By Mark Selig
A freelance writer received a tip, and less than three weeks later, it led to tangible change in big-time college athletics.
Jessica Luther has written more than a dozen articles about sexual assaults in college football, so it’s common for her to receive the type of message she did this month, when someone — she won’t reveal who — told her a Baylor football player was about to stand trial for rape. What’s uncommon is that she found absolutely no information when she researched it online.
Bemused, Luther contacted fellow Austin-based freelancer Dan Solomon, who discovered the football player on a docket for trial. The two hopped in a car and drove to a Waco, Texas courthouse, looking for more information.
What they unearthed in court documents throughout the next two weeks is detailed in this explosive Texas Monthly exposé, which prompted the the Big 12 this week to adopt a policy to block incoming transfers who were dismissed from a previous team for misconduct.
Baylor University, its athletics department and the media that covers the program all come across as negligent in Luther and Solomon’s piece, which details how defensive lineman Sam Ukwuachu remained a member of the Bears’ roster despite a sexual assault case in which he was eventually proven guilty.
The story presents records describing how Ukwuachu assaulted another Baylor athlete the night of a big football win. When the Jane Doe sought to avoid Ukwuachu in classes and tutoring sessions, Baylor did nothing to assist her. Meanwhile, the football program anticipated its player’s return to the field.
After the news broke, coach Art Briles told media he “liked the way we handled it.”
It was actually Baylor’s hometown paper, the Waco Tribune, that broke the news, but curiously late. The Tribune’s first story informing the public of Ukwuachu’s trial published the night Luther received her tip. It was 406 days after the football player was indicted on two counts of sexual assault.
“Part of the shock for me from the get-go was that there was none of this in the media,” said Luther, who’s unsure if the Waco Tribune’s tip was the same as hers. “As soon as we saw his name on the docket to go to trial, I just couldn’t understand how there was nothing about it.”
In an editorial after the Texas Monthly story had caught fire, the Waco Tribune defended itself, saying there was no arrest record and the indictment was sealed (Luther said that on the day she visited the court, it was not sealed.)
The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman also cover Baylor athletics.
Perhaps college football reporters across the country get too caught up with depth charts and soundbites to investigate critical topics. Fans’ demands for every bit of minutiae on their favorite team require reporters to stretch themselves so thin they can miss the biggest story. It took a monthly magazine to fully expose gross malfeasance.
Jessica Luther never went to journalism school, has no official training, and admits she’s “learning as I go.”
That’s all quite ironic considering the big-J Journalism she uncovered. Her story goes deeper to document the rampant inattentiveness to the issue that took place at Baylor.
The article is important in the landscape of journalism because it confidently held everybody accountable for, at the very least, willful ignorance.
It’s easy for the reader to understand the issues at stake because Luther and Solomon turn byzantine legal matters into accessible facts.
Luther said she and Solomon spend much time just talking the case out, and that helped them comprehend the situation well enough to write it clearly. Luther said her lack of a journalism degree makes her extra careful in reporting because she’s cognizant she doesn’t have traditional training.
(She majored in Classical Civilizations and Greek/Latin at Florida State, got a Masters in Latin Lit at the University of Texas, and then worked on a PhD from the history department before leaving academia to write).
Now, Luther commands respect as a journalist. She served as a watchdog and the moral compass that Baylor football coach Art Briles wasn’t.
The Big 12 instituted a rule because of this story.
That’s progress, thanks to journalism.