Complicit and Complacent: The Fallout from “Win at All Costs”

Guilty

I’d wager my mortgage that’s the only word Sam Ukwuachu heard last night as his verdict was handed down. Reports say that he was crying loudly as the judge polled the jury for their individual verdicts. 

Good. After the harrowing description of the rape and the events leading up to it, he deserves to bear the full brunt of the legal system for his crime. This crime, while savage and premeditated, was completely preventable by Baylor University. See, Ukwuachu is was a student-athlete at BU. He played football. 

This article isn’t about Baylor specifically. I can’t do a better job discussing that than Texas Monthly did-I implore you to read it, it’s an incredible piece of writing. This article is about the culture we have created that regularly enables and apologizes for these young men when they make terrible decisions and, at times, commit atrocious crimes. 

Baylor University could easily have its name swapped out for any school that is Big Football. That term does not necessarily describe the ability of the team, but instead informs the priorities of the school’s athletic department and its administration. In Ukwuachu’s case, Baylor pursued him after he had been kicked off Boise State for violence against women. As his transfer was announced, Ukwuachu claimed the Baylor coaches “knew everything.” Baylor went a step further to try and get a waiver for the mandatory one year holdout for non-graduate transfers. Boise State refused to provide a letter of support, thus squashing that effort. 

That last part should have set off every alarm in Texas. It didn’t, and that fall Ukwuachu raped a Baylor student. Baylor investigated the allegation and CLEARED HIM OF WRONGDOING! But, then, they were investigating to clear him, not to actually serve justice, so we can’t be surprised at the findings or lack thereof. What does it say about you when a court bound by the criminal standard of reasonable doubt convicts him and your school doesn’t based on a far lower standard?

The worst part about all of this is that it could have been avoided had Baylor acted like an institution of higher learning that has a football team instead of a football franchise that occasionally teaches stuff. But the onus isn’t solely on the school, it’s on Coach Art Briles and the rest of the athletic staff. 

These coaches pursued a troubled kid with serious issues and gave him a scholarship because he was a freshman all-American defensive standout. Flat out, this kid could play football. And that, it appears, was the only question the coaches needed answered. Whether it be hubris or ignorance to reality, the Baylor staff believed that the kind of stuff that happened in Boise wouldn’t happen on their team. Or, maybe, they didn’t care at all. 

That’s the whole issue, though. Look at the cases of Joe Mixon for Oklahoma, DeAndre Johnson for FSU, and now, Sam Ukwuachu for Baylor and consider the universities’ and coaches’ reactions as the facts trickled out. Coaches regularly downplay how involved their players are in incidents off the field, so it’s not just a Stoops, Fisher, and Briles problem. 

Why?

It’s no secret that being a coach for a Big Football school is incredibly lucrative. The best coaches at the college level make millions each season just to coach. Their contracts are further sweetened by incentives that award additional purses for performance. Bottom line: winning gets you paid.

But, coaches are paid for all the off-field work they do as well. In addition to being some of the best football minds in the world, these coaches are also exceptional salesmen. Think about it, these coaches have to go all over the country to prospective players’ homes and sell their program to the kids and the parents. Selling the kid is easy, but mom and dad have been around the block and are usually more cautious. 

So, to combat parents’ reservations, major college coaches have focused on their image and managing that image. Every last coach says their program is run with integrity and that they are just as focused on the development of young men as they are winning football games. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 

This is, of course, complete and utter bullshit. To borrow from Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Integrity has become a punchline, and has no place in today’s game. A football program paying lip service to their team integrity is like a millennial saying he’s a “motivated, self-starter who likes getting his hands dirty,” on his LinkedIn profile.

The ugly truth is that we don’t want a coach that is driven by integrity and a moral compass. If we did, there would be more coaches like Texas’s Charlie Strong, who arrived at Texas and began cutting kids who impacted the team negatively, regardless of ability. Strong came under fire because these kids were good players, and Texas fans didn’t want to lose talented players. Strong was not given the benefit of the doubt because we don’t want a coach with principles. No, we want a coach that wins. And, in today’s environment, winning washes your sins away. Take Urban Meyer, for instance. At Florida he ran a shady, fly by night program, but he won championships. Moreover, if he had left in a respectable fashion, Gator fans would still be praising him and excusing his misdeeds. This is a microcosm of college football culture that can be applied anywhere.  

The worst part is that principled coaches like Charlie Strong get forced out as they rise in the ranks because it’s simply not an even playing field. Let’s say a principled coach won’t recruit a five star running back because the kid has a drug arrest on his record. With the national interest in this kid’s talent, one coach makes no difference. Because, today’s coaches are willing to trade on their integrity for wins-or worse, these coaches are delusional and believe they can change these kids and that their school is different. Regardless of the why, the principled coach doesn’t end up with the best recruits, doesn’t win as many games, and then can’t find a team willing to hire him-like I said, forced out because of his principles. Some coaches give up their moral high ground for the sake of being employed. There are plenty of reasons it happens, none of them are particularly compelling. 

With more and more of these high profile cases finding their way to light, we are faced with a choice: find a way to drive the proper behaviors from coaches, players, and administrators-which means changing incentives and the way we do things-or trade on our scruples as fans and continue to tolerate this behavior from coaches and schools. The road is forked ahead, and we are running out of time to be caught between these two positions. 

For the former to happen, it may only take a major civil judgment in a case like Baylor’s. And, given the level of institutional failure and near facilitation, this victim could get that level of damages. It may be the impetus needed to set change in motion. 

Here’s hoping, anyway. 

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