As long-time GetReligion readers know, I am a conflicted Baylor University graduate. I had great times there and rough times, as well. The later were almost all linked to attempts by student journalists, including me, to do journalism about subjects that cause tension on all campuses (think Penn State), but especially at private, religious colleges and universities.
What kinds of subjects? Well, like sexual assaults. Hold that thought.
These ties that bind have led to lots of GetReligion work because Baylor is frequently in the news. Open the search engine here, enter "Baylor" and you will find pages of material about press coverage of complicated events at my alma mater. Here's how one early post opened:
A long, long time ago, I was a journalism major at Baylor University, which, as you may know, is the world's largest Baptist university. Baylor is located in Waco, Texas, which many folks in the Lone Star state like to call "Jerusalem on the Brazos." It didn't take long, as a young journalist, to realize that stories linking Baylor to anything having to do with sin and sex were like journalistic catnip in mainstream news newsrooms.
Or how about this language, drawn from one of my national "On Religion" columns?
Every decade or so Baylor University endures another media storm about Southern Baptists, sex and freedom of the press. Take, for example, the historic 1981 Playboy controversy. It proved that few journalists can resist a chance to use phrases such as "seminude Baylor coeds pose for Playboy." ...
I know how these Baylor dramas tend to play out, because in the mid-1970s there was another blowup in which students tried to write some dangerously candid news reports. In that case, I was one of the journalism students who got caught in the crossfire.
So now we have another Baylor controversy in the news, potentially a scandal, that involves sin, sex and, wait for it, college football. As you would expect, there has been coverage. But has the word "Baptist" played a significant role? This is an important question, since Baylor has plenty of critics that consider it a hive for right-wing fundamentalists, while others believe it has compromised and modernized too much.
In terms of hard news, the key story is from The Waco Tribune-Herald. Now, understand that the Trib doesn't need to tell local readers that Baylor is Baptist. That would be like journalists at the South Bend Tribune reminding local readers that the University of Notre Dame is Catholic. Here is the top of the story:
Sam Ukwuachu, a former freshman All-American at Boise State University before transferring to play football at Baylor University, was convicted ... of sexually assaulting a former Baylor soccer player in 2013.
Jurors in Waco’s 54th State District Court deliberated about 5 1/2 hours before finding the 22-year-old defensive end from Pearland guilty of one count of sexual assault.
Ukwuachu took off his glasses and sobbed loudly as Judge Matt Johnson polled the jury following his conviction. After court recessed Thursday night, the judge found Ukwuachu’s bond insufficient and ordered him jailed.
Ukwuachu testified Thursday that his sexual encounter with the then 18-year-old freshman was consensual and that he has too much respect for women to treat one that way.
So what role has faith, and Baylor's Baptist DNA, played in the mainstream media coverage to this point? I mean, clearly, there is a moral and even religious angle to this story because, well, Baylor is Baylor.
In the actual trial story, the only real God talk came from the campus official linked -- a key point here -- to discipline issues on this giant private campus.
Baylor investigated the incident, but Associate Dean Bethany McCraw testified outside the presence of the jury that she determined “by a preponderance of the evidence that there was not enough evidence to move forward.” ...
After Ukwuachu’s conviction, Baylor released a statement from spokeswoman Lori Fogleman that said Baylor is committed to “maintaining a safe and caring community.”
“Acts of sexual violence contradict every value Baylor University upholds as a caring Christian community. In recent years we have joined university efforts nationally to prevent campus violence against women and sexual assault, to actively support survivors of sexual assault with compassion and care, and to take action against perpetrators,” the statement says.
It's crucial to note that Baylor is a private school and, as such, all matters of discipline -- for students, as well as staff and faculty -- are completely private. There are bullet-proof privacy laws at stake here, as I have constantly had to remind my journalism students through the years since most of them come from private Christian colleges and universities. School officials simply cannot talk about discipline cases.
But did Baylor officials do enough? What did they know and when did they know it? Baylor President Ken Starr -- who knows a thing or two about the law and sex scandals -- has pledged that Baylor will investigate further. The press should follow this carefully, yes, in part because Baylor is a Christian school and has one of the nation's top football teams. Like it or not, both halves of that equation make this story newsworthy.
Now, what about that actual Trib story? I found it interesting that readers who followed the coverage on Twitter learned that there were several interesting religion angles to this piece that did not make it into the actual newspaper.
Did Ukwuachu and the alleged victim meet in a Bible class?
Why did the newspaper avoid some of the interesting details in testimony by the athletics chaplain? It appears that Ukwuachu went on a missions trip to Zambia and was, according to testimony, affected quite deeply by what happened there. He has struggled, it seems, with issues linked to alcohol and depression and these matters, at Baylor, were frequently discussed in the context of faith and ministry.
Does this mean that he is innocent? Of course not. It means that this story may be even more complex and tragic than the crime report in the newspaper.
As you would imagine, this story has also drawn quite a bit of coverage from sports media (ESPN coverage here) and columnists in Texas.
The elite crew at Texas Monthly -- kind of the Lone Star Rolling Stone -- has weighed in with a piece that makes lots of valid points, but contains its usual fierce advocacy reporting that makes it hard to know the point at which the journalism ends and the preaching begins. Basically, the only Texas religion that is taken seriously in this piece is football. A sample:
Baylor’s treatment of the charges against Ukwuachu aren’t consistent with a program that takes those charges seriously. Coach Briles and Bennett declined comment to Texas Monthly regarding Ukwuachu’s case, but Phil Bennett, the team’s defensive coordinator, did comment in June, and his comment was that he expected to see Ukwuachu on the field in the fall. We don’t know why Bennett was publicly espousing his belief that Ukwuachu would be notching up sacks in 2015 even while he was privately aware that the player could well be on his way to a 20 year prison sentence. But this also isn’t the first instance of Baylor’s football program failing to take rape accusations against its players seriously -- or of Waco law enforcement making questionable decisions when they involve accusations against Baylor football players, as well.
Once again, Baylor's Baptist ties should be covered as part of this case.
Alas, the larger truth here is that all schools tend to hide their sins, especially when sports and big money are involved. At the same time, there are real privacy issues that affect discipline cases at private schools, even more than at schools funded by tax dollars. Stay tuned.