More than five years after Baylor fired football coach Art Briles in response to a scathing review of the university's handling of sexual assault allegations made against students, including football players, the NCAA ruled on Wednesday that Briles and the university didn't violate its rules by their inaction.
Based on other violations related to impermissible benefits and improper recruiting practices involving a female hostess group, the NCAA committee on infractions placed Baylor on four years' probation and imposed other recruiting restrictions against the program. The NCAA didn't ban the Bears from playing in the postseason this upcoming season and didn't take away any scholarships. A former assistant director of football operations unnamed in the report but later identified as Odell James, who failed to cooperate in the investigation, was given a five-year show-cause order.
In its report, the NCAA said the committee could not conclude that Baylor or Briles violated NCAA rules by failing to report allegations of sexual and interpersonal violence committed on the campus. The NCAA's decision is the latest example in which it has stepped away from punishing schools for issues related to sexual misconduct by athletes; the NCAA declined to take action in a case involving Michigan State and Larry Nassar and its athletic program in 2018.
"Baylor admitted to moral and ethical failings in its handling of sexual and interpersonal violence on campus but argued those failings, however egregious, did not constitute violations of NCAA rules," the committee wrote in its ruling. "Ultimately, and with tremendous reluctance, this panel agrees. To arrive at a different outcome would require the [committee] to ignore the rules the Association's membership has adopted -- rules under which the [committee] is required to adjudicate. Such an outcome would be antithetical to the integrity of the infractions process."
The committee noted that while a former Baylor president described the school's handling of sexual violence as a "colossal operational failure," current NCAA rules do not allow the committee on infractions to punish schools for how they handled such issues.
"My client Art Briles has been completely exonerated and cleared of all NCAA violations alleged against him," Briles' attorney, Scott Tompsett, said in a statement to ESPN. "As the NCAA Committee on Infractions explained, the conduct at issue was pervasive and widespread throughout the Baylor campus, and it was condoned or ignored by the highest levels of Baylor's leadership. The NCAA's decision today clears the way for Mr. Briles to return to coaching college football."
The NCAA said the committee considered charges in three specific incidents of "alleged or threatened violence" by football players that weren't reported by members of the football staff, which the enforcement staff had alleged were impermissible benefits.
"The panel found that those instances of non-reporting did not constitute impermissible benefits to football student-athletes because of a campus-wide culture of nonreporting," the NCAA said in a release. "That culture was driven by the school's broader failure to prioritize Title IX implementation, creating an environment in which faculty and staff did not know and/or understand their obligations to report allegations of sexual or interpersonal violence. Because the culture of non-reporting was not limited to cases involving student-athletes, the panel could not find that these instances resulted in impermissible benefits."
However, the complete NCAA public infractions decision describes the panel as being "deeply troubled" by Briles' "incurious attitude toward potential criminal conduct by his student athletes."
According to the report, one panel member observed at the hearing when questioning the head coach's lack of response to this information, "a lot of these things that we're talking about, they're not NCAA rules violations . . . [or] university policy violations. They're felonies. [W]e're talking about rapes and physical assaults."
Despite stating that Briles failed to meet even the most basic expectations of how a person should react to the kind of conduct at issue in this case, the COI concluded that there was no linkage between the conduct and Level I or II NCAA violations.
In its notice of allegations to Baylor, NCAA enforcement staff had alleged that Briles failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance because he and others shielded football players from the student disciplinary process, and that Briles was involved in players' appeals -- at least one of which went as far as former university president Kenneth Starr.
"[T]he panel also could not find that the former football head coach failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance or that Baylor lacked intuitional control, largely because those allegations were specifically tied to the underlying allegations that ultimately did not result in violations," the NCAA said in the release.
The committee on infractions waited nearly eight months to issue its ruling; Baylor officials completed a two-day virtual hearing with committee members on Dec. 15.
A representative for James issued a statement contesting the NCAA's show-cause penalty stating James, who was not employed by Baylor at the time of the request for the interview, had no obligation to consent to an interview and "he had no involvement or specific knowledge of the issues" they were investigating. "Mr. James is cited with only respectfully declining to interview in person with the NCAA. Any punishment based on that circumstance is an extreme and excessive overreach," the statement reads.
During an online news conference Wednesday afternoon, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades said it was unlikely Baylor will appeal the NCAA's decision in the investigation, which he said has been "a black cloud since I arrived on this campus."
"We're glad to have some closure and to be able to move forward and, again, remember our mistakes, learn from our mistakes, learn from our past, and then we'll navigate whatever comes in front of us," he said.
President Linda Livingstone was asked to respond to social media criticism that the NCAA let Baylor off easy, and she said to "look at the other ways in which Baylor is being held accountable" through entities such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges accrediting association and the Big 12 Conference, as well as the civil and criminal justice systems.
In May 2016, Baylor fired Briles, demoted Starr and disciplined athletic director Ian McCaw, who later left to take the same position at Liberty. Starr also later resigned from the university.
Baylor's actions came after the controversial Pepper Hamilton report heavily criticized the school's handling of Title IX complaints. The Philadelphia law firm's 13-page "findings of fact" found that Baylor's student conduct processes were "wholly inadequate to consistently provide a prompt and equitable response under Title IX," and that "the University failed to take action to identify and eliminate a potential hostile environment, prevent its recurrence or address its effects."
The report alleged that Baylor administrators discouraged some complainants from reporting sexual assaults and in one instance retaliated against a complainant.
The Pepper Hamilton report identified "specific failings" within both the football program and athletic department leadership, including a "failure to identify and respond to a pattern of sexual violence by a football player and to a report of dating violence." The lawyers noted "significant concerns about the tone and culture within Baylor's football program as it relates to accountability for all forms of student athlete misconduct."
But that investigation into the football program went beyond acts of sexual misconduct in the discovery of a series of text messages pertaining to other alleged crimes by football players. The texts showed that Briles and assistant coaches actively intervened in the discipline of football players, worked to keep their cases under wraps and tried to arrange legal representation for their players, according to a 2017 court filing by three Baylor regents.
In one 2011 text, Briles asked an assistant coach about a player cited for illegal consumption of alcohol and stated, "Hopefully he's under radar enough they won't recognize name -- did he get ticket from Baylor police or Waco? ... Just trying to keep him away from our judicial affairs folks...."
The court filing also alleged that in 2013, a football operations staff member tried to talk a victim out of pressing charges against a player who had been arrested for assault, and in a text Briles sent to McCaw, he wrote, "Just talked to [the player] -- he said Waco PD was there -- said they were going to keep it quiet -- Wasn't a set up deal..." and Briles wrote that he'd get an assistant coach to contact a local attorney known for representing players. McCaw replied: "That would be great if they kept it quiet!"
And in October 2013, an assistant coach and Briles "discussed their efforts to intervene on behalf of a player who was suspended for repeated drug violations," the filing states. The investigation into the football program also revealed that Baylor was not properly testing its athletes for marijuana in contrast to the practice at most other Division I universities and Big 12 Conference rules, and was in conflict with university policy.
Briles and his supporters had long argued that the former coach had been "exonerated" by the university, pointing to a narrowly worded letter Briles received from Baylor in 2017 stating that the university was "unaware of any situation where you personally had contact with anyone who directly reported to you being the victim of sexual assault or that you directly discouraged the victim of an alleged sexual assault from reporting to law enforcement," and that it was not "aware of any situation where you played a student athlete who had been found responsible for sexual assault."
In interviews with ESPN in 2016 and 2017, Baylor regents said the decision to fire Briles came down to his overall handling of the situation and what they saw as an inability to address the issues going forward, and they decided that Briles wasn't the right person to lead the school forward in the wake of so many reports.
Baylor's regents alleged that 17 women had reported sexual and domestic assaults involving 19 football players since 2011. The university settled one lawsuit, filed by a female student who was a former member of the Baylor Bruins hostess program, in which her lawyers alleged 52 acts of rape by no fewer than 31 football players between 2011 and 2014.
Two Baylor players accused of sexual assault were recruited by Briles after they were dismissed from their previous schools for off-field problems. In August 2015, former Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu was sentenced to 180 days in jail after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a women's soccer player. Briles was criticized for accepting Ukwuachu as a transfer student after then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen dismissed him from the team for off-field issues.
Ukwuachu's former girlfriend testified at his trial that he had struck and choked her when he attended Boise State. In November, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a lower court's decision and reinstated Ukwuachu's 2015 sexual assault conviction for a second time.
In April 2016, former Bears star defensive end Shawn Oakman was arrested on a charge of sexual assault. A Baylor graduate student told Waco, Texas, police that Oakman "forcibly removed" her clothes, forced her onto his bed and then sexually assaulted her, according to an arrest warrant. Oakman, the school's all-time sacks leader, told police he had consensual sex with the woman. A McLennan County jury found Oakman not guilty of second-degree felony sexual assault in February 2019.
In March 2017, two other players on Briles' rosters -- Tre'Von Armstead and Shamycheal Chatman -- were charged with sexual assault in connection with a report of a 2013 gang rape. Their cases were pending in court for several years with little substantive action and were dismissed in July.
Briles, who had a 65-37 record in eight seasons with the Bears and guided his teams to at least a share of Big 12 championships in 2013 and 2014, had eight years remaining on a 10-year contract extension when he was fired. According to the private school's federal tax returns, Briles received a $15.1 million settlement; Starr received $4.52 million after his departure.
Briles, 65, hasn't coached in college football since his firing. He spent the 2019 season coaching professional football in Italy, before returning to Mount Vernon High School in Texas. He spent two seasons there before resigning in December.