Should the “Death Penalty” be in the cards for Baylor football?

Going as far back as two years ago, we were hearing stories about Baylor football taking cases of potential sexual assault by its players – ahem! – lightly. 10 days ago, the biggest bombshell of them all dropped, and it confirmed that our worst possible apprehensions couldn’t begin to cover the horror happening at BU.

When former Baylor assistant coach Colin Shillinglaw was fired along with head coach Art Briles, he sued the school for wrongful termination. In response, the university regents have essentially decided to chop off the arm to save the body, because the information they released makes everyone associated with Baylor look bad. Indeed, three Baylor regents released a series of rather embarrassing text messages between Briles, staff members and even then-athletic director Ian McCaw that show Baylor football had become a cesspool of crime, cheating and complete absence of accountability.

You can get all the damning details in this excellent story by Deadspin’s Patrick Redford. Suffice it to say that Baylor, a desperately terrible program before Briles’ arrival, was so starved for success that it not only allowed bums and criminals to enroll at the university and play on its team, but covered up their transgressions to keep them on the roster.

Remember when the college football world was glorifying defensive end Shawn Oakman? You know, this fuckin’ dude?


He’s a guy whom Baylor took on after he was kicked off Penn State’s team by Bill O’Brien because he was being charged with theft and disorderly conduct. Redemption stories are great, until they turn into that same guy, all 6-7 and 280 pounds of him, shoving a Baylor student into a wall, then slamming her face into her bed, calling her a “slut” and a “whore.” They become worse when word breaks out that she went to Baylor athletics to tell her story and they chose to sit on the information.

This is just a sample. On the topic of sexual assault alone, the allegation is that as many as 31 Baylor football players committed as many as 52 acts of rape and that, for all intents and purposes, Baylor football went out of its way to cover many if not all of them up.

I find myself wishing, above all, that those who have committed these acts, and those who helped cover them up, get what is coming to them from the criminal justice system. We can talk as much we like about what the NCAA will do (or won’t) about this, but I want to see the guilty parties get the criminal sanctions they deserve.

Should Baylor get the “Death Penalty?” 

For all those unfamiliar with the concept, the “Death Penalty”, or the “Repeat-Violator Legislation,” to call it by its actual name, consists in shutting down an NCAA athletic program for at least a year. Its effects on said programs are, to put it mildly, devastating. It has only been handed down five times by the NCAA, the most famous of instance of this being SMU football. SMU were shut down in 1987 by the NCAA for systemic and recurrent violations of NCAA recruiting rules, and the mandatory year of inactivity was accompanied by loss of scholarships as well as by bowl game bans. Since SMU football, whose case had no precedent in modern college football when it got the Death Penalty, still has not recovered from the sanctions imposed on it, the NCAA has been loath to administer it again.

But should they do it to Baylor?

It would seem that, as far as cases for the Death Penalty go, this one would be as compelling as it gets. SMU is child’s play compared to this. The NCAA has often sanctioned teams for failing to exercise “institutional control.” Well, in Baylor’s case, it’s an actual refusal to exercise institutional control. We may smirk at the maxim that says “with great power comes great responsibility” because most of us have heard it in Spiderman. Yet, it remains true. And not only were Briles’ players not taught to use the power that comes with being big, strong, athletic and notorious responsibly, they were pretty much being told that being big, strong, athletic or notorious enough can actually allow them to escape responsibility for their actions. There is no denying that what took place within Baylor’s football team was an absolute calamity.

As for the question of whether Baylor should get the Death Penalty, however, I must admit to being a little torn, because I like neither the thought of giving it nor the thought of not giving it.

On the one hand, I hate the idea of punishing people for the deeds of others, and that’s what would be happening here should the NCAA administer Baylor football the Death Penalty. New coach Matt Rhule and his staff, new athletic director Mack Rhoades, and all the players in this year’s recruiting class, none of them played any part in the “disciplinary black hole” that Briles and his staff established. I’m not fond of punishing them for something they didn’t do.

As far as the players go, they would obviously be given the right to transfer without losing a year of eligibility, as ordinary transfer rules would require. However, let’s not kid ourselves, this is still punishment. Beyond having to pick a different college than the one they wanted, they also would have to fit into a team that has recruited past them after they committed to Baylor. And before somebody makes the argument, we cannot pretend this year’s class of freshmen were seduced by Briles’ show-’em-a-good-time tactics, another illegal and unethical trademark of the previous regime. Of the 27 commitments in Baylor’s 2017 recruiting class, only one (!!!) had pledged to Baylor before Rhule was hired less than two months before signing day. (If Rhule decides to leave, and he probably should, this recruiting tour-de-force should serve as further evidence that the athletic director who ends up hiring him will have made a shrewd move indeed.) Rhule and his staff have done nothing to deserve this either, except agree to coach at Baylor.

It should be said that things do not look good, given that the NCAA web site already has a built-in response to my “don’t punish the innocent” argument:

The simple fact is that the punitive nature of NCAA-imposed sanctions make it unavoidable that the penalties imposed on institutions as a result of their involvement in major infractions will have some negative effect on innocent student-athletes.

Obviously, should we get any evidence that what happened under Briles is still happening, I would be quick to revisit my position on this front. As things stand, however, I’m not fond of handing down such heavy sanctions on people who have done nothing to deserve them. It’s why I argued against imposing it on Penn State five years ago, and it’s why I’m queasy about handing it to Baylor now.

But then, there is the matter of the message you’re sending if you don’t hand it down.

There is a significant difference between the cases of Penn State (which I did not want to see get the Death Penalty) and Baylor. The disgraceful pedophile Jerry Sandusky coached at Penn State from the late 60s to 1999. Next to nothing of what Penn State was in the Sandusky years remained the same, except for president Graham Spanier and football head coach Joe Paterno, both of whom were fired when news of Sandusky’s sexual assaults on children, and of the two men’s knowledge of them, became public just about 12 years after the disgraced defensive coordinator’s departure. When university officials learned of what Sandusky had done, and of Spanier and Paterno’s cover-up, they reacted the only way that they could by firing everyone involved.

In Baylor’s case, this has happened in the past five years, and Briles was fired just last year. The administration is still intact, apart from Briles and former athletic director Ian McCaw*. Therefore, the message that such things can happen under a university’s roof, and yet that all will be forgiven provided the administration cleans house when the staff’s transgressions become public is a very dangerous one to send. Several athletic departments with struggling football teams, much like Baylor was when it hired Briles, would hear this message, as they say, loud and clear. And who knows? Such a desperate school might bet that it can weather the inevitable PR shitstorm that would come with hiring an Art Briles by posting a few 10-win seasons.

I can’t give this piece’s title an answer. I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of administering the Death Penalty to Baylor, but the arguments for it are as strong as they’ll ever be. If Baylor football doesn’t get it for Briles et al. molding it into the debauched universe it has now become, I can’t think of a program that will.


McCaw has since been hired by the disgraceful establishment Liberty University, which is of course presided by  Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the religious nutbag and Liberty founder Reverend Jerry Falwell. Here is what Falwell Jr. had to say about his latest hiring: “Ian’s success really speaks for itself,” Falwell said. “You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure, it fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going. This is an exciting time for us.” So yes, just in case you’re questioning your own brain, Falwell Jr. said this of a man who had just resigned from Baylor because it was clear the entire situation with Briles was about to blow up in his face. Such a statement would be irregular from anyone not named Falwell, which is why it was so ironic to hear Outside The Lines’ Tom Ley  emphasize how surprised he was that the Baylor incidents happened at a faith-based institution. Given all three monotheisms’ troubled history with sexual assault, that this would happen at a faith-based university rather than at a secular one strikes me as likelier, not less likely. 



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