An open letter to Charlie Strong, Head Football Coach of the Texas Longhorns, my alma mater:
Dear Coach Strong,
I come from a line of Texas high school coaches. My mom’s dad was a football coach. Three of her brothers are coaches. A few of their sons will likely coach. Ours is a football family.
Our last Thanksgiving featured a scene familiar to fans of any college in Texas: A heated family argument over football. Nothing pairs with turkey stuffing like reminding your Aggie cousin to check the scoreboard. But I wasn’t bickering with my Raider cousin about Tech’s win over Texas. We were on to TCU-Baylor now, the "Jesus Bowl" as it’s ironically nicknamed. And the fight wasn’t about the game. It was about rape.
I’d read that first Texas Monthly report on Baylor defensive end Sam Ukwuachu’s trial a few weeks prior. Coming months would reveal that this wasn’t an isolated incident. That the Christian university (along with police and the Waco media) covered up and tacitly endorsed several sexual assaults committed by Baylor athletes and other students. That coaches including Art Briles not only knew, but participated.
Reading then how the survivor had reported Sam that very night, and still seen no justice for so long, I felt sickly validated in a choice I’d made years prior: I was raped in 2013, and I hadn’t told a soul.
Because of the circumstances -- my attacker was a man I’d had consensual sex with the night before -- I’d felt certain no cop would believe my story. He had no right to overpower me when I resisted the next morning, but I’d be hard-pressed to prove that’s what happened. Witnesses would confirm I’d gone with him willingly and wasn’t drunk. After that, it was my word against his. I felt sure no punishment would come for the rapist, but I’d still be branded RAPE VICTIM for everyone to see. It didn’t seem worth the shame, so I bottled it up. I’ve never written of it publicly before now.
I won’t recount the depression, anxiety, self-blame, and nightmares that followed. Through meditation, spirituality, therapy, and self-love, I eventually felt better again. But I still see myself in every story of violence against women.
So, as I recounted the Baylor case to my family at Thanksgiving, I was subtly aware that at least some of my vitriol was the echo of now-cooled rage at my own experience -- one they knew nothing about. And as every person in the room sprang to Briles’ defense, that rage found new life.
My family hadn’t read a word about the case, but seemed to know all they needed to fervently defend Baylor: One or two rape cases on a team of over a hundred didn’t constitute a trend. No way had Boise HC Chris Petersen warned Briles that Sam was dangerous. Even if Briles knew, a few "mistakes" weren’t a reason not to offer the star athlete. Briles loves to give second chances, because he "cares about the kids." Not Art’s fault if a kid throws that chance away. Surely the cops didn’t really prolong the investigation unnecessarily. Surely Briles didn’t know if they had. Even if he knew, it’s not his job to terminate players merely accused of rape before they’re convicted. And so on.
Then an especially intoxicated family member turned the argument toward the victim: She was "probably drunk" (as if that constitutes consent). These days "girls just love to cry rape" (must be why 90% of rapes go unreported). She "probably wanted it." Otherwise, she shouldn’t have been alone with the player in the first place, because "what did she expect to happen?" Scanning the room, seeing my other relatives’ nodding faces, I nearly threw up.
"So if [your high school daughter] hangs out with a male friend, he has every right to have sex with her against her will?"
"Women are stronger than people want to believe," the family member slurred at me. "If she really didn’t want it she could stop it."
"You expect a teenage girl to fight off an All-American defensive end?"
"My daughter takes karate."
I had to excuse myself from the game to go scream into a pillow. According to my family, my rape was my own fault. When I agreed to be alone with a man, any man, I signed up for it. Or worse, it wasn’t really rape at all. I must have "wanted it," otherwise I would’ve simply fought off the man who was stronger than me. I should’ve taken karate.
I often think of my uncles as Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights, loving dads molding boys into upstanding men through football, Good Guys with capital G’s who do the right thing. I was forced to recognize that sometimes, even the Good Guys don’t know what the right thing is.
Great Guys build a system even Good Guys can't get wrong
Twitter trolls may sneer at your Core Values, Coach Strong, but not me. "Respect Women." It’s one of your five most unbreakable program rules, and when tested, you’ve walked the walk. When two of your players were accused of assaulting an intoxicated teen together, you and Texas administrators didn’t wait around for a conviction. You immediately removed them from the team and the school. Good Guy Charlie Strong. I’m damn proud to call you our coach.
But not all anointed Good Guys always do the right thing, and nothing seems to complicate the right thing like winning games. As Texas seems poised to compete for titles again soon, Wescott warns us not to fall for the "cult of personality." Will you continue to act decisively when we’re a winning program again? Even if doing so threatens those wins?
Great Guys build a system even Good Guys can’t get wrong. That’s what I ask of you today, Coach.
I was proud to see UT Chancellor Bill McRaven commission the "largest and most comprehensive study of campus sexual assaults ever conducted." But in the meantime, beyond a doubt, there are rapists on the Forty Acres this very moment. My sophomore cousin once caught a frat boy slipping something into her sorority sister’s drink. She confronted the criminal and tried to force him to drink it (he refused). He’s still enrolled, still in the frat, still meeting girls at mixers. He is definitely not the only one.
If one is discovered on your football team, I want to trust you to do the right thing. But I’d rather not rely on faith alone. I’d rather see a system that the coaches around you and after you can’t possibly circumvent.
That’s where the title of this letter comes in -– the phone call you can make today to help protect Texas students from rapists. To help survivors who come forward gain swift justice. To help prevent the school I love from ever participating in a Baylor-like scandal.
Here's the TL;DW version:
- 1 in 5 women, and 1 in 13 men, will be sexually assaulted during their college career.
- A college rapist has a 99% chance of getting away with it.
- 90% of sexual assaults are committed by repeat offenders.
- Catch repeat offenders early, and you can eliminate 59% of all campus assaults.
Which leads to Ms. Ladd's proposed solution, the things survivors like me say they want most:
- The ability to report their assault online first, rather than a first step involving a police officer or campus rep who may not believe them -- or even, in most despicable cases like Baylor's, actively cover it up and even pressure them into going away quietly.
- The option to preserve their statement in a secure, time-stamped document, even if they aren't ready to report it yet.
- An option to report the assault only if someone else reports the same assailant.
Readers, please sign this petition to request an online reporting system for campus assaults at The University of Texas.
Ms. Ladd calls this "information escrow" -- a report remains sealed unless certain conditions (like multiple accusations against the same rapist) are met. As she puts it, "Knowing that you weren’t the only one changes everything. It changes the way you frame your own experience. It changes the way you think about your perpetrator. It means that if you do come forward, you’ll have someone else’s back, and they’ll have yours."
One survivor says Baylor’s Title IX rep told her she was the sixth woman to accuse Tevin Elliot. I sometimes wonder whether the man who raped me has ever hurt another woman. I sometimes wish, if so, that there was a way for me to find her. I sometimes fantasize that, working together, we might put him behind bars.
My rapist didn’t go to UT, but trust me Coach, someone else’s rapist does.
So I’m asking you, right now, to pick up the phone. Call Chancellor McRaven. Ask him to watch this TED Talk. Ask him to visit projectcallisto.org. Ask him to implement an online sexual assault reporting system at Texas immediately. Don’t wait for the results of the commissioned study -- call him today, right now.
And then, Coach, I’d like you to go a step further. This system creates a verifiable, time-stamped paper trail as to who knows what and when. Lack of such a timeline is what allows Baylor’s disgraceful continued retention of all of Briles’ assistants. It’s what lets many vile Baylor apologists insist that Briles didn’t really know about any of this. Ken Starr got caught red-handed protecting himself this way in this interview. After flip-flopping on whether he ever read an email accusation from one survivor, he blames the possibility that he forgot it on the fact that he gets a lot of emails.
So I’m asking you, Coach, to put yourself and your assistants firmly in the know. I ask you to insist on a system designed such that, if the player accused is part of your program, that report is automatically and verifiably delivered to you (as well as the Title IX office), and flagged as a priority over your other emails. So that you can’t (knowingly or unknowingly) play an accused rapist in a game. So that you can’t deny it later if you do.
Is this system the only step Texas needs to take? Not even close. Not while judges dole out lenient six-month sentences to unrepentant college rapists who happen to swim. Not while the idea prevails that a man's responsibility for raping diminishes under the influence of alcohol ("he made a drunk mistake"), while a woman's culpability for her own assault increases ("if she didn't want to get raped she shouldn't have been drinking").
An online reporting system won't end campus rape, but it will encourage more survivors to come forward. It will make indictments more likely when they do. It will prevent staff from shielding rapists, no matter their on-field talents. It will set an example for other schools to follow.
So please, Coach Strong, pick up the phone. Send a message that "Respect Women" is truly a value, not a slogan. Longhorn Nation will thank you.
The University of Texas, c/o 2010
Readers: Please sign the petition to request an online reporting system for campus assaults at The University of Texas, or start a petition for such a system at your own school. Let's demonstrate that our collective indignation has nothing to do with football gloating and everything to do with human decency. Hook 'em.