Briles, Sports, and Sexual Assault: a Game Changer?

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One day Art Briles was celebrated as the new assistant head coach for the Hamilton Tiger Cats, a professional football team in the Canadian Football League. The next day the appointment was rescinded. Why?

It wasn’t because of incompetence. Coach Briles is known for taking the Baylor University Football program from a low rating to an elite rating. It wasn’t because of personal crimes. While individual players on the Baylor football team have been convicted of sexual assault, Mr. Briles has not been personally accused.

This was a case of holding leaders accountable for systems that failed to take sexual assault seriously. Coach Briles and Baylor University failed to investigate reports of sexual assault. Evidence also indicates staff attempted to influence victims and witnesses to keep the issue quiet. Senior officials, including Briles, were only dismissed after it all became public. That approach is likely typical of many sports programs. I suspect the Tiger Cats thought this blemish on Briles’ record would be a good chance to get a strong coach at a reduced fee.

Enter the power of public opinion. During the last year in Canada a number of high profile cases and good investigative journalism have put systemic failures to hold staff accountable for sexual offenses high on the public agenda. A cultural shift is happening. It is no longer acceptable for leaders to turn a blind eye or minimize cases of sexual assault within their organizations. Assault survivors and their allies are speaking out and using the power of voice and consumer choice to force change. In this case it rapidly became clear that the Tiger Cats would face a major public backlash. It was a business decision, not an ethical decision, to change their minds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When a principled decision is also a good business decision, the rules of the game will change for everyone.

Baylor University is a Baptist university. It had a rigorous student code of conduct that included no alcohol and no sex. Perhaps that contributed to an initial feeling that sexual assault could not be a serious issue on their campus. The choice by leaders to marginalize and silence complainants is all too frequent in Christian organizations, with the hope the issue will go away. 

Perhaps the Baylor story will also be a game changer within faith-based organizations. When taking complaints seriously becomes a better business decision than cover-ups, systems may finally change to become safer for everyone.  

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