In truth, it’s not surprising.
Outrageous? Yes. Infuriating? Of course. But surprising? Nah.
Late Thursday night, just a day after college football’s biggest off-season holiday (National Signing Day), more ugly news about Baylor’s sexual assault scandal hit the Internet. The details were stomach churning: In a libel lawsuit filed by former director of operations Colin Shillinglaw, former head coach Art Briles and his assistants are accused of actively trying to protect players from discipline and law enforcement, creating a disciplinary “black hole” where a variety of offenses like assault, domestic violence, drug use and more magically “disappeared.”
Color me shocked. Or not
Briles appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay this fall for in a sit-down interview with Tom Rinaldi, in which he apologized (for nothing specific) and choked back tears when asked what he would say to his deceased parents about the scandal and his subsequent firing. I’ve sat in Briles’s office and discussed the importance of second chances; he talked throughout his career about not casting the first stone and wanting to show others grace. Because of those conversations, I wanted to believe his tears that day were real.
What I see now is that this pathetic excuse for a man would stop at nothing to win. Granted, he had plenty of company: The lawsuit also details a meeting that Baylor alumni and donors had with regents, with alums and donors demanding to know more about why Briles and others were let go. When a regent explained that keeping Briles & Co. on staff would not uphold “the mission of the university,” one donor allegedly responded, “If you mention Baylor’s mission one more time, I’m going to throw up … I was promised a national championship.”
Sic em, Bears.
But my disgust right now is not with Briles or Baylor. As far as I’m concerned, Briles is a lost cause. He’s had multiple opportunities to come clean, to own his mistakes and come across as truly remorseful. He’s passed on all of them. No, my issue today is with Todd Graham, Tom Herman and Lane Kiffin.
During the football season, after interim coach Jim Grobe was plugged in at Baylor with Briles’s former assistants, multiple colleagues tried to tell me those assistants would have trouble finding jobs when the off-season and coaching carousel rolled around. I rolled my eyes at all of them. If I’ve learned anything from covering big-time athletics, it’s that people will turn their head or bury it in the stand when faced with horrific off-field events if it means a player or a coach can help them win (see Tyreek Hill and Joe Mixon for examples). Can you help someone win and/or make them money? If so, please sign on the dotted line.
That’s why Graham, Herman and Kiffin hired former Baylor assistants to work with them at Arizona State, Texas and Florida Atlantic, respectively. Graham hired former defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, a man who bragged to Baylor fans that Sam Ukwuachu was expected to be eligible for the 2015 season and would add depth to the Bears’ defense. In August 2015, Ukwuachu was found guilty of raping a former Baylor soccer player. That doesn’t make Bennett untouchable though? Arizona State needs out of the Pac-12 South cellar, and he can probably help them improve on a defense that gave up a conference-worst 520.5 yards per game in 2016.
Shortly after Bennett’s hiring, Arizona State released a statement that read, in part: “All university employees are fully vetted through ASU’s human resources department on campus, and Mr. Bennett was no exception.” The Arizona Republic also obtained a letter that Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades wrote on behalf of Bennett in which Rhoades gave his support to Bennett before the Sun Devils hired him. This seems to be good enough for everyone. Graham was not asked any questions at his signing day press conference about the hiring of Bennett, an Arizona State spokesman told Sports Illustrated on Friday.
Herman used a similar background check before hiring Casey Horny as a quality control assistant. To his credit, Herman addressed this with reporters at the beginning of his Wednesday press conference. He told media gathered that “the staff we’ve assembled is totally aligned with our mission,” adding that he had some “very direct and hard conversations” with Horny, whom he has known for a “long, long time,” before hiring him. Rhoades also sent a letter to Herman and Texas that assured “Casey has been cleared” of anything involving “the unfortunate circumstances at Baylor.” He also said Horny, a blatant Briles apologist who posted plenty of pro-Briles tweets (many of which he recently deleted) throughout the 2016 season, “understands he shouldn’t have been involved in social media discussion” and that he “doesn’t support anything that happened there.”
Ditto with Kiffin, who would not answer questions Wednesday regarding the hiring of Kendal Briles, Art’s son. In another recent lawsuit filed against Baylor, which claims 31 Baylor football players were involved in 52 rapes, Kendal Briles is alleged to have told a Bears recruit, “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor and they love football players.”
Kiffin didn’t talk about that Wednesday, instead focusing on his first recruiting class as head coach at Florida Atlantic. In December at the Peach Bowl semifinal in Atlanta, Kiffin issued a familiar refrain, saying Kendal Briles was vetted by FAU administrators and that, like Bennett and Horny, Briles had been given a full endorsement from Baylor. (In an incredulous move, he also bragged to SI.com’s Pete Thamel that he thought about hiring Art Briles, but decided against it, acting as if he should be rewarded for what many would consider common sense and decency.)
The endorsements from Rhoades flat-out confuse me. Why should anyone care what he thinks about something that happened before he was on campus? What knowledge does he really have? And why is “we talked to the previous school currently embroiled in a huge scandal, and they gave him the thumbs up!” your vetting system?
The answer, of course, is that Graham, Herman and Kiffin believe these assistants will help them win, public relations headaches be damned.
How many more sickening details will come out about Briles’s “leadership” at Baylor? How many more lawsuits will be filed in the coming months? Will any of it matter to the decision-makers in the business that is college football?
Brenda Tracy, a rape victim who has become a national advocate for sexual assault awareness and prevention, has said repeatedly that college football needs a hero, someone who will take a stand against violent athletes and coaches and administrators who enable them. I’d settle for someone with a spine.
That we’re likely to find neither in this current climate isn’t surprising.