The Baylor Crisis Isn't About Football. It's About Women's Lives. | Sojourners

The Baylor Crisis Isn't About Football. It's About Women's Lives.

Photo by Shehan Jeyarajah
Candlelight vigil in front of the Albritton House on the Baylor University campus on Feb. 8. by Shehan Jeyarajah

In the past week, we’ve all seen the news of upheaval at Baylor University: its president Kenneth Starr reassigned (he later resigned as chancellor), its star football coach Art Briles suspended with intent to terminate, its athletic director Ian McCaw sanctioned (he later resigned) — all after an independent review summarized the administration’s failure to properly investigate reports of sexual assault over a number of years.

This has been largely passed off as a sports story — fallout from the sexual assault convictions of former players Tevin Elliott and Sam Ukwuachu. The fact that there was more to the story, and possibly a cover-up, was initially analyzed by ESPN back in February, and it mostly kept to the sports verticals. Even when it did make the general news pages, it was characterized as an “athletic scandal.”

It’s true that Baylor University sits in what is referred to as the “Heart of Texas” — an hour south of Dallas and an hour north of Austin. In this cradle of God and football, Art Briles and the Baylor sports engine were revered. And last week, the independent report interrupted that mythos by calling this out: The conduct of the team’s leadership “reinforced an overall perception that football was above the rules, and that there was no culture of accountability for misconduct.”

After more facts came to light, many liberal publications jumped on board, delighting in the supposed irony of Starr — of attempted 1990s Clinton-takedown fame — now presiding over an institution mired in its own “sex scandal.” (Forget for a moment that we are talking about apparent rampant campus rape and not extramarital affairs.)

So the story, as presented, has been either one of the downfall of a Cinderella sports team or one of political hypocrisy. And left behind are the stories of women whose lives were forever changed and subsequently ignored, first by the administration and then by the media.

“This is not a story about the demolition of the Baylor football team. This is a story about how Baylor failed hundreds of women,” Stefanie Mundhenk told Sojourners. It was Mundhenk’s personal story of assault and wading through the university’s Title IX process published back in February that sparked media coverage and an alumni open letter to the administration calling for change.

In an ESPN Outside the Lines interview yesterday, former president Starr explained his decision to resign the chancellorship — though he remains a professor at Baylor Law School: “I didn’t know about what was happening, but I have to, and I willingly do, accept responsibility.”

But his declaration of responsibility was punctuated by insistence that he is “behind a veil of ignorance” and a refusal to admit sexual assaults happen on the university campus. Instead, Starr claims, “It’s not happening on campus to the best of my knowledge. They’re off-campus parties. Those are the venues where these bad things have happened.”

While there is much to digest in the 13-page Pepper Hamilton report submitted to Baylor’s board of regents — the word “failed” or “failure” appears 39 times throughout the document — one paragraph in particular speaks to Starr’s claim:

“While individual administrators sought professional training opportunities, they were not adequately trained in the dynamics of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, the neurobiological impacts of trauma, the evaluation of credibility, consent and the role of alcohol as it relates to consent and alcohol-facilitated sexual assault. In addition, the investigations were conducted in the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’(Emphasis added.)

Mundhenk, a recent Baylor alumna who defended Starr back in February, says she actually wasn’t sure he should have been fired — until she saw his interview.

“You can’t just not look at the facts and say you didn’t know,” Mundhenk said. “That’s willful ignorance … We call that negligence — you didn’t do your job.”

In his OTL interview, Starr defended Briles and referenced multiple times the need for Baylor to “put this horrible situation behind us.”

“It just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what survivors go through,” Mundhenk said. “You can move through it as an institution, but we’re going to be going to therapy for the rest of our lives.”

In April, Mundhenk launched a photo essay called “Breaking Out,” modeled off similar posts at other schools where sexual assault crises have come to light. In it, she features images of women with cards telling their stories.

On Friday, a group of Baylor sexual assault survivors are planning to organize on campus to observe a moment of silence. According to the Waco Tribune-Herald, the group also plans to write a letter urging Baylor to offer a “survivors’ seat at the table” when discussing implementing changes on campus.

Mundhenk’s hope is for more transparency. While ousters at the top in some ways quell the media rumbling for a time, she wants to know who messed up and why — and whether they will keep their jobs.

Mundhenk also hopes for a time of reflection — and an intentional focus on the women whose real experiences of sexual assault and rape have been mischaracterized as “sex scandals” and brushed aside amid lamenting a momentarily great football program.

“When things fall, you honor them,” she said. “… When something happens that is so egregious, you remember it with a pause. We have moments and spaces for that. This is egregious enough to dwell on … to rest in the mire and the muck of it all and sit in our pile of shit and say we messed up.”

for more info