Baylor fights back against libel suit

February 3, 2017

Baylor University officials fired back Thursday against a former assistant athletic director who has sued them for libel by including him among those responsible for mishandling or failing to deal with sexual assault complaints, some of which involved football players.In so doing, they challenge assertions made by former football coach Art Briles and his supporters that he was treated unfairly and eventually terminated for the failings of those beneath him. To the contrary, it claims that Briles and his staff were responsible for creating a system that allowed players to exist within a protective bubble of unaccountability.The suit was filed in Dallas this week by Colin Shillinglaw, Baylor’s former assistant athletic director for football operations, who lost his job in the scandal amid sweeping changes in the school’s administration and athletics department. It echoes the complaints made in a lawsuit filed in December by Briles - which he has since dropped - and includes some of the same defendants as well as the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton that conducted an investigation at Baylor’s request.The Shillinglaw suit cites numerous press accounts that “methodically create the narrative that the Baylor football program was out of control - a narrative that clearly defamed Shillinglaw or anyone else associated with the Baylor football staff and administration.“The school officials insist the narrative is an accurate one when it came to player misconduct and accountability for their actions.“Colin Shillinglaw’s defamation claims amount to nothing more than a public relations smokescreen intended to hide the truth about how Shillinglaw, Coach Briles and others created a culture within the football program that shielded players from University discipline for alleged offenses ranging from drug use and academic cheating to assault,” the defendants said in their first formal answer to Shillinglaw’s suit. “Shillinglaw also served as a pivotal figure in an internal disciplinary system that was in the words of Coach Briles ‘in-house when it should have been open house.’ This, in turn, fostered an environment in which football players were shielded from the University disciplinary system.“That along with Title IX compliance shortcomings Baylor was experiencing on a larger scale eventually led to numerous reports of sexual assaults and other disciplinary problems involving football players being mishandled or not reported to appropriate school personnel, the defendants claim.With numerous lawsuits pending in various jurisdictions - both federal and state - the Baylor rape scandal promises to remain a dark cloud over the nation’s largest Baptist college for the foreseeable future.Within the last week, two more suits were filed even as Briles dropped his, which had alleged that four school officials were conspiring against him. Citing a need to move on, Briles dropped his lawsuit, which also included allegations the school officials who he claimed were trying to keep him from finding a new job.Briles’ lawyer claimed lawyers were going to bury him in legal costs, that he now only wanted “peace in his life” and distance between his family and the school he had put on the football map with a string of winning seasons.The timing of that decision was intriguing, however.It came only days after an anonymous woman claiming to be a victim of one of sexual assaults that drowned Baylor in scandal last year filed a lawsuit of her own saying the climate of sex - and sexual violence - during Briles’ tenure was far worse than has been reported. The suit claimed 52 acts of rape were committed in a three-year period involving 31 football players. Few of them resulted in actions being taken against the players, the suit alleged.Perhaps more significant, Briles’ nonsuit came as the four defendants were preparing to file a formal response that would have given detailed evidence supporting their contention that Briles and his assistants had repeatedly sought to protect football players from university investigations into allegations of misconduct, sexual or otherwise. When Briles dropped the matter, that response became legally moot and was not made available to the public.No matter. On Thursday the officials sought to make the same point with the filing in the Shillinglaw suit. Their lead attorney, Rusty Hardin, said the message they are trying to get out is that the board of regents had no choice but to clean house as the scandal gained national headlines, starting with Briles.“Basically decent people did things that were insensitive and unfair to portions of their student body,” Hardin said of the school officials that were at the heart of the scandal. “The corrections have been made by the board of regents and are on the way. I hope our response to these lawsuits will put to bed claims they were overreacting. These regents had absolutely no choice.“Hardin praised Baylor’s board of regents for what he said is an unprecedented willingness to accept the school’s failure to do right by women who were making complaints of sexual and physical assault.“No university in the history of this country has ever so dramatically confronted changes that had to be made,” Hardin said. “You know how this often happens: School administrators hunker down and fight it and hope it goes away. Or they throw some money at plaintiffs. Baylor went much further than anyone has ever gone.“In the months following his scandal-tainted dismissal, Briles didn’t exactly make himself scarce. He showed up on air and in print, granting interviews and offering spontaneous comments when spotted at several NFL practice fields. Yes he felt bad that a number of sexual assaults and other misdeeds by players had taken place under his watch. No he did not feel directly responsible. Of course he felt enormous sympathy for the victims, whom someday he would like to speak to personally.And as for his future prospects, absolutely he would coach again, perhaps sooner than you might think, he said.As it turned out, the baggage Briles was carrying was heavier than he had figured. In a profession filled with second chances, it was not unreasonable to assume someone would realize that he was still the brilliant offensive mind who had turned around the Bears’ football fortunes. The decision to fire him was understandable, but it was a case of the captain going down with the ship, not something that he had specifically done, he said.When job offers did not materialize, Briles blamed officials at the school who were responding to his statements to media with interviews of their own with a decidedly different narrative. He then filed suit.Thursday’s response to Shillinglaw’s suit challenges the claims of many of Baylor’s athletic supporters who have blamed regents and the Pepper Hamilton law firm for reacting unfairly or sloppily. It offers specific factual details that the regents claim demonstrates why they believed he had to be fired.It specifically blames Briles and Shillinglaw for “fostering a non-compliant culture” within the football program, not for having it foist upon them.Briles’s lawsuit claimed that he was a “hard-working, productive football coach at the amazing Baylor University” who became the victim of “power games played by ... the defendants in this case ... who orchestrated the nefarious process of his termination.” Shillinglaw piggybacked on much of Briles’ argument and said that because he was inextricably connected to Briles - their friendship and working relationship went back to high school - all characterizations of Briles’ leadership of the football program applied to him as well.In Thursday’s response, the defendants do not dispute that the two worked closely together.“Shillinglaw was integrally involved with player discipline in a football program that became a disciplinary black hole,” the filing stated. “When Coach Briles, Shillinglaw or others were alerted to misconduct, they routinely did not report these incidents to University officials outside the football program ... Briles, Shillinglaw, and others set up a structure within football that often insulated Briles from knowing about misconduct.“When Briles did learn of particular problems, he encouraged Shillinglaw and others on his staff to keep them inside the program and not alert other campus authorities, the defendants’ answer said, adding that Briles did not pursue information from players who had been accused of a gang rape, or report the allegations to other school authorities.Citing an extensive outside investigation done at the behest of the university, the defendants describe an approach to discipline and accountability by Shillinglaw, Briles and his staff that is damning even without considering the instances of sexual violence.“The football program was a black hole into which reports of misconduct such as drug use, physical assault, domestic violence, brandishing of guns, indecent exposure, and academic fraud disappeared,” their response states.However, it was the repeated and more serious reports of sexual assault involving numerous players that revealed the full extent of the protective bubble that Briles created around the team, the filing asserts.In the case of Tevin Elliott, for example, the defendants claim that Briles personally intervened after the defensive lineman had been ruled ineligible for the 2011 season because of two Honor Code violations. Elliott did not appeal his suspension by the deadline to do so, but two months later Briles asked university president Ken Starr for a chance to do so.After reading a letter of appeal written on Elliott’s behalf, Starr overturned the suspension, then left it to the athletics department to supervise terms of his scholastic probation. Elliott soon was caught cheating again, yet nothing happened. He remained on the team and played.In September, a few days after a game with Rice University, Elliott was accused of physical assault by a female student from another school. As a result, Baylor’s Office of Judicial Affairs placed him on disciplinary probation. Briles kept him on the team and he continued to play for the rest of the season.In April of 2012, two women accused Elliott of rape in separate incidents. Briles was notified by an assistant coach after the second assault, who texted him at one point that it appeared the Waco Police Department would likely charge him.“Dang it,” Briles replied.Elliott was not removed from the team, nor was the Judicial Affairs office told of the charges. After a local newspaper reporter inquired about Elliott’s status 10 days later, he was finally put on indefinite suspension. In May he was kicked out of school. Weeks before his trial, Elliott texted Briles and asked him to testify on his behalf.“We need to get your name cleared,” Briles replied. “Always all in with my players.As it turned out, Elliott also had been accused of two other sexual assaults while at Baylor, in 2009 and 2011, though it is unclear how much the athletic department knew about them at the time. Convicted of his last known assault, he is serving a 20-year prison sentence.There were several reports of gang rapes involving football players during Briles’ tenure. The earliest surfaced in 2013, with the victim herself a Baylor athlete. When informed of the allegations, the women’s coach went to Briles. He showed him a list of the players the victim had identified.Briles response: “Those are some bad dudes. Why was she around those guys?“Briles later told investigators he did not remember much about the allegations, only “bits and pieces.” He did not report the incident to the Judicial Affairs office.“In the end, there was no evidence Coach Briles attempted to probe any deeper,” the court filing states. “There was never any evidence, either written or volunteered by Coach Briles himself, that he ever took the time to ask any of his five players a single question about a claim that they had grossly mistreated a woman by gang-raping her.“Briles was fired in May 2016 after an independent review by Pepper Hamilton found numerous instances of sexual violence involving Baylor football players and myriad problems within the athletics program and the school as a whole in how it dealt with laws to protect victims and to create a safer environment for students.Briles immediately denied doing anything wrong, asserting “I’ve never done anything illegal, immoral, unethical.” He claimed to have been unaware of the assault allegations when they were made or of the attempts by others within the athletics administration to protect the players and the football team.In a subsequent interview with ESPN, Briles said his “heart certainly aches” for assault victims and that he would never condone such actions. He said that someday he would like to tell them that personally.“There was some bad things that went on under my watch,” Briles said. “I was the captain of this ship. The captain of the ship goes down with it. So, I understand that I made some mistakes, and for that I’m sorry. But I’m not trying to plead for people’s sympathy. I’m just stating that ... I was wrong. I’m sorry. I’m gonna learn. I’m gonna do better.“Baylor’s Board of Regents was largely unsympathetic to Briles’ tentative mea culpa in spite of a tear-filled private conversation with the coach.“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” chairman Richard Willis said in a statement at the time. “This investigation revealed the university’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students. The depths to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us.“Briles has insisted he was being scapegoated for the misdeeds of others. He and the school reacted a settlement after he filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in which he claimed his firing was “a camouflage to disguise and distract from its own institutional failure.” As Briles moved on with his search for a new job, he claimed he was shocked by newspaper and television stories in which the four men made comments indicating Briles had knowledge of rapes and gang-rapes implicating 19 players.“These false statements were made to expose Art Briles to public hate, contempt, ridicule, and financial injury, and impeach his honesty and integrity,” the lawsuit states. “Coach Briles had never heard these facts or those numbers.“In other words, Briles contended that despite numerous alleged instances of sexual assault involving his players, some of whom reportedly had prior criminal records or came from schools that had kicked them out for violent conduct, he could not be held responsible because he did not know anything.Before the scandal broke last year, Briles had attained virtually mythic stature on the campus of the nation’s largest Baptist University. When he was hired following the 2007 season, the Bears were arguably the worst team in the Big 12 conference, a perennial loser that supposedly was only allowed into the conference under pressure from Texas officials. All of that changed after he arrived from the University of Houston, whose football fortunes he had similarly improved.