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Baylor Football's Blind Eye to Violence

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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bombshell report in Texas Monthly has exposed Baylor University's atrocious handling of a football player with a history of violence who transferred to the school. It's got everything we've come to expect from these scandals: failure to investigate, ignoring of evidence, disregard for past victims leading to an attack on another, and a complete breakdown by administrators and local press to do any sort of due diligence.

As Jessica Luther, who broke the story along with Dan Solomon, put it, "Baylor is not an exception or anomaly." A look over at the running list Luther keeps of rape allegations in college football demonstrates the characteristic listlessness of programs in disciplining players. Recent cases beyond Baylor prove that an athlete accused of sexual assault can still expect the school that dismisses him to go out of its way to shield him from his crimes, allowing him to go on to transfer to another football program with little penalty. 

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Waco, Texas: In 2013, Freshman All-American defensive end Sam Ukwuachu transferred to Baylor after being kicked off of Boise State's squad for violating team rules. He sat out the 2013 season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules, which require a one-year waiting period; he then sat out 2014 for reasons the team also didn't specify beyond violating team rules.

We now know the reason. In October 2013, a female Baylor soccer player accused Ukwuachu of raping her; she reported the assault and underwent a rape kit the following day. Eight months later, in June 2014, the district attorney finally decided to pursue felony sexual assault charges. The charges flew under the media's radar for nearly 14 months, even with rumors abounding on campus about Ukwuachu's suspension. The indictment wasn't completely sealed, so ignore the overly defensive couching by Waco editorial boards. Luther and Solomon stress that "those charges were readily accessible to anyone who searched his name at the McLennan County Courthouse." Rather, local reporters "seemed curiously incurious" about Ukwuachu's suspension.

Baylor's administration seemed similarly uninterested in properly investigating the accusations. The school took a look at soft pieces of evidence such as text messages and a polygraph test commissioned by Ukwuachu himself, while ignoring the rape kit that found significant injuries and bleeding. (The university released a statement Tuesday saying that it has no legal right to the results of the rape kit.) This is particularly frustrating to those of us who constantly have to hear sexual assault apologists wax on about a lack of tangible evidence as a smokescreen to discredit the victim. Here the victim did everything right following her attack, from the immediacy of the report to obtaining medical evidence of assault, and yet the school still ignored the hard evidence.

The university ultimately decided not to discipline Ukwuachu despite the pending charges, and washed its hands of any responsibility to the victim. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and, according to Luther and Solomon, was forced to rearrange her own schedule to avoid running into Ukwuachu in classes. Her scholarship ended up being reduced, and she eventually transferred to another school, while Ukwuachu graduated from Baylor in May. 

Last week, Ukwuachu was convicted of second-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to 180 days in jail, 10 years of felony probation, and 400 hours of community service.

These are all the usual lessons we seem to never learn when either a university or the justice system or the media -- or all three -- fails a victim. But there's an additional question in this particular case: Why was Ukwuachu allowed to transfer to Baylor in the first place?

As Luther and Solomon note, it was a matter of public record that he had a history of violence; documents published in a follow-up in Texas Monthly reveal he was dismissed from the Boise State team after he punched his hand through a window in a drunken rage. In the documents, Boise State's assistant athletic director notes that he repeatedly advised Ukwuachu's then-girlfriend, with whom he lived, to stay away from him. Other handwritten notes reveal Ukwuachu to be verbally abusive, and that the woman said she would "probably not" admit it if she were being physically abused. Last Thursday, she testified that Ukwuachu had punched her several times and choked her.

Baylor denies knowing the circumstances surrounding Ukwuachu's dismissal, while Boise State's then-head coach, Chris Petersen, insists he called Baylor coach Art Briles and "thoroughly apprised" him of those circumstances. In an attempt to show Peterson's team wasn't completely forthcoming, Baylor released the transfer form on which Boise State indicated that Ukwuachu was not suspended for disciplinary reasons and was eligible to return to the school. But as Luther notes, this form refers to the university at large, not the football team; athletic and academic discipline don't always go hand in hand, and even at Baylor, Ukwuachu was allowed to continue to attend school while he was suspended from football.

It's unclear whether Petersen, now the head coach at the University of Washington, knew about Ukwuachu's history of violence against his ex-girlfriend. But at the very least, he was aware of the player's violent behavior generally, and the athletic department was worried enough about it to dismiss him from the team. At this point, you can only take Briles and Petersen at their word, but according to Sports Illustrated's Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel, at least one other school refused to accept Ukwuachu's transfer based on his past. A former University of Florida employee told Evans and Thamel that in May 2013, then-Gators coach Will Muschamp "wouldn't touch him" after speaking with Boise State. 

It matters what Briles knew and when he knew it. It matters that the coach of a prestigious college football program took on a player deemed untouchable by at least two other big-time teams. It matters that a university with a history of not taking sexual assault seriously opened its campus to a man with a history of violence against women. It matters that local media failed to ask enough questions about any part of Ukwuachu's disciplinary record, from his dismissal at Boise State to his suspension at Baylor. It matters that all these unanswered questions have directly left an innocent woman a victim.

Now the question is what we can do moving forward. On Tuesday, the Big 12's athletic directors voted in support of adopting the SEC's policy blocking transfers of students with a violent record. It's a good step that will strengthen the overall effectiveness of the policy, but many holes still remain. We can only hope the rest of the Power Five conferences will follow suit, which would force athletes with a history of off-field violence to continue their playing careers at second-tier programs willing to take them on. And the SEC's policy has an exception for players who received "limited discipline applied by a sports team, or temporary disciplinary action during an investigation," a loophole that could an incentive not to enact comprehensive punishment or to undertake a thorough enough investigation to result in discipline, as Baylor did with Ukwuachu's rape case. Furthermore, it's customary for universities not to specify the reasons for a player's suspension or dismissal; we've seen countless instances, from Ukwuachu to former Duke basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon, of the willingness of teams to explain a player's offense in vague, neutered language such as "violation of team rules."

That puts the onus on universities to be forthcoming in their discipline, and on local media to keep them honest. The Baylor case shows how far we have to go to be able to trust both to happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net