Touchdown Jesus: Baylor’s Need for a Lingering Repentance
Every Tuesday in Touchdown Jesus, staff writer Valerie Dunham engages with the popular and polarizing world of sports from a Christian perspective.
On January 31, 2016, ESPN ran an Outside The Lines report which featured victims of sexual assault perpetrated by former Baylor University football player Tevin Elliott. Five women involved in incidents spanning from October 2009 to April 2012 reported that Elliott had either raped or assaulted them. However, it was not until January 2014 that Elliott was convicted of a crime. The OTL report detailed a slew of mishandlings by Baylor’s administration, which largely seemed to ignore the complaints in order to protect the football program’s interests. This is not only obviously immoral, but also a violation of Title IX, a federal law that, among other things, stipulates that institutions must support victims of violence and sexual assault in a number of ways. At Baylor University, that didn’t happen.
The silence in the wake of these scandals was deafening. It was not until February 7 that Baylor president Ken Starr published a letter to the collective BU community. The letter included a clear condemnation of the violence that had torn through the university: “Let me be clear: Sexual violence emphatically has no place whatsoever at Baylor University.” Many, however, criticized the letter as being too little too late. And perhaps it was. In some ways, the letter was reminiscent of the NFL’s delayed condemnation of Ray Rice’s violence against his then-girlfriend. The NFL campaign against domestic violence that subsequently ensued was not unwarranted or wrong—it may even have been a positive step forward. But it was still wrongly timed.Sports have made fools of us, not because they are “just games” or juvenile, but because we have held them so high that a commitment to justice has seemed less worthy.
Then, on May 18, the Baylor scandal worsened. Outside The Lines released another report, this time implicating not only the University, but also the Waco Police Department. The report, which referenced outside documents, claimed that the Waco Police Department took measures—sometimes extreme ones—to actively cover accusations of violence committed by at least five other Baylor football players. Once more, the university’s silence has been hard to bear.
Strange as it may sound, I understand the impulse toward cover-up to some degree. It’s a reaction that goes beyond a desire to hide, intermingling with another more innately human instinct: preservation, not only of self, but also of the status quo, of the good things that are entwined with the wicked. I cannot relate to sports culture’s quiet acceptance of sexual violence, but I can understand to the compulsion to preserve—even when such preservation is immoral, hurtful, or artificial. Such stirrings reflect a human longing to hold on to something good and whole, exposing the hollow spots in seemingly full existences.
But just because we can relate to this compulsion doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Closing one’s eyes to injustice does not negate it. Carrying on with business as usual when something has gone terribly wrong is only playing at goodness—a sour imitation of the real thing. To be sure, there is much to commend about college football: it can inspire hope and community, a love of justice and of transformative self-betterment. But as worthy as these things are, they do not justify a systemically nonchalant handling of violence.
I wish I could say I was surprised when I read of the scandals that are shaking the foundations of Baylor’s community. I wasn’t—not because this scandal took place at Baylor specifically, but because we have, for too long, paid for the enjoyment of athletics with injustice. Sports have made fools of us, not because they are “just games” or juvenile, but because we have held them so high that a commitment to justice has seemed less worthy.
I do not know how to change an entire culture, though I believe this culture needs to change. I don’t believe the solution is merely to abandon sports or its lifestyle and heritage, but I also don’t think we can commence with business as usual. My hope for Baylor University is that its leaders would cease its attempts to simply move forward. Instead, I’d like to see them commit to existing in the uncomfortable pause of transparency and acknowledgement of the need for real repentance.
I’m reminded of David’s lament in Psalm 51—a slow, honest move toward repentance. It begins, in part, like this: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” Perhaps that is my hope for sports culture at large—not “forward progress” in name only, not yet. Instead, I hope for an uncomfortable pause—a genuine acknowledgement of sin. I hope for the painful transparency that is a necessary component of lasting healing.
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