During my first couple of weeks here in England, I was walking down the street and looked up at a house to see a poster of Cleveland Browns QB and Baylor grad Robert Griffin the Third in the window. American football is already an unusual thing to encounter across the pond, but to see a player I actually am familiar with surprised me. “Sic ‘em bears!” I said aloud, almost reflexively.
I graduated from Baylor in 2010 with a master’s in English literature. During my time there, I taught a couple of classes of freshman composition and many of my students graduated in 2013. I look back on those bright, eager students now and wonder how many of them had friends who were victims of sexual violence, or who experienced sexual violence themselves. And I worry.
Through the past ten months, thanks to solid investigative reporting from Texas Monthly’s Dan Solomon and Jessica Luther, Baylor has been rocked by the revelation that they are among the colleges and universities that covered up sexual assault and rape on campus. But Baylor’s story may be even worse than others, as the cases have been specifically tied to Baylor’s football program. Numerous players have been accused of assaults, and the head of the football program is in the process of being terminated for his role in covering up and allegedly intimidating victims into keeping silent. On Thursday, Baylor president Kenneth Starr was removed from his position, and head coach Art Briles was fired.
But I’m not surprised.
Baylor’s relationship to its athletic prowess — the idolatry of athletes on campus and the excusing of bad behaviors — is common across college campuses in the U.S. When I worked as both a tutor in the writing center and as a teacher, we rarely saw athletes come in for help. It was well known that they had their own tutoring programs and there were rumors that the tutors perhaps didn’t help so much as they did the students’ assignments for them. In an environment where everything is centered on your ability as an athlete, and even academics bends to your will, why wouldn’t that entitlement extend to the bodies of your fellow students?
But all my knowledge of how these athletes were treated is based on whispers, on quiet words spoken in the middle of office hours, on quiet conversations had over drinks at the local pub. Nothing we knew was actionable in of itself, and as graduate students, none of us felt like we had any real power to change the culture of the university.
What’s more is that our whisper campaigns, our quiet warnings to other students, weren’t just about rumors coming from the athletics sector. They were about our own professors, our own supervisors. They were about men who had been let off the hook for behavior that would get them fired anywhere else.
I’ll never forget the moment one of my professors said, as a joke in class, that he’d asked Baylor what he could do to get fired once he was tenured. The answer was to drink alcohol with a student or to sleep with a student.
“I’ve done both and I’m still here, so.” He shrugged.
We laughed, nervous laughter. Everyone knew his reputation. Everyone knew he could get away with stuff because he was an honored professor at the University, despite Baylor’s famed “Christian” environment.
When that same professor later gave me a hug when I passed my thesis defense, other female students gave me significant looks, and I had to immediately clarify that I wasn’t his next protégé.
Now, in a different graduate school, across the ocean, I’m kind of amazed with what we put up with as normal; with what was just part of the culture. Of course, no one at Baylor talked openly about sex, much less sexual assault, because Baylor is a Christian University where good Christian parents send their kids to protect them from all that. Your girls will stay virgins at Baylor because they have strict rules about who can be in what dorms and about sexual behavior on campus.
But cultivating a culture in which consensual sex is a punishable offense and students who do have sex are too ashamed to talk makes it extremely difficult to simultaneously cultivate a culture that exposes and punishes sexual abuses. Baylor prizes an outer image over and above honesty and openness. The university can’t be open about allegations of sexual abuse, because its image depends on not having any such abuse.
I look up at my Master’s diploma on my wall today and cringe. I have great affection for Baylor and for what Baylor taught me. My time in Waco was a time of significant personal growth, aided by the top tier education I received. But those whispers follow me. I remained haunted by the fact that I know these students could have been saved, could have been believed, were it not for a convergence of peculiar Texan Christian culture that kept the worst hidden under a gleam of trophies, NFL contracts and leather Bibles.