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Should The Big 12 Take Over Penalizing Domestic Violence Cases?

In light of the continued news surrounding domestic violence cases, is it time for the Big 12 to take discipline for these cases out of the hands of the individual schools?

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Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks during the Big 12 Media Days 2019 - Getty Images - Icon Sportswire
Getty Images - Icon Sportswire

The Campus Violence – Finding Solutions forum that took place in 2016 was touted as an avenue for “an open and honest dialogue on the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault” that would focus on “addressing and finding solutions to its causes.” 

“There is nothing more important to campus life than providing a safe environment for all college students.”

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in announcing the 2016 “Campus Violence – Finding Solutions” forum. 

Given the recent controversies surrounding domestic violence cases, including a call for blood when Pooka Williams was suspended for one game, and the recent accusations surrounding Oklahoma receiver Kennedy Brooks on Twitter, it’s pretty apparent that this forum didn’t go far enough.

Is it time for the conference to step in and take a stronger stance against domestic violence and sexual assault?

For those that need a refresher, the recent focus on these types of cases started back in 2014 when video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancee.

Given the graphic nature of the incident, and the bungling of the investigation and punishment by the NFL, it wasn’t too surprising that the public became much less tolerant of athletes being lightly punished for these types of offenses.

All of a sudden, these types of incidents were placed under increasing scrutiny. However, the punishments have been hardly consistent. Even just in the Big 12.

At Oklahoma State, receiver Tyreek Hill was immediately dismissed from the football team after he was arrested for domestic violence in December of 2014.

At Oklahoma, while not strictly a case of domestic violence (as he was not romantically involved or related to his victim), freshman running back Joe Mixon brutally assaulted a woman in 2014 in a local sandwich shop. He was eventually charged with a misdemeanor, and was suspended from the team for one year. However, he didn’t lose any eligibility because he took a redshirt. In fact, you could argue that the only real punishment came when video of the assault was released in December of 2016 just before the NFL draft, threatening to keep him off of some team’s boards.

At Baylor, and there’s going to be a lot more on the Bears in a second, defensive end Shawn Oakman was involved in two incidents. One in 2013 and another in 2015. Baylor was reportedly aware of the altercation, but failed to punish him for the 2013 incident. He then finished out his college career before facing legal troubles for the 2015 incident.

Back at Oklahoma, receiver Dede Westbrook was arrested in May 2016 on a criminal trespass charge that turned out to be at the same location where he was arrested in 2012 and 2013 on suspicion of domestic violence. 

However, the biggest impetus for the forum was the 2016 Baylor sexual assault and Title IX scandal that rocked the country as investigations uncovered systemic indifference towards domestic violence and sexual assault, and interference in the investigations of both the police and the Title IX office.

The Big 12 has not been alone in dealing with these types of incidents, but it was definitely past time for someone to step up and start talking about these problems and how to solve them. While the goal of this forum was an admirable one, the messaging was uneven:

The same Ray Rice that started the era of increased scrutiny for these types of actions was one of the members of the panel.  There were many that felt that his inclusion was disrespectful and showed the conference to be tone-deaf (full disclosure, I was one of those).

The panelists gave conflicting messages.  Alcohol was a flash point of the discussion, with the moderator blaming it as one of the main problems, and Brenda Tracy, a rape survivor and prominent advocate for other survivors, stating “We have to stop re-framing this around alcohol.”

What was missing, was a discussion of concrete steps to take to find a solution. There were lots of platitudes about “fixing society” and “holding everyone accountable”, but a lack of actions that could be taken. 

The only concrete thing to come out of all the discussion is a Big 12 guideline that states that decisions about punishments for such misconduct should be made outside of the athletic department. But it is just a guideline, not a requirement. 

This forum was intended as a way for the conference to help drive the discussion to find a better solution. But without any real action, it’s hard to say that it accomplished much of anything. 

And without any real action on this issue, inconsistencies continue on how domestic violence and sexual assault incidents are handled.

At TCU, receiver KaVontae Turpin was dismissed from the team after he was arrested for an incident with his girlfriend, where he dragged her across a parking lot and slammed her to the ground. It also came to light that there was an additional incident in New Mexico earlier in the year with the same woman. Gary Patterson claimed that the team was not originally aware of the seriousness of the charges, despite having looked into the incident previously.  Regardless, it is apparent that someone dropped the ball in investigating the first incident.

At Kansas State, receiver Hunter Rison was suspended from the team after getting arrested for domestic battery.  He transferred before the team made a final decision, but it seems unlikely that he would have been allowed to rejoin the team under head coach Chris Klieman.

At Kansas, running back Pooka Williams was arrested for domestic battery in December 2018. He was suspended from the team during the KU investigation before being ultimately reinstated in July amid news that he would serve a 1-game suspension.

At Oklahoma, running back Kennedy Brooks was suspended by the team during a Title IX investigation.  He was recently allowed to rejoin the team after the investigation did not result in any punishments. However, his accuser recently took to Twitter to give her side of the story, bringing new scrutiny to that process and those allegations.

I’m not here to talk about the appropriateness of the punishments in all of these cases as each case has it’s own set of circumstances. However, the punishments are still inconsistent at best, and one thing is becoming abundantly clear. The “culture change” that this forum intended to bring about hasn’t happened, and the current guideline isn’t enough to affect real change.

So what can the Big 12 do?  A good start would be to centralize the investigation and punishment of ‘serious misconduct’ at the conference level. (Ideally, this would actually be done at the NCAA level, but I doubt there would be sufficient support for this given all the other problems with NCAA enforcement decisions.) 

Having the conference take over would allow for the possibility of a consistent attitude towards these violations, while doling out appropriate punishments when it comes to athletic participation.

Now, I can already hear the objections. What about due process? How can you ensure that the investigators will have all the information? Favoritism? Is the conference even ALLOWED to do this?

I’ll start with the last point first.  I spent some time perusing the Big 12 Conference Bylaws (which you can read yourself here), and I feel that this is entirely consistent with both the spirit and the letter of that document. Specifically, this would support three of the five bullet points in the stated mission of the conference:

  • Section 1.3.1.1Advance standard of scholarship, sportsmanship and equity consistent with the highest ideals of Conference membership. 
  • Section 1.3.1.3 – Organize, promote and administer intercollegiate athletics among its member institutions. 
  • Section 1.3.1.5 – Encourage collaboration in areas beyond athletics that builds good-will between institutions and promotes the overall missions of the universities. 

Like it or not, handling these misconduct issues are a huge part of running an athletic program, and the current inconsistencies between punishments has led to public outcry. Even if you don’t agree that addressing these problems should be an integral part of administering athletics, this type of action easily fits under the final point above. 

The public sentiment, whether right or wrong, is that this is a huge issue that has largely been ignored in sports due to self-interest. Fans are quick to condemn players on opposing teams that are tied up in allegations, but just as quick to come to the defense of their own. Expecting this to be solved at the grassroots level is just setting us up for continued failure.

Yes, there are details that would need to be worked out. Privacy laws might make it difficult to get all the information necessary. There is still the risk of bias in the proceedings. There are ways to mitigate these risks, though. 

Independent investigators can be employed. A wide array of people, both inside and outside the world of sports, can come together to set up the program and the rules that it will follow. Schools can participate in the process, both to share available information and to help ensure that is applied consistently and fairly.

I’m not saying that is would be a a perfect solution. Obviously, it would take time and serious effort to flesh out exactly how the conference would handle these situations. Not to mention the support staff resources it would require. I realize that outcomes will remain inconsistent, due to available information or other unforeseen factors, but to the degree it is now?

It is past the time that the conference needs to stand up, and takes strong action to show just how committed they are to fighting this pervasive issue. The Big 12 acknowledged that simply by having forum three years ago. Because, as Bowlsby put it, “The short answer of it, everyone is accountable.”

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