Art Briles acknowledges role in Baylor scandal

ByMark Schlabach and Paula Lavigne ESPN logo
Saturday, September 10, 2016

Former Baylor coach Art Briles says he takes responsibility for the football program's poor handling of sexual assault allegations involving players, telling ESPN in an exclusive interview that his "heart certainly aches" for victims while distancing himself from decisions made after some players had been accused of criminal activity.

In the interview with College GameDay's Tom Rinaldi this week -- the bulk of which aired Saturday -- Briles spoke extensively about his May firing from Baylor, which came after a law firm found significant problems with the university's response to sexual assault complaints, including issues with a football program described as being "above the rules" with "no culture of accountability for misconduct."

"There were some bad things that happened under my watch," Briles said. "And for that, I'm sorry. ... I was wrong. I'm sorry. I'm going to learn. I'm going to get better."

He said he understood why victims at the hands of players on his team would be upset with him.

"I'd tell them I'm extremely sorry. It just appalls me that somebody could victimize another human being. And there's no place in society for it. And I've never condoned it and never will and never put up with it," he said. "These players are part of our program and representatives of our program. And when they do wrong, then it reflects on me and the university. So I do feel responsibility."

But when Rinaldi asked about individual player incidents, Briles often said his football staff made decisions in which he was not personally involved or that he had been forced to defer to actions taken by Baylor administrators. Briles also blamed policies, procedures and lack of training for how certain incidents were handled.

"The way the chain usually works is the head coach is last to know," Briles said of player problems. "Head coaches are sometimes protected, in certain instances, from minor issues. Now, major issues I was always made aware of."

Baylor has faced scrutiny for more than a year about how it handled sexual assaults involving athletes. In fall 2015, Baylor hired Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton to review its past treatment of sexual assault claims. In May, the school released a summary of the Pepper Hamilton report, which detailed how Baylor -- and specifically members of the football program -- failed to respond to reports of sexual assaults.

"In certain instances ... athletics and football personnel affirmatively chose not to report sexual violence and dating violence to an appropriate administrator outside of athletics," one passage of the summary states. "In those instances, football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct. As a result, no action was taken to support complainants, fairly and impartially evaluate the conduct under Title IX, address identified cultural concerns within the football program, or protect campus safety once aware of a potential pattern of sexual violence by multiple football players."

After the summary was released, Briles was fired, university president and chancellor Kenneth Starr was demoted and ultimately resigned, athletic director Ian McCaw was suspended and resigned, and at least two other athletic department employees were fired.

Briles said a major lesson from what transpired at Baylor was that he needed to be more involved and to delegate less when it came to investigating players' misconduct and disciplining them.

"I would start with being more proactive in everything that goes on with any inkling of a problem that we have with any student-athlete," he said. "I would want to be the first to know. And I would be personally involved with everything that went on from the discipline issue ... and then make sure that we have policies and procedures and protocols in place to protect our students."

During the interview with Rinaldi, Briles addressed a few of the cases involving specific Baylor football players but said legal issues prevented him from going into detail.

Asked about an alleged gang rape in 2011 involving a Baylor women's volleyball player and multiple football players, Briles declined to say much, calling it an "ongoing situation." Briles said it was a "sketchy incident" and that there were "different versions of what transpired." Asked what he did upon learning of the allegations, Briles answered, "It was investigated within our staff."

The Pepper Hamilton report summary specifically criticized such a practice and described the football staff's internal inquiries as those "which improperly discredited complainants and denied them the right to a fair, impartial and informed investigation. ... In some cases, internal steps gave the illusion of responsiveness to complainants but failed to provide a meaningful institutional response."

Briles said he never met with the woman and did not know the names of the accused players at the time.

He said as soon as he heard about sexual assault allegations against defensive end Sam Ukwuachu that he dismissed him from the team, "but the university allowed him to stay" on campus.

Ukwuachu was accused of raping a female Baylor soccer player in October 2013 and was indicted in June 2014 -- a fact unknown to the public until more than a year later. A university judicial affairs hearing cleared Ukwuachu, though, and he stayed at Baylor and graduated. Ukwuachu did not play in 2014, but defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said as late as June 2015 that Ukwuachu would return to the team; two months later, a jury convicted him of the sexual assault involving the soccer player.

During the criminal trial, it was revealed that Ukwuachu had a history of violent behavior toward a girlfriend while at Boise State, which Briles said he did not know when he accepted Ukwuachu as a transfer. He said he was told only that Ukwuachu "was going through some depression and he needed to get back to Texas." Briles said that had he known about the incident with the girlfriend, he would not have acceptedUkwuachu's transfer.

Briles said he "should have done a lot better" in handling situations involving former Bears defensive end Shawn Oakman, who was indicted for sexual assault in July stemming from an alleged incident in April.

"That's an instance where I should have got involved personally in the handling [and] discipline of it," Briles said.

Briles said he felt that Oakman's dismissal from Penn State after an altercation with a cafeteria worker over a sandwich was "minor" and that Oakman could be counseled while he sat out his transfer year at Baylor.

The former coach said Oakman received counseling after he allegedly physically assaulted an ex-girlfriend at Baylor in 2013; no charges were filed in that incident.

"We worked through all that situation with him, and as we found out more information, which was later on in the process, we actually held him out of a game ... in 2015," Briles said.

Briles also addressed a controversy from June in which he was scheduled to show up at a mediation meeting to support a rape victim in her lawsuit against Baylor but didn't once he reached a financial settlement with the university.

He said he would have liked to have met with Jasmin Hernandez -- the woman who filed a Title IX lawsuit against the university, Briles and McCaw in March -- but said "Baylor and the settlements that were involved" prevented him from attending the meeting.

"I would have loved to have had a chance to tell her how sorry I was that she got victimized," Briles said.

Former Baylor defensive end Tevin Elliott was convicted in 2014 of sexually assaulting Hernandez.

In a press release issued in June, Hernandez's attorney, Alexander Zalkin, accused Briles of using Hernandez as leverage to get more money out of Baylor. ESPN shared some of Briles' comments with Zalkin this week, including statements he made apologizing to the victims.

"He never directly says, 'I apologize for the way that my players or Tevin Elliott treated you. I apologize that I didn't stop it even though I had the opportunity and power and that I did nothing to prevent it from happening to you,'" Zalkin said. "That would be a meaningful apology."

Zalkin said he is surprised Briles now says he was accountable for his players' actions.

"If he's accepting responsibility for his failure to prevent this stuff from happening, that's essentially the crux of Jasmin's case," Zalkin said. "His negligence caused her to be raped by Tevin Elliott."

Elliott's trial revealed three other allegations of sexual assault and a conviction for misdemeanor assault in 2011. Along with Ukwuachu and Oakman, several other Baylor football players have been accused of sexual assault, physical assault or domestic violence during Briles' tenure.

The Pepper Hamilton summary noted that Baylor's failure to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault committed by football players had, in some instances, posed "a risk to campus safety," to which Briles said he disagreed.

"I would never allow that to ever happen under my watch. If I felt like somebody on our team was a threat to the student population, I mean, that just wouldn't happen," he said. "Where they're getting that information or what their facts are to have that, I don't know."

Briles told Rinaldi he was never given a direct answer as to why he was fired but said Baylor's board of regents "felt like maybe there needed to be a change" after realizing how many incidents had occurred over the past eight and a half years, including discipline problems, domestic violence issues and sexual assaults.

"I was the captain of the ship. The captain of the ship goes down with it," Briles said. "I was the figurehead for the football program. By terminating me, I think it felt like that Baylor as a university was making a bold step to correcting whatever issues were there."

John Clune, an attorney who has represented several women who accused Baylor players of sexual assault, told ESPN that: "This 'the captain must go down with the ship' line rings as hollow coming from Mr. Briles as it did from Ken Starr. Until Mr. Briles admits to and apologizes for his own actions while at Baylor, it will be hard to tell whether there is any sincerity in his remarks.

"People's lives have been permanently altered, and the victims deserve more accountability from him than 'I'm sorry it happened under my watch.'"

Briles' interview with ESPN came shortly after he hired prominent agent Jimmy Sexton to represent him. According to people close to Briles, he has his sights set on returning to college football as a head coach, perhaps as soon as the 2017 season.

His coaching future remains in doubt, though. The Title IX lawsuit in which he is named as a defendant is pending. The McLennan County District Attorney's Office has asked Baylor for access to the Pepper Hamilton report materials to see if there are other crimes that need to be prosecuted and if there is evidence of misconduct by Baylor coaches, faculty or staff.

The NCAA has been investigating Baylor since May, when the university self-reported problems to the NCAA. Among the possible sanctions the NCAA has at its disposal is a show-cause penalty on Briles, which would make it difficult for any other school to hire him without meeting certain NCAA demands.

Briles, who said he is going to do "everything within my power to hopefully get the opportunity to coach again," said he lost more than his job at Baylor.

"I lost some of my soul, quite honestly," he said.

His personal reputation has been damaged, but as difficult as the past few months have been, he said the victims have had it worse.

"A lot of people have suffered through this, but none more than them. And my heart goes out to them," Briles said. "And hopefully someday I'll have the opportunity to tell them personally."

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