If you haven’t already seen it, you should check out the movie “Disgraced” on the Showtime cable-TV channel. It’s about the 2003 murder of Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a teammate, Carlton Dotson, and the investigation that followed. It shouldn’t be hard to find if you’ve got Showtime—it reruns such programs repeatedly.
The murder itself was about as straight forward, and tragic, as those things usually are. Dennehy and Dotson were roommates as well as teammates, and, according to the “docudrama” and contemporary news accounts, shared a fondness for marijuana and guns. One day, at the remote location near Baylor’s Waco, Texas, campus, where they went to shoot, Dotson turned his gun on Dennehy, then dragged his body into some underbrush. It took police about a month to find it but when they did Dotson swiftly pleaded guilty and was whisked off to prison to serve a 35-year sentence.
As is often the case in such matters, complications came more from an attempted coverup than from the event that triggered them. Dennehy was on the Baylor campus under peculiar circumstances, not on scholarship but with considerable and improper financial help supplied or funneled through the school’s head basketball coach, Dave Bliss. Bliss was afraid the murder investigation would uncover this, and moved to blunt the probes by urging his assistant coaches and team members to lie by telling investigators that Dennehy got his money from drug dealing. This came out because Abar Rouse, the young assistant coach who was coerced into aiding Bliss’s scheme under threat of firing, secretly taped Bliss’s talks with players and turned the tapes over to authorities.
Rouse was fired anyway and, interviewed for the program, said he’d been blackballed from basketball since. He now works as a teacher in a prison. Interestingly, a number of prominent college hoops coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, also were interviewed and said they’d never hire someone like Rouse because they considered his whistle-blowing method to have been underhanded. Fancy that.
Bliss was fired, too, and in 2005 was handed a 10-year NCAA coaching ban, but he fared better than Rouse after Baylor. First he was hired to coach in the professional Continental Basketball Association, and later at a prep school. In 2015 became head coach at Southern Christian U., in Oklahoma City, a job he kept until reaction following the release of the Showtime movie, in which he was interviewed at length and uncomfortably, caused him to resign.
Most interestingly, Bliss never was charged criminally even though his coverup attempt easily could have led to charges of obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. Relatedly, the program strongly implied that Baylor and Waco police and prosecutors hustled Dotson’s trial through the courts with an eye toward minimizing its public-relations effects on the university; among other things, Dotson got his plea-deal sentence without having to describe his offense or be questioned in open court, and despite the fact that his obviously addled mental state suggested an insanity defense. Said a Waco television-news reporter interviewed on the show, ”It was one of those things people here don’t talk about.”
Now fast forward to the 2008-15 tenure of Art Briles as Baylor’s head football coach. Briles’s teams thrived on the gridiron (they won 31 of 38 games in his last three seasons at the school), but that success was accompanied by what only can be described as a crime wave unleased by some of the young men he recruited. Its extent was summed up in a lawsuit against the university recently filed in Federal court charging that 52 sexual assaults had been committed by “not less than” 31 Baylor football players between 2011 and 2014. That action was just the latest of several that now pend in the courts over such allegations.
The revelations led to the 2016 firings or resignations of Briles, the school’s athletics director and its president, Kenneth Starr of Clinton-impeachment fame, as well as several other athletics department officials, but that didn’t end things. One of the men fired sued the university for libel, and in response three Baylor trustees compiled a 54-page report detailing some of the offenses that occurred during the Briles regime. Reported on in February by the ESPN.com website, the document said the coach and his staff created a “disciplinary black hole into which reports of drug use, physical assault, domestic violence, brandishing of guns, indecent exposure and academic fraud disappeared.”
The document cited cases in which Briles and other coaches sought to downplay or suppress further proceedings when presented with player-misconduct complaints, or didn’t notify police or university-discipline units about them. When told by a third party of one allegation of a gang rape against a female student by several players, Briles’s first response was “Those are some bad dudes. Why was she around those guys?” the ESPN report says. When another player was arrested for assaulting and threatening to kill a non-athlete student, the victim was urged by a football staffer not to file criminal charges. Briles then contacted police in an effort to “keep things quiet,” the document states.
The document details the case of Tevin Elliott, a Baylor defensive lineman who in 2011 was suspended from the university for twice plagiarizing papers. Briles appealed the decision to President Starr, who bypassed usual procedures and overturned the ruling, keeping Elliott in school and on the field. The next year Elliott was convicted of raping a woman and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His trial revealed he’d been accused of rape three times previously and had a misdemeanor physical assault conviction on his record.
When such things are revealed the usual response is to blame them on individual “bad dudes” or a faulty “culture” on a single campus, but by now it should be apparent that the problems go farther and deeper. Both Briles and Bliss had held other head coaching jobs before coming to Baylor (Briles at Houston, Bliss at Oklahoma, Southern Methodist and New Mexico), and it’s doubtful they behaved differently in those posts. Indeed, Bliss was cited for paying players at SMU in the mid-1980s but the NCAA didn’t press its inquiry because the school already was under “death penalty” sanctions for its football-program violations.
In big-time college sports winning absolves any sin; Kentucky basketball hired John Calipari despite his teams at UMass and Memphis having to vacate Final Four appearances because of players’ financial or academic misdeeds, and Louisville embraces Rick Pitino even though his program entertained recruits with strippers and prostitutes on campus grounds.
The Baylor regents’ filing recounts a meeting of regents with alumni and other athletic donors while the Briles scandal was unfolding. When the regents explained that the coach’s recruiting of thugs and trying to skirt the justice system didn’t square with the religious and educational “mission” of the Baptist-affiliated university, one donor responded thusly: “If you mention Baylor’s mission one more time I’m going to throw up. I was promised a national championship.”