The story of Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, might be the perfect study in the contradictory attitudes about sexual assault in 21st century America.
On one hand, the situation at Baylor itself was like Lifetime movie cautionary tale, a hyper-patriarchal Baptist university where the only thing loved more than Jesus was football, and where rape victims were treated like gnats to be swatted away, lest they interfere with the glory of getting more touchdowns.
On the other hand, the story is one about how the culture has changed, making it easier than ever for rape victims to get attention to their cause and even a shot at often-elusive justice. And how the pressure from activists is pushing the larger male-dominated world of sports to get significantly better about listening to and advocating for victims of sexual assault.
For the events of Thursday — the firing of the Baylor Bears coach Art Briles and the demotion of Ken Starr — are a direct result of the way that anti-rape activist on campus are making it increasingly difficult for schools to ignore inconvenient rape victims.
Baylor's culture is so male-dominated, that it almost reads like a satirical feminist dystopia. For one thing, the school, as Michelle Boorstein at the Washington Post notes, "is for evangelicals what the University of Notre Dame is for Catholics and Brigham Young is for Mormons; that is, their flagship."
Baylor's sexual conduct policy is more concerned with policing consensual behavior than with harassment and assault, noting, "Baylor will be guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity." Title IX is mentioned almost as an afterthought.
Briles was rumored to be one of the highest paid coaches in the Big 12, making $6 million a year. Baylor has rocketed from its position as a minor football school to one of the best in the country, dominating former rivals like UT Austin. The pride and excitement at the school cannot be overestimated.
This is Texas, football country, where the sport matters more than religion and politics and definitely more than the human rights of women, whose role is the state religion of football is mostly baking cookies, making signs, and being cheerleaders.
So perhaps it's the least surprising thing in the world that, as ESPN discovered in an investigation of the school, there was a long litany of stories of rape victims receiving inadequate attention, even to the point of being ignored when they reported assaults at the hands of football players. The team had gone from being a bunch of second-rate pretenders to a name known to football fans nationwide. Anything that threatened the Bears' string of victories was almost inevitably going to be ignored.
And yet, the existence of that ESPN report shows how much the tide is turning when it comes to sports culture's handling of sexual assault. This isn't the rah-rah barely-journalism sports media of old, but a serious investigative piece that made it impossible for fans and the school to ignore this epidemic-level problem of sexual assault.
This, in turn, has led to a refreshingly honest report from a investigative team hired by the school, which found that failure to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault "created a cultural perception that football was above the rules" and the attempts by administrators in one case to discourage an accuser "constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault."
It took some time, but it appears that there is actual accountability, suggesting that what feminists call "rape culture" — a culture where rape is formally denounced but in practice is tolerated — is finally eroding under pressure from activists. Former Texas state senator Wendy Davis gave all credit for this shift to those activists.
The power of women who said "enough is enough" propelled this. TY to orgs like @endrapeoncampus for your work. https://t.co/HxQvhMw3Ui
— Wendy Davis (@wendydavis) May 26, 2016
There's been some anger from Bears fans over this firing, most notably from player Taylor Young, who sent off a series of hurt tweets saying things like, "You don't turn your back on your leader when things get ugly."
But overall, the response has been surprisingly supportive of the firing of Briles. While there were a few pro-Briles tweets under the university's announcement of the firing, most of the people responding were in favor of the firing and, if critical, mostly angry that the school didn't act faster. A search for the name "Briles" on Twitter shows very few people defending the coach.
Part of the relatively anti-Briles reaction no doubt has to do with the perception, the college football fan community, that Baylor is a holier-than-thou private institution that sneers at public schools. Jon Johnston, an SB blogger at a University of Nebraska fan blog, writers that Baylor acted like "things like sexual violence don't happen at Baylor because it is a fine private Christian university" and that rape is only a problem "at public universities where sex and drugs flow like milk and honey".
Needless to say, there's a deep strain of schadenfreude at watching a school that holds itself out as more moral and upstanding that dirty public university.
But part of the largely positive reaction to the firing signals, I hope at least, a shift in attitudes about sports culture and sexual assault. People are moving away from a win-at-all-costs mentality and considering, very deeply, the possibility that teams have a moral responsibility to treat the people around them with basic respect and decency.
This was epitomized by this popular tweet from Emmanuel Acho, a former University of Texas player who went on to have an NFL career as a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles:
Why #Baylor did the right thing by firing #ArtBriles pic.twitter.com/kUVvt6GBTK
— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) May 26, 2016
Acho has nearly 30,000 followers and this tweet, at the time of this writing, has over 1,000 retweets. The sense that there are some things more important than football has finally started to take hold, not just in feminist circles, but in football culture itself.