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The Baylor Sexual Assault Scandal Is Another Wake-Up Call for College Football

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The problem of sexual assault doesn't begin or end with college football. But the sport urgently needs to address it

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The findings of fact document released by Baylor University on Thursday amid the sexual assault scandal now roiling the school and its athletics department runs 13 pages. The section entitled "Barriers to Implementation of Title IX within Baylor’s Football Program" begins on page 9. There are 13 sections in an accompanying list of recommendations from Pepper Hamilton LLP, the law firm that investigated Baylor's handling of sexual assault. And while some of the recommendations in some sections cut across broad areas of the campus, only one of those sections is specifically focused on the athletics department.

Since Baylor President Ken Starr was demoted today and the school began the process of firing head football coach Art Briles, much of the attention has focused on the way that sexual assault went unpunished, or even covered up, by the football program. And there's merit in that. Baylor is the latest in a list of programs where coaches began to believe that winning provided them an excuse and an immunity for inexcusable acts.

But the most chilling part of the findings of fact for me came before the section dealing specifically with the football program.

With respect to sexual assault investigations conducted by Judicial Affairs, staff members in Judicial Affairs applied a very "by the book" student conduct approach that treated all respondents equally, regardless of their status as a student-athlete. However, this rigid approach was not trauma-informed and was overly reliant on the perceived consistency or inconsistency of complainant’s statements to the exclusion of other relevant considerations.

It's worth noting that one of the aspects of Briles' tenure called out in the report -- one that's hardly unique to Baylor -- is an attempt by the football program to exercise control over the discipline of its players. Still, the fact that staff members could be seen as "treat[ing] all respondents equally" at a place where sexual assault was handled as poorly as it was handled at Baylor puts us face-to-face with a truth that we don't want to accept: That the problems with rape in our society go well beyond a runaway football program.

America does not have a college football rape problem. It has a campus rape problem. And while there are unique pathologies that we have to wrestle with in order to deal forthrightly with sexual assault in college sports, we have no hope of solving the sexual assault problem in athletics unless we also work to solve the larger sexual assault problem on college campuses. The issue is the same in both cases; it's just that in one case, the incentive to cover up an assault is even stronger.

And we need to keep reminding ourselves of the bigger picture, because being focused on a small slice of a problem can give us a false sense of achievement. If Ken Starr and the athletics director and Art Briles and all of the football coaches currently involved with the program are eventually shown the door -- and the idea that Starr could stay on after this is an insult to every woman victimized during his time as president -- nothing will have been meaningfully fixed. Because they alone were not to blame for this:

In addition, the investigations were conducted in the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence "doesn’t happen here." Administrators engaged in conduct that could be perceived as victim-blaming, focusing on the complainant’s choices and actions, rather than robustly investigating the allegations, including the actions of the respondent.

What happens to those sorts of concerns when all the walking papers are issued, the media declares a success and everyone except for the Baylor community goes home? Do we forget about the other victims? And do we ignore that while Baylor may have been a singular instance of college administrators losing all sight of dignity and safety, it's only an extreme case of what happens on too many campuses?

Because we've been here before, after all. Several years ago, events at Penn State provided an even more grotesque example of assaults ignored and even covered up. The NCAA stepped in and (rightfully, in my view) dropped a large safe on the football program, giving it a four-year postseason ban and taking away enough scholarships to make Penn State functionally a MAC team for a few years. And then, halfway into the punishment, the outrage had cooled. Instead, many pundits took up the banner of a university they had flung brimstone at a few years before, decrying the injustice of the penalties. The NCAA essentially withdrew the remaining punishment and allowed the team go forward like nothing had happened.

There's already been some commentary, at least on Twitter, about whether the NCAA should do anything about the situation at Baylor. (The university has said it's contacted the Association.) Despite the fact that the Penn State case now makes it difficult for them to do too much, the NCAA should sanction Baylor heavily. And the reason gets back to something I wrote when the initial Penn State punishment was handed down.

We mete out punishment as a society not to guide those who know what's right and wrong and try to follow those standards, because they will at least try to do the right thing. It is instead to try, sometimes in vain, to control the excesses of those whose moral compasses are weak or nonexistent.

This is why sending a message in cases like this is important. This is why we have to deal with the culture that sits at the root of these problems, and not just dismiss "culture" as a word that we don't like people to use in cases like this. What happens and isn't punished will happen again, somewhere, because there are a handful of individuals who are twisted enough to do whatever they can get away with.

But the final thing that Baylor and Penn State should make us realize is that we can no longer handle these cases on an ad hoc basis. The NCAA needs to have some sort of formalized structure in place to consider these sorts of cases and hand out punishment. I would argue it should form a committee -- separate from the main committee on infractions -- specifically to handle instances where a sports program is found to have covered up sexual assault. That committee should include experts on sexual assault, athletics directors and coaches, and perhaps even a student-athlete representative. And it should have clear guidelines to consider when sanctioning a school; not hard-and-fast rules of the type that get the NCAA into so much trouble when it comes to impermissible benefits, but guidelines to give the committee an idea of generally how severe the punishment should be.

We also need a uniform standard for what should happen with players who have been accused of sexual assault. Perhaps they should be suspended until the legal process is over, regaining some of their eligibility if they're acquitted. With a policy like that, there would always be the possibility that a team would suffer while an innocent player is suspended -- but it's worth keeping in mind that contrary to some people's opinions, the vast, overwhelming majority of sexual assault reports are true. There's no evidence that a person is more likely to lie about being raped than they are to lie about a player's involvement in impermissible benefits, and teams often sit players while those investigations work themselves out.

The counterargument might be that all of that would go too far. But over the last few years, I've come to the conclusion that the greatest threat to college football is not among the things you most frequently hear about. It's not the massive amount of money involved in the sport, or the likelihood that those dollars could dry up as cable subscriptions fall. And it's not the concussion crisis that has drawn many of the "end football" campaigns, though the sport has to figure out to deal with that as well.

It's this. It's sexual assault. It's the idea that college football contributes in some way to a culture that devalues and dehumanizes women, that allows them to be attacked and then looks out for the victimizer rather than the victim. Because if we send the signal that college football is okay with this, or that its fan base is okay with this, then increasing numbers of people are going to walk away. Women, yes, but also fathers and brothers and sons. College football is fun; college football being run by a criminal syndicate is not.

The problem of sexual assault goes beyond college football, and it goes beyond Baylor. But college football is a good place to start. We might not be able to fix it in college football unless we also fix it elsewhere, but we can make it clear that there's no place for it in the sport we all love.