James C. Moore: Drama of Ken Starr's fall at Baylor is rich in political irony
School's handling of sexual assault charges against football players shows misplaced priorities, he says
Editor’s Note: James C. Moore is a Texan and the best-selling author of “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential,” and five other books on politics and science. He is a business development and communications consultant in Austin, Texas, for Big Bend Strategies.
Imagine taking the predicament of Baylor University President Ken Starr and the Bears’ football team to a movie studio, and pitching it as a dramatic film. By the time you have finished outlining the narrative and its ironies, you are told the idea is preposterous and simply not believable.
Perhaps that’s true, but it is, unfortunately, real—and tells us more about our national culture and identity than we probably want to know. After reports surfaced earlier this week that Starr had been fired, Baylor’s Board of Regents has now announced that he has been dismissed as president but will remain as chancellor and a law professor. Football coach Art Briles has been suspended with the intention to terminate him. The ongoing saga out of Waco over how the conservative Baptist campus handles incidents of sexual violence involving athletes are likely to offer enduring proof of our unspoken, but tragically obvious, priorities.
No one can argue that the publicly available information makes it appear that Briles coddled convicted rapists because they could help his team win games. According to the Waco Herald-Tribune, Briles told Big 12 reporters—without addressing specifics of the multiple cases involving his players—that he was “concerned when anything of that nature transpires.” But there is still no readily accessible explanation regarding how a man who vigorously investigated a president of the United States for a consensual sexual indiscretion has managed to politically diminish legitimate accusations of rape on his college campus.
Starr has been almost completely silent as two Bear football players were convicted of rape and six other sexual assaults were alleged against their teammates. Last year, after transfer player Sam Ukwuachu was convicted of assaulting a former Baylor soccer player in 2013, Starr issued a brief statement that neither mentioned Briles nor used the word “football.” As president and chancellor, he has appeared to hide behind federal laws protecting student privacy, and again spoke only in rank generalities when he finally addressed the controversy more fully in February in a letter posted on the university’s website.
Starr’s near-silence around sexual assault and Baylor athletics stands in marked, almost hilariously hypocritical, contrast to the constant leaking of grand jury information when he was the independent counsel investigating President Clinton’s irresponsible dalliance with an intern. Starr’s report led to a failed impeachment proceeding, which concluded with no indictment and a cost to taxpayers of over $70 million.
Too bad the kid from Hope, Arkansas, didn’t play football. (Though Clinton has risen enough in Starr’s estimation over the last two decades to earn his praise; last week he called Clinton “the most gifted politician of the baby boomer generation.”)
Meanwhile, not enough people are talking about Baylor’s failings regarding sexual assault on campus —probably because the subject isn’t very pleasant, and it threatens football. The university has hired a law firm to investigate accusations of rape and shared some of the findings in its statement on Starr and Briles. But when the Dallas Morning News contacted “more than two dozen of the school’s 34 regents” seeking insights on the problem of sexual assault and the football program, not one returned a call.
After all, what could they say?
“Yes, our internal investigation cleared one of our football players, Sam Ukwuachu, of sexual assault before he was convicted by a jury.”
Or: “Yes, we ignored the claims of student Jasmin Hernandez when she told us she had been raped by football player Tevin Elliott, and we did not offer her counseling or help as she struggled after the assault and dropped out of the university.”
Hernandez sued Baylor with those claims, and Elliott was also convicted and given a twenty-year prison sentence. Hernandez’ suit certainly takes a spot of shine off the “buckle of the Bible belt.” She says Baylor’s counseling and student health centers both told her mother they were “too full to offer help” to an alleged rape victim, and her parents were only able to speak to a secretary in Coach Briles’ office, who told them they were “looking into it.” Hernandez said she was the sixth student to accuse Elliott of sexual assault, and that Briles was aware of the allegations. (According to recent court filings, Briles does not have to respond officially to the suit until late June.)
But, hey, the coach was winning. And he was determined to recruit Ukwuachu, who had been cut from Boise State for “rules violations” that included getting drunk and violent, which were, in the end, apparently not disqualifications to be a Baylor Bear. (Briles has denied knowing about the athlete’s previous problems before Ukwuachu’s transfer to Baylor.) In the fall of 2013, a Baylor freshman co-ed would accuse Ukwuachu of raping her. Starr ordered one of his deans to investigate the charges, and twelve other claims of sexual assault by others on campus that same year. She cleared the football player, even though a jury later convicted him.
At the same time as that investigation, Elliott was about to go on trial for rape, and Baylor’s Regents gave President and Chancellor Starr and Coach Briles votes of confidence with the school’s pocketbook. Briles made almost $6 million annually, one of the largest salaries of any collegiate coach in the country. Starr earned $1 million a year.
Despite Starr’s losing the presidency of the school, the political ironies of his public behavior make it seem that hypocrisy is booming on the Waco campus.
Donors helped erect a shining, new $260 million football stadium by the banks of the Brazos River even as female students lived with inequality and Baylor remains out of compliance with Title IX, which requires equal opportunities for women in sports and protects against sexual discrimination under federal law. The university did not hire a Title IX coordinator until three and a half years after the government had insisted on the position for all universities and colleges.
The university is still teaching, though—lessons like being a woman can be a bit of a disadvantage at Baylor. And Ken Starr’s dismissal as president and Art Briles’ ability to remain in his job as long as he did are object lessons for even casual students. There’s also a simple study guide for Baylor collegians worried about a pop quiz on what this all might mean:
Football is king. But karma might actually be a thing, too. Just ask Ken Starr. And as always, go Bears!
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 26 to reflect Baylor University’s announcements regarding the dismissal of Ken Starr as president and indefinite suspension of Art Briles.
James C. Moore is a Texan and the best-selling author of “Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential,” and five other books on politics and science. He is a business development and communications consultant in Austin, Texas, for Big Bend Strategies.