As you would expect, I heard from quite a few people this week about the events unfolding at Baylor University, where I did my undergraduate degree in journalism and American history and a master's in church-state studies back in the 1970s.
Baylor is one of those subjects that I know too much about and the emotions are quite complex. My family's ties to the school are deep and I am well aware of the debt that I owe many Baylor people -- my journalism mentor David McHam, historian (and political gadfly) Ralph Lynn and the late choirmaster and composer Robert H. Young head that list.
Then again, the Baylor administration (camped on the "moderate" side of Baptist life at the time) turned the journalism program upside down midway through my undergraduate years after efforts to control the coverage of controversial subjects such as, you got it, sexual assaults on or near campus. I was one of a dozen or so student journalists caught up in that. When I left, I pretty much avoided coming back to the campus for several decades.
So when Michelle Boorstein called from The Washington Post -- "The Ken Starr-Baylor story shows how religious schools struggle to deal with sex assault" -- I am afraid that my comments were rather dense and complex. She was very patient and professional as we tried to figure out the heart of what I was trying to say. She ended up with this:
For such religious schools, the question is how to balance the country’s encouragement of sexual assault victims to come forward with campus rules that restrict sexual behavior and, as a result, often inhibit open discussion. Baylor’s sexual conduct policy says it expects students to express sexual intimacy “in the context of marital fidelity.”
“This raises questions about whether serious religious universities can take part in sports at the highest levels,” said Terry Mattingly, a columnist who is part of a prominent family of Baylor graduates and who founded a journalism center at the Council for Christian Colleges and University. “It could make it harder to talk about it.”
The only problem I see there is that the Washington Journalism Center at the CCCU has now, as many GetReligion readers will know, been rebooted at The King's College in New York City. But I understand the logic, in light of the subject material, of noting my experience in a nationwide network of Christian campuses.
So what was I trying to say and how does that affect the coverage we are seeing in national press about the Baylor crisis? What is the "it" in my second sentence? Later in the afternoon I sent some friends and family the following, which is a variation of what Boorstein and I discussed:
My two points again:
* It's hard, in the current legal and cultural climate, to be a school that attempts to defend the basics of Christian doctrine on sex.
* Second, all big-time sports schools are struggling to handle the current climate of alcohol, sexual assault and the law.
Baylor is one of a very few schools that must do both. That's a double whammy, in the public square.
Thus, Baylor faces agonizing questions about its own identity and it's future in the Big 12.
Looking ahead -- I still think it's crucial for journalists to confirm whether current Baylor students sign a doctrinal covenant. That's legally important, today (under the HHS mandate guidelines, the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case, etc.). Can Baylor survive as BOTH a doctrinally defined voluntary association AND as a major sports power?
Think about this for a moment. How many truly religious universities are there that compete at the highest levels of NCAA sports? How many have any kind of doctrinal/lifestyle covenant that define them as a doctrinally based voluntary association? How many face the kinds of pressures that LGBT groups are now bringing on the NCAA?
Next, consider the fact that, as The New York Times noted, there are nearly 200 universities that are currently being investigated because of struggles with sexual-assault issues. Baylor was not one of them, at the time this story broke.
So, from my point of view, there are two essential stories here and I hope some newsrooms will assign experienced professionals to cover both of them.
First, there is a solid religion angle here as the Baylor Regents try to defend their school, while repenting at the same time. Does Baylor want to live out its own moral doctrines? That's a complicated question that will lead to hard decisions, sooner or later. This deserves serious coverage by religion-beat professionals.
And then there will be sports reporters covering the Baylor crisis and the complicated sexual-assault issues on those 200 or so other campuses. I am sure (not) that the sports czars at other schools never blur the line between campus discipline and the work of local police. Perhaps some other schools are struggling to provide justice for women, while striving to allow the accused to retain their legal rights (while also remembering that a sports scholarship is a very real benefit linked to a contract)?
Maybe there are a few football coaches at powerhouse schools who are still trying to call their local contacts to smooth things out? Gosh, you never hear accusations of that in places like, to mention a campus here in my neck of the woods, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I'm sure things are fine at the University of Oklahoma and other sports kingdoms across this land (hello Florida State University).
So, journalists and news consumers, let me urge you to read the following essay by ESPN senior writer Ivan Maisel -- "Art Briles' firing a mark of a new era in college football." Here are two crucial passages:
Art Briles took Baylor from doormat to championships, but his rise was undone by lack of discipline to athletes charged with sexual assault.
Briles' dismissal is different from Barry Switzer being forced out at Oklahoma, or Jim Tressel at Ohio State, to name two other highly successful coaches who lost their jobs because of their program's misdeeds off the field. Oklahoma and Ohio State live among the blue bloods of the sport. Both programs regained their status within college football and maintain it to the present day.
Baylor asking Briles to leave is like Facebook turning on Mark Zuckerberg. Both of these CEOs created something where nothing existed.
Who is responsible? You are. We all are. We demand greater adherence to community standards of good behavior. Coaches must treat players well. Players must treat other students with respect. The double standard is the exception, no longer the rule.
The reasons for this may not be mere honor. This is a more litigious society. Legal responsibility weighs more heavily on employers than it did a generation ago. Thanks to the internet, we all live more public lives. The motivations for good behavior may not come from an angelic place. But good behavior is demanded where once it wasn't.
Baylor is not the first school to demand it. Illinois dumped head coach Tim Beckman the week before last season started because he treated his players poorly. But Beckman had won one Big Ten game in two seasons.
Alabama forced out defensive line coach Bo Davis three weeks ago reportedly because he didn't cooperate with an NCAA investigation. Not cooperating with the NCAA used to be an article of faith among coaches.
Still, Davis is an assistant. He is not the head coach who has been lionized for turning a perennial loser into a national contender. That is who Baylor just ditched. That's what makes the dismissal of Briles a milestone.
There is much more I could say. And I will keep reading.
Some reporters may want to explore tensions that may have existed between Baylor's overtly Christian athletes and those who, well, walked on the wild side. There may also be athletes who, at Baylor, turned their lives around and straightened out. That's a story, too. Sometimes people make mistakes and then change. That does not (let me stress) change the law. But it can complicate matters at the human level.
Meanwhile, the Baylor Regents will wrestle with the eternal truths in the Bible, as well as the evolving legal culture surrounding Title IX. There is a story there. It's painful, but it's real.