There’s not much to recommend spending four years in Waco. Driving into town up Interstate 35 from the south, the endless stretch of Texas nothing fills out slowly. It’s flat in the way you think Texas is flat. Empty fields give way to John Deere dealerships, then fast-food chains.
On your left, you’ll see the strip mall that housed the Twin Peaks biker gang shootout of 2015. Pass through the city’s squat downtown, and you can catch a glimpse of the grain silos that Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of the HGTV smash Fixer-Upper, converted into the retail base of their reality TV empire.
But then, rising from the banks of the Brazos River, appears Baylor’s towering McLane Stadium. The building serves to announce the home of the Baylor Bears, Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy, and a football legacy stretching back to, well, RG3 and the Heisman Trophy. But that’s the point. Baylor is here. Baylor matters, finally. The other campus buildings are tucked away in the short hills along the highway, but the stadium declares itself forcefully.
For most of its history, football barely registered at Baylor. Instead, the school cultivated its own culture, deeply rooted in the Baptist church. It banned dancing on campus until 1996. Until May 2015, its student conduct code listed “homosexual acts” and “fornication” as expressly forbidden behavior, alongside “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault,”and other activities. Sex outside of marriage is still forbidden. The university’s mission statement says it was “founded on the belief that God’s nature is made known through both revealed and discovered truth.” Even a teenager who’s been homeschooled her entire life can walk around Baylor, see the statues of Jesus and the sidewalks emblazoned with Bible passages, and feel safe that the university that speaks her language and shares her values.
Jane’s* parents celebrated when she was offered a soccer scholarship to Baylor. She’d be among other Christians, less than two hours away from their Dallas home. Alicia* was drawn to Baylor because she wanted something to bring her back to her faith. She wanted to attend chapel with her classmates, to feel the closeness of a religious institution. “I want to feel God on campus and in class,” she knew. “I want to come here to be with God in every sense of the matter.”
Melissa* had attended a small private Baptist high school in California. She was scared to attend a party school and was looking for a more conservative university. She liked how nice everyone at Baylor was, and that dorm visiting hours ended at midnight, even on weekends. Suzanne* was the daughter of missionaries. She grew up mostly overseas and spent a lot of time in Christian boarding schools in Papua New Guinea. College wasn’t something her parents expected of her—everyone in her family did church work—but she wanted to be a missionary doctor.
They all chose Baylor because it felt safe.
What they didn’t know when they enrolled was that the combination of Baylor’s culture and a set of newly-established ambitions had created a university that was unusually safe—but not for them. It was a safe place for football coaches who could do no wrong, for players whose transfers from other teams after being accused of violence were billed as the first half of a redemption story, for young men whose potential was prioritized over that of their female classmates, and for university leaders who prized their reputation over the safety of the women who studied there.
As Jane was beginning her senior year of high school, already committed to play soccer at Baylor in 2013, the university was breaking ground on McLane Stadium. Baylor had a vision for itself—to become the Baptist answer to Notre Dame—but accomplishing that would require money, a lot more money, and fast football success was also a fast way to excite major donors. Greed is not a Christian value, but as the world would soon find out, the school’s commitment to the religion of football would serve to undermine everything else that the university was supposed to stand for.
What follows is a long and detailed look into how Baylor, a small Baptist university where football was played, became Baylor, a blossoming national football powerhouse where female students were repeatedly assaulted by football players and no one cared until it finally became a scandal. I’m oversimplifying here, but that’s close enough for these purposes. Authors Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon have been the go-to reporters for documenting how and why it all happened, and you should read what they have to say.