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Baylor's Mistake

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When serious issues become sports issues, there's no simple way for a lighthearted sports blog to address it. Here's an attempt.

Baylor football coach Art Briles
Baylor football coach Art Briles
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In case you hadn't noticed, Texas Monthly dropped a bomb on the Baylor football community Thursday morning with a story about the curiously unreported rape trial of Sam Ukwuachu. You should read the story - whether you like it or not, it's going to be a topic of discussion for awhile.

EDIT: Now it's really going to be a topic of discussion, eh? The verdict came down. Guilty. Six months in county jail, ten years probation.

For reference: Martha Stewart got five and five.

And it's that discussion I wish to address, right now, before the argument takes its predictable course in comments.

That's because, as anyone familiar with Mr. Internet can attest, both sides of the public debate about campus rape tend to get defensive verrrrry quickly. Everyone starts digging trenches and planting mines at the first sign of a gender politics discussion.

And in this particular case, there's no need for it.

* * * * *

It's perfectly natural, in any fraught political conversation about a recent event, to focus on some widely-known incidents that have already forced us to confront the issue, and then describe how the current incident is similar or dissimilar.

When it comes to campus rape, that means discussing the Duke Lacrosse case and the Rolling Stone UVA frat rape story.

That's problematic, because both of those events played out the way they did because most Americans (on both sides of the debate!) are seriously misinformed about who rapists are and what rape actually looks like in the real world.

So, let's lay some basic groundwork. I'll put aside the contentious issue of "date rape" and the completely different phenomenon of "stranger rape" and focus instead on the broad category of "acquaintance rape", which more accurately describes the kinds of scenarios we're trying to compare.

One classic study indicates that out of a large sample of male college students who'd never been identified as a sexual offender, roughly 6% had engaged in some form of activity that could objectively be described as criminal sexual assault (meaning sexual coercion either through overt force, threat of force, or intoxication to the point of being physically unable to resist).

That's a small number compared to the women who claim to have been assaulted - and there's a reason. These individuals admitted to assaulting 5.8 women on average. That's astounding - especially when you consider that nearly two-thirds of this group only admitted to committing sexual assault once or twice. If you look at the top third of that group - the 2% of the male college population that is most "serial-rapey" - the average number of assault events climbs into the double-digits, with a small handful committing as many as fifty.

This is not an unusual pattern - many destructive or violent crimes (child molestation, arson, robbery, etc.) are similarly distributed, with a tiny fraction of the population violating people over and over again until a sizable fraction of Americans have fallen victim at some point. And the people being violated are often acquaintances in close proximity, socially and geographically, to the offenders.

So let's look at the commonly-cited stat that 1 in 5 college women have experienced a sexual assault. The typical objection to that stat is straightforward: "I knew plenty of guys in college, and I can guarantee that 1 in 5 weren't rapists".

But that argument evaluates the problem incorrectly. 1 in 5 equals 20%. And a 20% victimization rate is roughly what one would expect when 2% of men assault 10 different women apiece. That's the basic dynamic here.

So sexual assault by an acquaintance outside the context of an ongoing relationship is simultaneously:

(a) a very common experience among college-age women, and

(b) a somewhat uncommon pathological behavior among college-age men.

By and large we're not talking about events that exist in a moral grey area, at least in the eyes of anyone but the abuser; most of these assaults can be characterized as repetitive predatory behavior by delusional narcissists and a handful of sociopaths.

From a criminal justice point of view, that's actually good news. Pathological antisocial behavior often leaves many telltale signs. Identify and contain a small number of prolific abusers and you can make a massive dent in the assault rate.

But with that opportunity there's a matching responsibility: fail to restrain a prolific abuser you successfully identify, and through inaction you're now likely contributing to a whole series of future rapes and other assaults.

Moral of the story: red flags about serial-rape behavior need to be taken very seriously.

* * * * *

So what is the behavioral profile of a serial acquaintance-rapist?

In a nutshell...think Bill Cosby. Or Jerry Sandusky. People tend to assume these men are outliers - and they certainly are, in terms of age and fame. But in terms of behavior they're close to the norm.

Serial acquaintance-rapists can have many different personality types (some are hot-tempered, some are controlling, some are charming, some are stoic, etc.) but they all tend to be abusers. They pick on the weak, the guileless, and the insecure - and not just when they're on the prowl.  They often have histories of emotional manipulation, physical domestic abuse, child abuse, even pet abuse or elder abuse. While they typically have enough social sensitivity to hide that behavior from more distant friends, family, and associates, people very close to them often find themselves either abused or manipulated.

The men most often responsible for clear-cut cases of sexual assault do not generally rape once and then quit forever. They're more likely to rape repeatedly, even habitually. They rarely have knowing accomplices, though they may take subterfuge in groups of men who ritually go out to hookup destinations together - nightclubs, college parties, etc. - to meet young intoxicated single women.

For most people at those destinations, intoxication is a fun social lubricant, a way for everyone to let loose and allow personal chemistry to catalyze. But for the serial rapist, alcohol serves a different purpose. At its maximum impact, alcohol puts the victim in a blackout state where the target can't recall events or fend anyone off; it can also be a medium for harder drugs that more reliably achieve the same effect. But even short of that, it can help erode the ability of a group of people to keep track of one another, and it can retard the target's judgment so they allow themselves be separated from their friends and the public view.

From the outside, it looks like any other hookup...until the rapist is alone with their prey, when things can go off the rails very quickly and without warning.

* * * * *

Before moving on, let's be clear about something.

When it comes to passing judgment, there's a huge difference between the responsibilities of the criminal justice system and everyone else.

People are innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, and for a damn good reason. Putting innocent people in jail is an abomination. The government shouldn't be allowed to throw someone in a cage and deprive them of their freedom without extremely good evidence that they broke the law.

But the rest of us don't (and frankly can't) restrict our opinions only to those supported by a criminal burden of proof. We make assessments with imperfect information all the time. Some of that is simply required to help us make sense of the world. But many of us also have plenty of real-world responsibilities that require us to make decisive judgments about events we can't directly witness.

And when it comes to sexual assault, that's where the behavioral profile of the rapist (and to a lesser extent, the rape victim) comes into play. Awareness of these profiles allows us to start looking at episodes of alleged sexual assault that are presented to us as he-said-she-said situations, and assess the likelihood that those competing stories are plausible. That allows us to decisively and rationally make a judgment about what happened - or to sensibly decline to make such a judgment - without being omniscient.

* * * * *

So let's take another look at the Duke and UVA episodes.

Those cases both shared the same implausibility problem: the events being described in the accusations made for sensational storytelling, but they didn't fit a sensible profile of rapist behavior. For one thing, in the 21st century American men do not generally rape in large groups - and the larger the group, the less likely it becomes. Too many men are acculturated against that sort of behavior. In order to believe that entire sports teams/frats/whatever were collectively engaged in rape, the culture of rape in those institutions would have to be so strong as to literally brainwash its members.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying that a "rape culture" can't take root in American male social groups!  THAT...DOES...HAPPEN. And some college groups seem awfully intent on courting it.

But it's not very plausible to believe that a large social institution has turned into a rape-promoting cult, based solely on the testimony of one person.

People in the prosecutor's office and in the media should have demanded more proof before giving the Duke and UVA stories so much credence.

* * * * *

Might those lessons also apply to the Ukwuachu case?

No. Because unlike the Duke and UVA cases, the Ukwuachu story comfortably fits a recognizable profile of a budding serial rapist. And that makes the Ukwuachu case exactly the kind of situation where the alleged victim's story should be given a lot of weight.

Let's count the hits:

  • History of sketchy behavior and abuse: check. He was tossed out of football-mad Boise State after a Freshman All-American season (!) due to his bad attitude, uncontrolled temper, and alarmingly abusive relationship with his girlfriend.
  • Choice of guileless and weak target: check. An 18-year-old virgin in fact.
  • Encounter at a college party turns into a pickup attempt: check.
  • Pried away from friends and the public with deception: check.
  • Sudden change in behavior and a total lack of care once alone: check.
  • Verbal abuse of others close to him - specifically his roommate, who later supports Ukwuachu's story but mysteriously vanishes whenever asked to affirm it under oath: check.
  • Telling her immediately afterward, "That wasn't rape" (showing he knew damn well it was rape) and trying to intimidate her into silence: check.
  • Girl diagnosed with PTSD after the fact and eventually transfers schools just to avoid being on the same campus as him: check.

This is a classic story of how acquaintance rape actually happens on college campuses. The only thing missing is the alcohol, and there might have been some of that involved as well, it's just not mentioned in the Texas Monthly article.

Ukwuachu still deserves the benefit of the doubt in court, to be sure, but that doesn't mean he deserves that benefit from a rational outside observer.

Particularly if that observer is responsible for deciding whether Ukwuachu should stay on scholarship and on the depth chart.

* * * * *

This is where Charlie Strong got it right.

When two of Strong's players engaged in their own super-rapey scenario - a double teaming of an intoxicated teenager - they were dismissed from the team and the school before the story hit newsprint.

Why? Because Strong recognized that the boys' version of the story wasn't real, it was a delusional porn script. Women who like to gangbang for free generally don't exist, and when they do they generally aren't teenage dormies who've never performed the varsity-level sex acts they're suddenly doing at 3AM with two boys at once, and the tiny handful who are thrill-seeking enough to actually consent to such risky sexual behavior while sober probably wouldn't need to cower under furniture in the lobby for hours afterwards in order to compose themselves enough to talk to police.

The odds of the boys' side of the story being the whole truth was so scant, it served as evidence that they'd deluded themselves into justifying criminal behavior. So without hesitation, Strong made the call that they must be dismissed. It was a painful call I'm sure. But it was the right call.

And it was the same call Briles and company should have made regarding Ukwuachu at least a year ago.

I'm all for second chances, but when you bring in a kid with a history of abusive behavior you simply can't give him the benefit of the doubt when that pattern of behavior not only re-emerges, but appears to morph into something even more dangerous.

I'm not generally one to call for a coach's head for off-field stuff when they haven't committed any crimes. But I will call for accountability and answers.

Art Briles needs to explain why Ukwuachu is still on the team.

And if he refuses, the Baylor administration needs to explain why Art Briles is still the head coach.