegation was made against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. The investigation into this case was highly flawed, as shown in a New York Times article, and exposed the lengths universities were willing to go to protect star football players. Despite massive pressure from the public, Florida State suspended Winston for only one game.
Now, less than two years later, the most successful football coach in Baylor history will be fired for his handling of a similar situation. (Note: Jameis Winston was never charged, unlike the two Baylor football players named above.) This is quite a momentous shift. It appears that the Board of Regents is willing to tear apart its football program, which will almost certainly draw the ire of their fans, to establish a culture that protects the entire student body—not just the players on the roster.
There’s also a financial cost to punishing the football team. During the 2014-2015 school year, Baylor’s athletic program generated over $100 million in revenue. Firing the head coach who led the team to prominence could hurt the on-field product while pissing off fans, which will hurt Baylor’s bottom line. Most people believe the reason universities allow football programs to operate with little oversight is to avoid situations where they have to punish the team and possibly hurt their revenue. Today’s actions prove Baylor’s bucking the trend and putting the health and reputation of the university over financial gains.
It’s sad that a move like this is commendable. It should be assumed that universities will protect their students over the interests of football programs, but that is so clearly not the case at many colleges. For Baylor to take such drastic action will give precedent in the future when other universities face similar scandals.
Today’s news also puts pressure on the NCAA. The organization is more than eager to go after programs for violating rules regarding illegal payment or rewards to “amateur” athletes, but they’ve stayed silent when suspicions of sexual assault surround those same programs. Baylor presented the findings of their independent review to the NCAA and it’s now in their hands to determine what punishment to levy on the football program. The NCAA’s decision regarding this case could dramatically change the culture of the sport in America. If they finally get tough on these allegations and deliver a harsh punishment, other programs will re-evaluate their own cultures and adjust their processes to avoid Baylor’s fate. But if they wimp out and give them a slap on the wrist, the cycle will continue.
Art Briles may be out as the Baylor head coach, but Baylor still needs to fix the systemic issues that allowed this to occur in the first place. They seem to be on the right track, but there’s still a lot of work left to do.
Right now, the only question is whether today’s actions will stay isolated to the tiny campus in Waco, Texas, or spread throughout other major football programs.
Joseph Misulonas is an assistant editor for Playboy.com. He can be found on Twitter at @jmisulonas.