Baylor’s Football Team Lost a Game Saturday. It Shouldn’t Have Been Playing One

Baylor football should get the “death penalty.” There, I said it. We all know, however, it’s never going to happen.

For those unaware of the term “death penalty” and its meaning in NCAA sports, a bit of history. In 1986, Southern Methodist University’s football program became the only Division I level program to receive the so-called “death penalty,” a complete ban on competition by a program for a full season or more. The SMU Mustangs had been so egregious in their abuse of NCAA recruiting violations, continuing to pay players “under the table” with a slush fund even after the program had been put on probation for such violations in 1985, the NCAA decided they had to “send a message.” It was the NCAA equivalent of, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…won’t get fooled again” (in the awkward but accurate words of form president George W. Bush, who’s presidential library SMU hosts). “Ponygate” got SMU’s football season for 1987 terminated and the 1988 season abbreviated. The program didn’t fully recover, however, until their first return to a bowl game in 2009.

The NCAA is, first and foremost, tasked by its member institutions with maintaining competitive balance and SMU buying players like Eric Dickerson, as the Mustangs did with little attempt to hide the fact, clearly was enough of an infraction that the governing board felt it had no choice but to make an example out of SMU. After that, no players have been paid to play NCAA athletics…ok, just joking, there, but in effect SMU dared the NCAA to stop them and stop them they did. It wasn’t clear that the Mustangs did anything illegal, but the NCAA isn’t concerned with the law, per se,; they are about making money and buying championships wasn’t good for business. The other “member institutions” demanded a pound of flesh from SMU.

At a certain level, the NCAA is not explicitly responsible for dealing with programs that violate state or federal criminal laws, they generally let law enforcement deal with those matters from drug arrests to more serious matters like murder, rape and child molestation. Yet, the NCAA has vague enough authority with regards to sanctioning programs for “repeat violations” or serious misconduct that it can impose whatever penalties it deems capable of being enforced in any situation.

The NCAA chose not to impose the death penalty on Penn State’s football program for the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, preferring to work with the university to impose its own punishments and avoid any legal battles over what the limits of the NCAA’s authority were. Penn State agreed to a four-year ban from bowl games, a loss of scholarships and the technical loss of some of Joe Paterno’s wins in the record books in exchange for the right to keep filling Beaver Stadium on Saturdays.

At the time, there were arguments that this was the “right” thing to do given the “decisive action” by PSU to “correct” the situation and the fact the program was not on any kind of probation. The scope of the involvement of Paterno and the higher-ups in the athletic department and administration was not yet fully known. In hindsight, the lack of real remorse on the part of the school and its fans suggests that the culture that could allow such evil to go unchecked for decades has hardly been eradicated.

There is a moral question that must be confronted regarding what the NCAA is determined to take action on, wriggle room about their jurisdiction be damned, in order to see that college athletics do not become places in which the money, fame and facilities they build do not allow human beings to go through unspeakable personal hell as “collateral damage” as the cost of doing business.

So, let’s fast-forward 30 years from the SMU Mustangs pay-for-play scandal and just go an hour and a half south down I-35 to Waco, Texas. That’s where you would have found Shawn Oakman playing defensive end months before the NFL draft, held in April in Chicago. Oakman was a very good football player, good enough that in May of 2015, sportswriter Chris Burke had predicted he would be the first name called there in the Auditorium Theatre, the first overall draft pick. His name wasn’t called first. Or second or third or on the second day or the third day. Oakman went undrafted and was not even signed as a free agent. That’s because Oakman had been accused of raping a woman on April 3rd. It’s a dramatic fall; certainly the sort of thing a writer wants as a hook to hang a story like this on. But, in all fairness, Oakman has been charged with the assault, hasn’t been convicted and wasn’t even a Baylor student at that time—he’d graduated in December. It isn’t fair to use Oakman to indict the Baylor program unless there’s reason to think his being a Baylor football player had anything to do with the assault, perhaps giving him a sense of license for such a horrible act.

We don’t know and probably never will know why Shawn Oakman did what he did on April 3rd, if he’s ever found to have committed a criminal act or not. But what we do know is that his teammate, Sam Ukwuachu was found guilty of second-degree sexual assault on August 20, 2015. We know that Boise State told Baylor that Ukwuachu had been kicked off of its team for an incident involving a female student (Ukwuachu says Baylor’s coaches “knew everything”) yet Baylor still welcomed him. We know that for an entire year after the incident that caused Ukwuachu to be charged, Baylor had every intention of having the talented pass rusher play for them and kept details of the incident from the press and its own students (something you’d think Baylor’s female student body might like to know about, given that it WAS in the public record). We also know that Baylor linebacker Tevin Elliot was sentenced in 2014 to 20 years in prison for a rape committed in 2012. We know that in the period between Elliot’s assault and his conviction Baylor didn’t have a full time Title IX coordinator, as required, to investigate sexual assault reporting under federal law. When Baylor did finally hire a Title IX compliance officer, she quit two years later and refused a million dollar plus offer to have her contract terminated so long as she kept quiet. We know, thanks to an article in Texas Monthly, that Michele Davis, who was the sexual assault nurse examiner for McLennan County, Texas, where Waco is the largest city, that male athletes are responsible for 25-50% of the roughly 8 cases per year of sexual assault she sees in hospital admissions even though they make up only 4% of the student body. What might that sort of pattern have made Shawn Oakman think? We may never know, but it makes you wonder…

Surely, Baylor University has done something in response to this, right? Well, of course, they did. They ordered an “investigation” by (very expensive) law firm Pepper Hamilton. Naturally, they paid for this investigation, millions of dollars I’m sure, and as they say, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Baylor made sure whatever details were in this report would never see the light of day. They had Pepper Hamilton give them an “oral report” on their findings so that no paperwork trail was around to go over. They fired coach Art Briles and eventually President Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) after first just demoting him to being a regular law professor. I mean, what law student wouldn’t want to be mentored by someone accused of covering up several felonies?

This “report” is what ought to lead to the death penalty. No, I’m not saying the report is worse than the actual crimes that lead to its commission. That would be demented. But, crimes are going to happen on college campuses and athletes will commit some of them. That alone doesn’t warrant the NCAA’s ultimate penalty. Ignoring said crimes and covering them up does. Had that process been done in a transparent and forthright manner, something short of the death penalty would have been plausible. But, no, what Baylor decided to do was hire a law firm to whitewash the crimes, scapegoat a couple of already tarnished people and bury the facts so the money could keep flowing on Saturdays. And, boy howdy, did it work! Up until this weekend’s loss, the Baylor Bears were on their way to competing for a national title in the third season of the playoff era in college football. Talk about “moving on.”

With what has happened regarding Shawn Oakman and, especially, Patty Crawford, it isn’t too late for the NCAA to do the right thing and kill Baylor’s football program for at least a year. I won’t be holding my breath. Until all this started to come out, Baylor was the ultimate NCAA “success story.” They poured seemingly limitless resources into collegiate athletics with a “just win, baby” attitude and it worked. They installed a flashy offense, recruited some of the best players that football rich Texas could produce, racked up points, wins, and “prestige.” It culminated in the construction of McLane Stadium, an admittedly gorgeous $266 million facility a good chunk of which was paid for by the eponymous Drayton McLane, a Baylor alumnus and booster.

I realize that, at a certain level, the NCAA is there to ensure fair competition, manage things like the basketball tournament and, if we’re honest, provide enough self-regulation of college athletics that the government doesn’t feel compelled to regulate them. They are not criminal adjudicators or a moral compass for athletes and university employees. But, what Baylor has done here in handling this “scandal” is giving the NCAA the finger in every bit the same way that SMU did 30 years ago. If the NCAA doesn't’ severely sanction the Bears, they will create a template for every program that wants sweep its crimes under the rug to follow. If they don’t act, this will not be the last of these scandals, we can rest reasonably assured. But, damn, doesn’t that McLane Stadium look nice, though?


Excellent article.
Of course the NCAA didn't do anything.
Lately, they haven't done ANYTHING in the way of enforcement.
They hide in their offices and figure out ways to hammer little schools and figure out excuses for the big money makers.
Thank you. I agree the NCAA's willingness to do anything lately seems lacking. I think losing the O'Bannon case has made them uncertain of what their future is, even in terms of profitability. That's no excuse for having responded weakly to two instances in which major programs were found to be behaving in ways that make paying players look like nothing.