Two weeks before the college football season opens, one of the ugliest stories in the sport is unfolding in Waco, Texas.
Talk of Baylor football centered on its prospects as a national championship contender, until Thursday, when Sam Ukwuachu, a defensive end who has never suited up for the Bears, was convicted of second-degree sexual assault in an October 2013 attack on a Baylor soccer player.
The details were revealed in a Waco courtroom with the punishment phase conducted on Friday, when Ukwuachu was sentenced to 180 days in county jail plus 10 years of felony probation and 400 hours of community service.
It was another bad day for college football. The sport seems to deal with violence against women on a regular basis.
And it got worse for Baylor by the hour with coach Art Briles caught in a conflicting story about Ukwuachu’s violent background while he was a freshman at Boise State. The events led Baylor president Ken Starr on Friday to appoint Jeremy Counseller, a law professor on the school’s faculty and former assistant district attorney, to conduct an internal review of “the circumstances associated with this case and the conduct of the offices involved.”
The story: Baylor accepted the transfer of Ukwuachu in early 2013 after he turned in a freshman All-America season at Boise State. Ukwuachu said he wanted to play close to home. He’s from Pearland, Texas.
It turned out that Ukwuachu was dismissed from the Boise State football team. He was accused of being abusive to his girlfriend but officially was kicked off the team for an undisclosed team rules violation. The former girlfriend testified Thursday, saying Ukwuachu choked her and punched her in the head, and those assaults led to Ukwuachu being sent to anger management.
Still, Baylor accepted the transfer, and Ukwuachu would have to sit out the 2013 season under NCAA transfer rules. Months later, Ukwuachu raped an 18-year-old despite repeatedly being told no and to stop, according to testimony.
The victim reported the crime. Nearly a year later, Ukwuachu was indicted. That’s why he didn’t play in 2014 either, although the reason wasn’t reported at the time.
The question becomes what Baylor knew about Ukwuachu’s troubles at Boise State and whether Baylor should have accepted him on campus.
And that brings us to the conflicting information.
Briles told ESPN he was unaware of Ukwuachu’s past violence issues. Briles said he spoke with then-Boise State coach Chris Petersen, now in his second season at Washington, and said he was told Ukwuachu was depressed and needed to play closer to home. “We’re always going to make sure that a guy is worthy of that opportunity,” Briles said.
Asked directly by ESPN’s Max Olson if he knew of Ukwuachu’s history of violence, Briles said: “No. No. That’s not true. No, there’s no truth. Find out who informed us and talk to them please.”
Turns out, the source was found. Petersen issued his own statement Friday, contradicting Briles: “After Sam Ukwuachu was dismissed from the Boise State football program and expressed an interest in Baylor, I initiated a call with coach Art Briles. In that conversation, I thoroughly apprised Coach Briles of the circumstances surrounding Sam’s disciplinary record and dismissal.”
Hours after Petersen’s statement, Briles sought to explain himself in a statement of his own:
“In our discussion, he did not disclose that there had been violence toward women, but he did tell me of a rocky relationship with his girlfriend which contributed to his depression. The only disciplinary action I was aware of were team-related issues, insubordination of coaches and missing practice.”
But whether Briles and Baylor were aware of Ukwuachu’s past, the university has a problem either way. If they knew, other students were put at risk by the decision to accept an athlete with a violent past. If they didn’t, it shows a lack of due diligence on the part of the football program, which is hard to fathom given the Bears’ rise on the national scene under Briles through recruiting upgrades.
Baylor isn’t alone here. Alabama accepted Jonathan Taylor, who had been dismissed from the Georgia football team after a domestic violence arrest. Taylor faced a similar charge after enrolling at Alabama and was dismissed, although the charge was dropped.
College rosters are full of second-chance stories, and providing an opportunity to overcome a mistake is one of sports’ great values. But if that misconduct is an act of violence that caused a dismissal from one school, should that athlete be allowed to start anew elsewhere? Last month, Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott said no. “I’m not going to be shy to say that maybe you shouldn’t play college again with a domestic violence issue,” he said.
Last month, in the wake of domestic violence news involving football players at Florida State, there was refreshing condemnation from some coaches, such as South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, who says he tells his players that “if you ever hit a girl, you’re finished.”
Texas coach Charlie Strong, whose counsel on handling domestic violence has been sought by the NFL, said there should be no such thing as a do-over at another school.
“You did something to get yourself dismissed out,” Strong said. “So why do you think you can go elsewhere and just start over like it’s a clean slate for you?”
That’s the question Baylor must ask itself today. And whether its head coach lied about checking up on the background of a player who is now a convicted rapist.
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