Discernment needed regarding Baylor scandal

ewf_beardTHE EIGHTH DAY OF JUNE IN THE YEAR OF GRACE TWO THOUSAND AND SIXTEEN.


[Full disclosure: I am a Baylor dad (and an ACU dad), an acquaintance and fan of Ken Starr, and a forgiven sinner. I abhor wrongdoing by anyone, including myself. I try to be objective but probably never fully attain it. These are my known biases relevant to this gracEmail.]

The news broke on May 26. Several members of the now-legendary Baylor Bears football team, largely recruited and shepherded by super-coach Art Briles, over a period of time sexually assaulted more than one Baylor woman. Victims allege that when they attempted to report the events to appropriate university personnel, a threshold step required to trigger a thorough investigation, school officials discouraged them from doing so.

The victimized women complain that when they filed reports, school personnel thwarted, obstructed, and covered up the allegations and prevented responsive action. President Ken Starr allegedly knew of these matters and ignored them, an accusation he first hesitated to deny categorically at a press conference, seemingly for fear he might err through faulty recollection, but after a P.R. consultant pulled him aside and said something to him, he flatly denied knowing and ignoring such activity. Starr requested an independent investigation and a full report.

The Regents hired the Pepper Hamilton law firm of Philadelphia to investigate certain university administrators and head coach Art Briles. The law firm furnished the regents a 60-page full report and a summary half that size. The regents released the summary but not the full report. According to the summary, the investigation largely confirmed the victims’ allegations.

At the May 26 news conference, the regents announced Starr’s removal as president, but stated that he would continue as chancellor and as a law professor. They also announced the suspension of head football coach Art Briles pending his firing. Days later, Starr resigned his post as chancellor.

Discernment question #1 — Do we know all the facts?

This news was met by most with shock and sadness, by some with contempt and scorn. Typical of the latter is Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg, who seemingly vents decades of simmering animosity toward Starr in a June 4, 2016 piece titled “Ken Starr’s turn to be the focus of scandal and scorn.”

The column describes Judge Starr’s work in the Clinton impeachment as done “with the self-righteous zealotry of the brood of vipers for whom Jesus reserved some of his harshest words.” Now it is Judge Starr who stands in the dock–accused of “looking the other way in a cover-up that placed the almighty pigskin above the violent assault of humans.”

On the surface, the irony is undeniable. The facts seem so cut-and-dried. But we know that every story has another side, which is why we ought not rush to judgment. We do well to remember the admonition of James, the Lord’s brother, to be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

In an interview with KWTX-TV, Starr said that he resigned as chancellor “as a matter of conscience.” The board of regents “are good people and love Baylor,” Starr stated, “but they have continued to follow a policy that I had to follow as an official. But I urge them toward transparency, transparency.”

Briles said explicitly what Starr only implied. “Keep in mind,” Briles said at his press conference, “the complete scope of what happened here has not been disclosed and unfortunately at this time I am contractually obligated to remain silent on the matter . . . I can only assume that the report, which is not independent, supports the conclusions that the Board has already drawn.” In other words, there is another side to this story and more to be heard.

Discernment question #2 — Are we sure about motives?

The public narrative to date portrays head football coach Art Briles as undiluted evil, a coach who regularly recruited known assailants such as Sam Ukwuachu, a former freshman All-American dismissed from Boise State for violent behavior and found guilty last August of sexual assault. But the head coach’s profile changes with the story-teller and with additional facts.

Behind the beleagured coach is a man who describes himself as “a father of two daughters, a grandfather, and a husband,” a man who Ken Starr refused to throw under the bus, contrary to his own self-interests. “Art Briles is a coach of second chance[s],” Starr observed. “He’s a good person.” But what is this business about second chances?

It appears that Briles’ recruiting philosophy was a reflection of his personal faith. In his 2014 autobiography, Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith, the coach says he was in the “kid-saving business.” He sees himself in the role of a father figure to many of his players. “If they do falter or make a mistake, then we need to save them and give them a chance to get back on the right path,” Briles wrote.

Discernment question #3 — Will some big-picture language help explain?

The same principle applies to universities, says Martin E. Marty, Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School (for more information, go to www.memarty.com ). Marty believes that Baylor’s present experiences can be very instructive. Based on his analysis, Baylor struggled unsuccessfully with the pull of two conflicting religions–football and Christianity.

Marty writes,”Football, on the collegiate and professional levels and, in a world of trickle-down religions, often in high school and little-kid versions, fits most definitions of religion, some of them vividly at Super Bowls and Texas High School rites, sacrifices, and glorifications.” For starters, he mentions “ultimate concern, ceremonial reinforcement, at least quasi-metaphysical depth, emotional exactions, communalism, etc.”

“Baylor is at least temporarily paying for its over-investment in the religion of football,” Marty writes, “or in its failure to let norms of Baylor’s faith-context and its monitors be alert, conscience guided, and able to provide perspectives.”

Yet despite Baylor’s present stumble–or perhaps because of it–the oldest university in Texas “can regain perspectives available in the better resources of its Baptist/Christian origins,” opines Marty, a Lutheran. And when Baylor has found its balance, writes Marty, “it can serve as an alerter and guide for others”–a model for every school that also feels the pull of two religions.

POSTSCRIPT — Our age has become accustomed, when bad things happen, to spreading the blame a widely as possible–and also to absolve the actual guilty person(s) of their individual responsibility. In this instance, some call for all of Baylor to feel ashamed. Not so, says Baylor professor Kevin Tankersley in a powerful opinion piece in the Waco Tribune-Herald, of which the following is the closing paragraph. (To read it all,Google the author’s name and the newspaper name.)

“Baylor is not simply one coach or one administrator or any one person, no matter the national recognition or the achievements or the fame or the anything else, good or bad. Baylor is those 16,787 students and those hundreds of faculty and staff members and the 120,000 alumni . . . going to class, going to work, going to their volunteer sites, doing the best work they can to make this world — at least their small corner of it — a better place.”