Baylor's Epic Failure


Baylor’s Epic Failure on a Fundamental Responsibility  

An educational institution’s most fundamental responsibility to every student who enrolls is two-fold. First, to provide an opportunity to earn a quality academic experience that will prepare them to succeed long after they leave campus. And second, to keep students safe and healthy while on campus by establishing a learning and social environment that is safe and secure.

The recent revelations regarding the abject failure of Baylor University to meet these responsibilities amounts to one of the more epic breaches of public trust in the history of American higher education, on par with Penn State’s negligence in its handling of child predator Jerry Sandusky. Documents show that police officers in Waco, Texas, along with head football coach Art Briles and other university officials were aware of at least some of the physical and sexual assault allegations made against numerous players but did not take disciplinary action or fully investigate all allegations and in some cases, covered up information.

Let’s be clear. Colleges and universities, particularly those that sponsor big-time athletics, have long been negligent as it relates to athletes on the first of these responsibilities, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball. The fact is, there is no longer any question that the academic experience that scholarship athletes are receiving at far too many universities has been woefully inadequate and in some cases, fraudulent. Simply consider the most recent academic fraud scandal at the University of North Carolina, where for over a decade, athletes were channeled into bogus courses and majors for the sole purpose of keeping them eligible to play. And UNC was long considered to be one of the schools that “did it the right way”.

And let’s be honest. “We” (the public) have known of this sort of academic fraud for decades. We’ve known, and accepted, with a wink and a nod, the notion that our favorite schools can recruit and admit athletes with sub-standard academic preparation and skills and demand more than a full-time, extremely physically taxing commitment to athletic training and requirements. We know darn well that an enormous number of these athletes simply cannot compete academically in the classroom. We also have known that schools will do whatever is necessary, including providing “bogus” classes and majors and committing academic fraud so that these athletes can compete in the name of athletic glory. The fact is, we call them “student-athletes” but we know they are, for all intents and purposes, professional athletes whose academic experience on campus has virtually nothing in common with that of the general student body.

We’ve all been complicit in this academic fraud for a long time. We’ve accepted it as a part of the “cost” of providing entertainment and the right to brag about our favorite school’s athletic accomplishments at the water cooler. What’s so bad about a few young people receiving a sub-standard educational experience in the name of athletic glory? After all, these kids are doing what they want to do - play ball and hopefully end up making money in the pros. What more are we responsible for? They receive a scholarship and if they don’t take full advantage of the academic opportunities that scholarship presents, well, that’s their fault. This isn’t about “us”. It’s about “them” so we’re “off the hook.”

That’s how we have justified this failure of fundamental academic responsibility. And we’ve been comfortable with this arrangement.  After all, the academic experience of the vast majority of the student body is fine. What’s the harm in “sacrificing” the academic experience of a few athletes as long as the general student body is not adversely affected? Even if the integrity and academic reputation of the institution suffers when such scandals are revealed, we can live with that as long as our teams are winning. That’s a perfectly reasonable level of sacrifice for athletic glory.

And at least we are meeting the second of their most basic responsibilities to all students.

But are we?

Based upon what has transpired at Baylor, it is clear that we are not. And our negligence in this area is far more insidious and damaging than our negligence in providing athletes with a legitimate academic experience.

This is why the scandal at Baylor is so utterly repugnant and should be a siren call for an honest discussion regarding the role of athletics, and in particular, football, on our college campuses. There is no question that the primary driver of all of this is football (and to a lesser extent, men’s basketball). Football’s sheer scope, engrained tradition, enormous entertainment appeal and economic clout make it the unmistakable driver of the athletics enterprise at all levels. Football is the elephant in the room in the debate regarding the role of sports not only on campus but in our society.

Given the increasing revelations regarding the link between football and brain trauma, an argument can be made that universities are also physically “sacrificing” the young people representing them on the football field in the name of entertainment and generating revenue. We are no longer talking about broken bones, strained ligaments and sore backs. We are talking about life changing damage to the brain, the organ that makes us human. The link between football and brain trauma has raised the issue of the game’s impact on and place in the academy to a new level. It is now a moral issue.

While the football industrial complex’s public relations machine is running full throttle in its effort to convince parents that advancements in equipment, diagnosis, testing, protocol and tackling techniques have made the game safe, the cold, hard truth is that these claims are being made with little concrete, scientific evidence to back them up. Even on the most basic of issues, there is widespread disagreement, an example being how long a victim of a concussion should be held out of action. Is it a week? Two weeks? A month? A season? We simply do not know.

In short, while we have little idea of the effectiveness of various treatments and safety measures, what is absolutely not in doubt is that playing tackle football is damaging to the brain. That is indisputable. The only question is the extent of the damage. This raises a serious ethical dilemma for institutional leaders as it applies to continuing to subject young people to brain trauma while we research the impact of football on the brain. We know football damages the brain, but we are not quite sure to what extent yet. That being the case, can we truly justify allowing the young people in our charge, those very young people who we have a responsibility to for creating a safe and secure learning environment, continue to play while we find out? How many will develop CTE while the science slowly accumulates?

So, if institutional failure for providing a legitimate academic experience for athletes is not enough, now the possibility of what can be considered a even more serious failure, that of ensuring students’ safety, is also in question. Given this basic responsibility, how can any educational institution sponsor and celebrate an activity that scrambles young people’s brains? Isn’t the purpose of an educational institution to build and strengthen brains?

But if that is not enough to warrant a full-throated, honest discussion regarding the role of football on our campuses, what transpired at Baylor elevates the debate about the role of big time athletics to an entirely new level. And if you think that Baylor is an isolated incident, think again. The football “machine” at many universities has been covering up athlete transgressions of many sorts, from academic fraud to legal issues, to criminal acts to sexual abuse, for decades.  At far too many institutions, it’s all about protecting “The Program”.

Similar to our (the public’s) acceptance of the cost of sacrificing athletes’ academic experience in the name of athletic glory, there is a similar acceptance of the physical “sacrifice” that athletes must endure in the name of winning games. Many are willing to look the other way as they cheer on their teams because the damage being inflicted is borne by the athletes alone. After all, a university sponsoring football is not inflicting any brain trauma on the general student body.  While there may be some soul searching regarding the ethical dimension of sacrificing football players in this way, we are comfortable in knowing that the damage ends there.

But it doesn’t.

Baylor is clearly a case where the excesses of “King Football” have spilled over to where the safety of the general student body is being placed at risk. When you not only have coaches and athletic directors, but university administrators that are complicit in turning a blind eye or actively covering up sexual assault, all in the name of protecting “The Program”, things have clearly gone way off the rails.

Or, stated differently, it’s bad enough that an institution of higher education will knowingly compromise academic integrity in the name of athletic glory. But for an educational institution to have a value system that not only sacrifices athletes’ long term health but that also so blatantly devalues women and their safety, all in the name of championship banners? THAT is reprehensible.

What transpired at Baylor should make all of us – fans, alumni, faculty, academic administrators and trustees --  honestly contemplate whether football is truly important enough to the long-term success and effectiveness of an institution of higher education to continue to compromise academic integrity, while also placing the long-term health and safety not only of  players, but women on campus, all in the name of entertainment, corporate sponsorships and championship banners. Can universities continue to sponsor and tolerate activities that on so many levels contradict their two most fundamental responsibilities?

The Baylor case should cause all of us to ask the following questions: Is this really who we are? Is this really who we want to be?