Words by Matt Poe
Baylor University established itself as one of the most successful athletic departments in the country over the past decade. The school once served as the receiving end of many jokes for its on field performances in the Big 12 conference, absorbing beat down after beat down from historically great programs such as Texas and Oklahoma.
That all began to change when Art Briles took the head coaching job for the Baylor football team in 2008. Soon enough, the program found itself playing in major bowl games, winning conference titles and touting its own Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III.
Anyone who lived in Waco, Texas or had ever associated themselves with the university felt some sense of pride foreign to them and presumably had the same line of thought: We’re one of the big boys now. This is what it’s like to win.
As quickly as the program Briles helped build to incredible success, just as quickly did it come undone in a blaze of scandal.
Alleged rapes, gang rapes and other incidents of sexual assault painted a portrait of a program willing to do anything to keep its best football players on the field, no matter the price. Briles was fired in May 2016 and more evidence and allegations of a culture that willingly ignored sexual assault continues to be reported. Now, Baylor’s athletic program resides in the ugliest purgatory in both life and sports: negligence and dismissal to sexual assault.
Kent State athletics is not Baylor athletics. Anyone who has ever been to a sporting event on Kent State’s campus knows this. There is a distinct difference in the product you see on the field at Baylor compared to Kent State; as they say in sports, it simply doesn’t pass the eye test.
However, there is one similarity between the two university’s athletic programs, but one won’t find them at Dix Stadium or at the MAC.
In February 2016, former softball player and Kent State student Lauren Kesterson filed a civil lawsuit claiming that she was raped by the son of former softball head coach Karen Linder. In the lawsuit, Kesterson claims her Title IX rights were violated, according to reports filed by Kesterson against Kent State in a U.S. District Court on Feb. 9.
The landmark legislation from 1972 states no person on the basis of sex be denied or subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Kesterson and her attorneys also allege Kent State didn’t comply with public records requests and documentation in a timely manner. And Linder, who resigned in August 2015, walked away with 25 percent of her annual $85,000 salary, a direct violation of the language in her contract regarding termination.
On Aug. 5., the case was referred to mediation and the state of Ohio will now serve as the third party to settle the disputes of the lawsuit, according to documents by the Ohio Supreme Court.
The magnitude of the Kesterson case pales in comparison to Baylor’s alarming recent history of sexual assault in athletics and Title IX violations. No documentaries or front-page stories in national newspapers have been produced on Kent State’s handling of the Kesterson case.
However, both universities allegedly turned a blind eye or did not do everything in its power to protect its student-athletes and allegedly violated their Title IX rights.
Kent State’s office of student conduct states the following on its website in regards to sexual misconduct: “Kent State University is committed to establishing and maintaining an environment free from discrimination, gender/sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking and intimate partner violence.”
Under that same passage, the university states the importance of “appropriate due process.” However, the examination of what Kesterson alleges in her lawsuit and the handling of it by university officials does not coincide with these messages on Kent State’s website.
As aforementioned, reputation is at the top of the pecking order in sports. In both Baylor and Kent State’s respective cases, the perceived notion to protect athletic reputation trumped the virtue of protecting its reputation and identity as not just a school, but a culture. Coaches such as Briles and Linder were awarded large monetary payouts while student-athletes and victims of sexual assault were left unchecked and untreated.
It is unfair and untrue to imply that Kent State athletics is a soon-to-be hotbed of sexual assaults concerning students and student-athletes.
But the mishandling of one rape or sexual assault case can be all it takes to set a dangerous precedent and Baylor’s allegations are proof.
What started as one incident at Baylor soon turned into a culture of protecting athletes who committed sexual assault rather than protecting and treating the victims of the alleged crimes. The Kesterson case here at Kent State is hopefully not that.
When 60 Minutes Sports interviewed about the history of allegations at Baylor, Title IX coordinator Patty Crawford says, “What drives a culture? It’s the top.” Ultimately, when the desire to maintain a winning reputation or brand overpowers the protection of students fundamental rights, everyone loses.