It started with one voice, a single stone hitting the surface of the vast ocean of big time college athletics. Despite the severity of the charge, it seemed destined to follow the fate of so many before it – swallowed by waves of power and money, perhaps causing a ripple but with no hope of affecting the tides of money washing up on the shores of college campuses across the country. And then it grew. What was once a single stone has become an avalanche of accusations and evidence, forever changing the landscape of Baylor University and, hopefully, the landscape of the entire system.
With each turn, the whole thing just seems to get worse. Every tweet of breaking news brings a flood of thoughts and emotions, foremost of the victims and their families. My heart breaks for them. Every time it becomes more and more evident just how little they were valued, not only by their abusers but by the system that pledged to protect them, layers of naiveté are washed away.
How warm and comfortable the notions that it’s all about sports and no one is getting trampled in this relentless march toward relevance. Deep down, we knew it wasn’t true. We knew there was an ugly underbelly that we were choosing not to see. Just how gruesome that underbelly can be is now on full display. Baylor will never be the same. Maybe none of us will. I hope not.
Because, while all of this is playing out in Waco, it could have been here. It could have been Stillwater. After the heartbreaking thoughts of the victims and the infuriating thoughts about those who were involved, the same thought always eventually makes its way to the front: what if it was here? I absolutely believe that cases of abuse and even rape happen on every college campus, but what I'm much less inclined to believe is that a systemic coverup of those crimes happens on every college campus. But it could have happened anywhere. It could have happened here. The lure of it all is just as tempting in Stillwater. The lure to win now, to take the fast track, to cut corners and take risks. Because if you can just get there, then maybe it will all have been worth it. It wasn't.
And what if it had been here? Oklahoma State had a more successful football program than Baylor before both schools began their current rise, but a lot of good that was doing us. Not elite is not elite. What if the path the leadership at OSU chose had led here? That's a sobering thought that every OSU staff member and every Cowboys fan should consider. It’s a difficult and humbling thing to learn from one's own mistakes, but it's harder still to learn from the mistakes of others because it requires the humility to admit that it could have been you. And it could have been us.
My hope is that the leadership at every university in the country is taking stock of their own pursuits and what sacrifices they're willing to make to get where they want to be. I hope coaching staffs and presidents and boards of regents and big time donors are humble enough to look in the mirror and say "It could have been us." I hope they're reevaluating just how badly they want to win games, just how far they’re willing to go. That's how change can happen. And change needs to happen. But they aren't the only ones who need to change.
Make no mistake, as fans, we are part of it. In what we watch and in the money we spend, and even in our loudly voiced and never satisfied expectations, we are part of it. And we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves as well. Would we feel any differently if it had been here? If it had been our team? Our school? Would we make more excuses or want a different outcome? Would we even think about the effect the fallout would have on the football field? Would we grieve more for the victims or for the death of our success, tarnished as it may have been?
It's easy to say that's not us. And maybe it's not. But everyone thinks that's not them until it's staring back at them in the mirror. It's easy to say they’re the problem, not us. We aren’t like them. But no matter how emphatically we shake our heads and point our fingers, if we aren't willing to look at ourselves as well, then we're still just part of the system. And it's a system that needs to change. So, as we hurt for the victims and their families, as we hope for whatever justice is even remotely possible, let Cowboy Nation and every other fanbase across the country learn from this as well.
No, we can't control the decisions of college students nor those of the men and women charged with providing them a safe environment in which to learn, but we can control our priorities. We can control what matters to us and how much. It is possible to win and do things the right way. But often those end up being opposing forces. Often one must be sacrificed for the sake of the other. The easiest thing to do as fans is to ignore that truth, embrace the pursuit of winning, demand it even, and convince ourselves that the unthinkable won't happen. It can't. Not to us. Not here.
It wasn't here. But it could have been. And as Bears fans now know, the thrill of victory and the comfort of blindly believing in its innocence is not worth this. Nothing is. I hope that realization is not limited to Waco, because I can assure you the underlying problem is not.