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Firing Kenneth Starr is Not Enough

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And neither is firing Art Briles. It's time for Baylor to be fully accountable.

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone seen the movie Spotlight?

If you have, tell me if this is the scandal the movie describes:

A Catholic bishop consults with his Archbishop. Church attendance is flagging and they need a spark. The bishop caught word of one wonderful pastor from the East Coast. He has a magnetic personality, a thrilling oratory style, remarkable theological chops, a five-star talent. And he's available. One problem: the Church sent him on personal retreat for a year, which everyone knows is code for "he needs to be reassigned before he gets caught".

Still, the pastor was never legally accused of anything very serious. The bishop successfully makes the case to the archbishop that the pastor is a worthwhile gamble.  So they bring him in. And before long, attendance starts going through the roof. The new pastor's speeches receive rave reviews - they're even televising his sermons on national cable. They demolished the old church and built a gleaming new cathedral in its place. Everyone in the bishopric is happy - they're saving souls and spreading the word and paying the bills, for once!

But one day the bishop stumbles upon the pastor fondling an altar boy.

The bishop discreetly ends the encounter and consults with archbishop about the steps to take next. They look around at their gleaming cathedral, their piles of revenue, their newfound fame.

And they decide to keep quiet.

Same with the next fondled boy...

and the next...

and the next...

That's the story, right?

No. There were no gleaming new cathedrals behind the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. No attendance spikes, no rave reviews, no national TV appearances. And I'm reasonably sure there's no such thing as a "five-star pastor".

But the rest of the story? It happened anyway. And not just in one church, but in thousands, the world over.

* * *

Today it appears that someone either leaked or floated the possibility that President Kenneth Starr would be axed for the evergreen sexual assault scandals that have now plagued Baylor University and its football program for years. However, Baylor has refused to confirm the news, and most of the media has yet to fully respond.

Here's what they should say:

It's not enough.

The failure at Baylor is not the fault of one man (and if you HAD to pick one man, it's not Kenneth Starr).

The failure at Baylor is not even about prioritizing football, or money, or fame, or some billionaire donor's desire to turn the school into his personal fantasy football game, over doing God's work. At least, not directly.

The failure at Baylor is about accountability.

Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes other people give them second chances. And sometimes that doesn't work out. There's nothing untoward about that; we take risks every day by hoping the people we bring into our lives have good character, and sometimes they fail us.

That normally works out OK, because any honest-to-goodness risk is self-regulating. When you trust someone you shouldn't, that decision will sometimes come back to hurt you, and it encourages you not to screw up again.

This is where accountability serves a purpose: it's a moral antiseptic. When you're critically wounded by your own mistakes, you don't allow it to secretly fester. You own up to it, get treatment for the infection, change your ways so it won't happen again, and move on.

Unfortunately the self-regulating risk dynamic that encourages accountability becomes something less-than-automatic when large institutions are involved. If the person making the risky decisions isn't the person feeling the consequences when those gambles backfire, the risk is no longer self-regulating, and accountability is no longer an organic development. It needs to be assured institutionally.

If the institution fails to enforce accountability, in order to cover up for initial failures, the risk-taker might decide to start taking more risk instead of less. That's the story of most cover-up scandals: a refusal to admit an initial failure ends up compounding as each additional failure requires an additional cover-up.

Even worse than that: when leadership becomes overly concerned with maintaining the appearance of status quo while secretly taking big risks, an entire institution can become so obsessed with maintaining appearances that they become numb to signs that the organization is failing its mission by taking too many big risks.

Rape counselors, campus police, district attorneys might all downplay one or two sexual assault incidents related to football players at first. But as authorities see the incidents pile up, and evidence emerges that these players had a history of this behavior before they arrived, reversing their stance means admitting that they screwed up, too. But why should they be accountable if no one's punishing the people who bring these players in and allow them to stick around?

What Baylor needs isn't a public execution to appease the masses. What Baylor desperately needs is accountability.

That means one of two things. Either (a) executive accountability, i.e., fire everybody in a position of leadership touching on this issue, including both the President and Head Coach, or (b) literal accountability, i.e., give the public the FULL story about what happened, and let the chips fall where they may.

Specifically:

  1. Baylor should fully disclose the degree of risks they took with certain players with troubled backgrounds. Specifically, what did they knew before they brought them in? And if they claim not to have known the whole story about those players, why didn't they?
  2. Baylor should account for how it handled these players once reports came in that they were continuing their troubled behavior in Waco. How did they manage them? Did decision-makers discuss these problems internally? What were they saying to each other while the problems were ongoing? Why were so many players accused of violent conduct allowed to remain on campus with their stories suppressed while the legal process unfolded?
  3. Baylor needs to account for the alleged victims treatment by the school's own counselors and administrators. Why weren't these women given at least some degree of accommodation while their cases were being processed? Who decided that they shouldn't receive at least some formal protection against their purported assailants? What reasons did they give?
  4. Baylor needs to account for how those victims' claims were treated internally. Who knew what, when? What were their responses? What degree of coordination existed to counteract their claims, if any?
  5. The relevant local news and law enforcement and legal authorities need to account for their general inability to conduct a thorough investigation and follow-up into this stuff until it had become a national story.

Only then can the culture of Baylor University be trusted to not put their own student body at risk for the sake of football.

* * *

So by all means, Baylor Regents: fire Kenneth Starr and Art Briles too.

But if you're not going fire Briles, you have to release the full Pepper Hamilton report. At minimum.

It's natural to think that the shameful nature of a sexual assault scandal will chasten the coach to do better going forward.

But without some form of accountability, private feelings of shame from the people in charge can't be counted on keep the problem in check.

Don't take my word for it. Ask any Catholic.