There’s a nickname we have for Baylor University, the private Baptist university in Waco, Texas: the “Baylor Bubble.” Everything inside the bubble is safe and everything outside—the general population and environs of Waco—is not. The bubble is full of warmth and peace. There’s no need to be afraid. You shouldn’t spend any time outside the bubble except in special circumstances, like volunteering for a once-a-semester outreach event (called, with absolute subtlety, “Steppin’ Out”) to fix the greater Waco community. This is because the “Baylor Bubble” is a green gem located in one of Texas’ poorer cities. The “Baylor Bubble” is a gift from God and not a human institution operated by humans.
The “Baylor Bubble” is, of course, a lie. It’s a lie exposed by attending the university, as I did, and now a lie known by anyone paying attention.
As we’ve seen in the last nine or so months, Baylor University is no more or less safe than any other university, Christian or otherwise. In fact, an argument could be made that it is actually less safe than some secular universities.
This all began last August, when Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon reported for Texas Monthly that former Baylor defensive end Sam Ukwuachu had been indicted on two counts of sexual assault against a female Baylor student athlete in June 2014. These charges had been kept quiet both around campus and in the national media as Ukwuachu had not been formally removed from the team. (Their piece also reminded the world of the 2012 case of Tevin Elliott, a former Baylor linebacker who was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison.)
On August 21, 2015, Ukwuachu was sentenced to six months' jail time and 10 years of felony probation for sexual assault. In September, Baylor announced the hiring of law firm Pepper Hamilton to conduct an investigation into the university’s handling of sexual assault and rape allegations. In January, ESPN’s Outside The Lines reported on several other failures on Baylor’s part to responsibly respond to allegations of sexual violence, or federal directives related to Title IX.
From January to May, the stream of stories became a river, with former Baylor football star Shawn Oakman being arrested on charges of sexual assault, and more information coming out about Baylor’s failures to pursue these allegations. This culminated on May 23, when the Baylor Board of Regents released their Findings of Fact from the Pepper Hamilton report, fired Art Briles as football coach, removed Ken Starr from the presidency, and suspended athletic director Ian McCaw.
The administration and the athletic faculty—specifically Starr, Briles and McCaw, among others—were named in the report as having deliberately obstructed and obfuscated cases of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence by men in the athletic programs. The future of the celebrated football program has been called into question, and the wheels of time continue to turn ever so slowly.
The questions asked after a rape scandal at universities are routine: How could they let this go on for so long? How could they not respond to even the first accusation?
Allow me to explain: If Baylor admitted that this happened, admitted that a student on their campus was capable of such an offense against a fellow student, it would mean confronting the fact that they are of this world, that the “Baylor Bubble” doesn’t actually exist. Acknowledging these crimes means acknowledging that stepping over the curb on 8th Street doesn’t mean everything is magically better.
“The Baylor Bubble is this perceived safety blanket that nobody can see,” Caitlin*, a 2010 Baylor graduate, tells me. “Somehow, people think that being on Baylor's campus means nobody will commit these horrible sins and they'll be safe from drunk drivers, rapists, etc. despite evidence to the contrary.”
The Findings of Fact report published by the Baylor Board of Regents found that Baylor has “a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’ ” Caitlin remembers talking with an on-campus program director who wanted to start a program for students who had been drinking to call a DD for a ride. The administration wouldn’t support the program because, he was told, “None of the students at Baylor drink.”
Everything comes back to the belief that things like rape, alcohol abuse and violence don’t happen here. Former university President Ken Starr told ESPN’s Outside The Lines on Wednesday, “I don’t believe that there is any–and this is my belief–that there is any episode of on-campus [violence]. […] We’re an alcohol-free campus, so it’s not happening on-campus to the best of my knowledge. They’re off-campus parties, that’s the venue, those are the venues where these bad things have happened.”
This is a short step from implying, well, “If you didn’t venture off-campus and drink, you wouldn’t have gotten raped." The belief that students don’t drink because a campus is dry is a laughable level of delusion from someone responsible for shepherding a growing 21st-century university through the years. This head-in-the-sand approach and flat denial that assault wouldn’t happen on Baylor’s campus is utterly naive and foolish.
Caitlin’s experience contradicts Starr’s statement. As a freshman, she had a classmate try to sexually assault her in a Baylor dormitory, in a situation with no alcohol involved, where the boy’s roommate had left just minutes earlier. There have been other accusations of behavior like this, or worse, attacks that happened on Baylor’s campus, perpetrated by Baylor attendees, and more people will likely come forward as Title IX complaints and lawsuits against the school progress. But, it wouldn’t happen here, right?
There’s something else at play besides the administration’s deep denial of what a “dry campus” means. Culturally, Christian women are taught that the mere possession of sexuality is a sin. We are taught that it is our responsibility to keep men from lusting after our bodies. To put it bluntly, it is our responsibility to not get raped.
“My entire life I’ve seen much more ‘Don’t wear short skirts, don’t drink to excess, don’t do this, don’t do that’ directed at me than I ever saw ‘Don’t rape women’ directed at men (or women, as the case may be),” Caitlin says. The ideas of saving oneself for marriage and celibacy aren’t bad on their own. But when they are used as an excuse to victim-blame and shame, and to tell survivors of sexual assault or rape that they’re worth less than those who haven’t endured that pain, there’s a real problem.
Compounding this issue at Baylor is the rocket-like rise to prominence and fame of the Baylor football team, led by then-head coach Art Briles. Part of the Baylor identity (along with a need to wear Chacos and eat Whataburger honey-butter-chicken-biscuits at 11:00 p.m. during finals) is a deep-seated inferiority complex. Some of this comes from the Southern Evangelical Christian idea that the world is constantly attacking you, and some of this came from the many years of football and national irrelevancy suffered by a school convinced that it could be the Baptist Notre Dame. When Briles came along, he brought fool’s gold with him in the form of Big 12 Titles and national prominence, and hero worship followed. Hell, even I rejoiced in the fact that I managed to get a photo with Briles during the big Homecoming pep rally my final year at Baylor, and one with Ken Starr before a football game the year before.
To quote from the Findings of Fact report again: “Leadership challenges and communications issues hindered enforcement of rules and policies, and created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.” When you combine adulation of the football team with the culture of victim-blaming and denial, you have a recipe for disaster.
It’s time that Baylor owns up to the fact that it does happen there. This embedded culture of ignorance and denial that flourishes in the halls of power allowed crimes like these to not only occur, but be covered up. Despite the big-name firings, if this culture is allowed to continue to flourish, it’s hard to see how anything inside the “Baylor Bubble” will ever change.
*Caitlin asked to be identified by only her first name because of her experience with sexual assault
Kate Morrison is a sportswriter based in Texas, found mainly at Baseball Prospectus and WFAA.com, and has contributed to ESPN.com. She graduated from Baylor University in 2013.