My earliest memory of Baylor football is Homecoming, 1997. I was 6, and we played Texas. We had no business being in the same stadium as Texas, but by some miracle we pulled off the unbelievable upset. Students rushed the field en masse, tore down the goalpost, and carried it three miles back to campus from Floyd Casey Stadium.
Aside from that highlight, the first nineteen years of my Baylor fandom were filled with Saturdays of excitedly driving down I-35 to Waco, leaving at halftime when we were down by some ungodly margin, going to the bookstore, and stopping through campus to see the bear habitat before heading back to Dallas. We were bad, and we expected to be bad.
My first year at Baylor (2010), we beat Kansas State 47-42 in a rain-soaked, thunder-delayed Homecoming game, to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. As we stormed the field to celebrate, I remember consciously thinking to myself that this was the greatest football moment I would experience during my time at Baylor. Then we beat a ranked TCU to open the next season; then we beat OU in the final moments; then RGIII won a Heisman. Then we dominated #1 Kansas State at home, and crushed UCLA in the Holiday Bowl; then we beat Texas to close out Floyd Casey and won the Big XII. Then it was a new stadium, and 61-58, and another Big XII championship. It all felt great. Suddenly Baylor was cool. Baylor was relevant. Baylor mattered.
And then the news reports started coming in, and just like winning had seemed too good to be true, the allegations of sexual assault and cover-ups seemed too terrible to be true. To be totally honest, I’m still not exactly sure what to believe. Between the administration’s responses to allegations, instances of demonstrably inaccurate reporting, and claims of former staff, it’s impossible to determine exactly who knew what, when they knew it, and what they did with it. We’ll probably never know everything. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter exactly what NCAA rules were or were not broken — and the fact that we manage to spend so much of the conversation talking about “compliance issues” is itself a significant indication of what we really care about. The bottom line is that numerous women reported rape and assault, and the most prominent Protestant university in the country didn’t do anything about it.
Until people started digging and reports started hitting the headlines.
So we ousted Briles and demoted Ken Starr. We hired Grobe and dished out a bunch of discipline. Whether burdened by conscience or just seeing the writing on the wall, Starr and McCaw soon resigned. The University created panels and committees in response to the Pepper Hamilton report. We checked the appropriate boxes and made the necessary legal moves; we revamped the Title IX office and hired Matt Rhule, by all accounts a great guy — all in a frantic attempt to move on and put the horrific scandal behind us. We did a lot of talking about caring for our students and making the appropriate changes.
And yet, nobody ever questioned the culture that allowed this all to happen.
Sure, “changing the culture” of the Baylor football program was a major focus of Grobe’s tenure, and has been a central aspect of Rhule’s leadership. The “culture” of Baylor’s campus life came under well-deserved scrutiny, with numerous journalists and broadcasters pronouncing judgments (some well deserved, some unreasonable at best). Baylor started requiring Title IX training from students and created all sorts of programs and offices, all in an effort to change the “culture”. We tried and tried to start keeping the rules better, to create transparency, to ensure accountability.
And yet for all the effort and money and personnel changes, we fail to stop and acknowledge the simple fact that this happened because we care so much about football.
It’s an unsettling statement, but a pretty obviously true one nonetheless: That if we didn’t care so much about football, this wouldn’t have happened. That if we weren’t so addicted to the distraction that football provides us, and to the sense of success-by-proxy that we feel when our team wins, then the situations in which assault happened and the decisions by those in power to cover up such actions would likely never have occurred. Of course it goes without saying that individuals are responsible for their actions — be they coaches, players, or administrators. But in a very real way, so are the rest of us.
Because we are so enamored with watching teenagers run, catch, and tackle each other on Saturdays that we helped to create an atmosphere in which student athletes felt confident that they could get away with raping their fellow students. Because we are so desperate for the revenue and notoriety that those players can bring us, that we helped create scenarios in which those in charge considered it more important to cover up rape for the sake of a football program (and by extension, a university) than to defend and advocate for victims of sexual assault.
Because we are so accustomed to the notion that college athletics as an industry is an obvious good for universities and students, that it never occurs to us to question whether the status of sport as cultural institution could itself be the problem.
Missing in all of the well-deserved talk about Baylor’s particular misconduct is a recognition of the bizarre pedestal upon which we as a culture collectively place 16- to 22-year olds who are good at playing games. Twitter follows. Commitment announcements. Official visits. Scouting services. Twenty-four hour sports coverage. College athletes are celebrities before they ever step on a college campus — not because of the kind of persons they are, but because of what they can do on a field or a court. Before they ever get a high school diploma, they are being told by the words and deeds of adults that they are different than their peers. That they are special. That they are better.
Lacking in all of the op-eds and special news segments about the Baylor football program’s real corruption is, not surprisingly, an acknowledgement of the enormous amount of profit to be made off of 18-year-olds playing sports. Game broadcasts. Around-the-clock highlights. Online columns. Endorsements. Advertisements. Ticket sales. Local economies. Whether they (or we) like it or not, student athletes are a commodity — and a valuable one at that. A commodity that is valuable enough to be courted, given privileges that their peers don’t have access to, and — as we seem to continually discover at Baylor and elsewhere — excused for misconduct for which the average student would face consequences.
Also patently ignored in all of the present talk about the importance of consent on college campuses are the manifold ways in which we train young men and women to see themselves and others as sexual objects. Movies. Television. Music. Fashion. Sports. Through all these media and many others we propagate a view of sex as meaningless physical pleasure, while at the same time conceptualizing the human self as an essentially sexual being. And yet we continue scratching our heads at why college campuses are hyper-sexualized epicenters of binge drinking, and why young men treat women as objects for their own sexual pleasure.
These and many other profound thoughts might lead us to reconsider our posture toward college athletics if we were willing to wrestle with their complexities and respond to their implications. But we won’t. Because it would be difficult, and because there are lucrative industries set up around the way things are. So instead we’ll ignore the complexity and only talk about the benefits of college sports. We’ll rationalize by pointing out the way sports enable many young people to get an education they couldn’t have afforded otherwise, rather than asking why so many people don’t have access to education to begin with — or why we only seem to care about them when it benefits our athletics program.
Instead we’ll settle for keeping rules and checking the NCAA’s legal boxes, never bothering to think about whether the profitable structures in which we demand coaches and players exist might actually render moral goodness (much less Christian discipleship) nearly impossible. And so other schools will chant “No means no” and crack Title IX jokes at Baylor’s expense, as though the whole situation was roughly equivalent to being stuck with detention for getting caught in some trivial act of mischief. And so ESPN will carry on with its self-congratulating crusade to expose abuse in college sports, all the while broadcasting multiple 24-hour stations that revolve around turning college athletes into celebrities and profiting off of them, creating and nurturing a culture that turns sports into religion and athletes into demigods.
And we will collectively look around and lament the failures of school administrations across the country to properly handle sexual assault, and ask how this could have happened again, all while continuing to ignore the structures of a culture that turn people into things and reward athletic ability with adoration, power, and privilege.