In hiring Art Briles, a small Texas town sells its soul

Art Briles has been out of coaching football since his scandal-ridden stint at Baylor, but he was hired by a high school in Texas on Friday evening. (AP)
Art Briles has been out of coaching football since his scandal-ridden stint at Baylor, but he was hired by a high school in Texas on Friday evening. (AP)

Congratulations to the administrators in Mount Vernon, Texas, for cratering to new depths in the American education system.

High school officials in Mount Vernon hit a trifecta of incompetence, ignorance and arrogance on Friday night. They started by hiring Art Briles, the completely toxic former coach at Baylor to be the football coach at Mount Vernon High School. The same Art Briles who couldn’t find gainful employment in America since 2016, when he was fired in disgrace at Baylor.

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Mount Vernon officials stooped even lower by announcing this hiring late Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, an age-old publicity avoidance ploy that reinforced what common sense clearly told them — this is an embarrassing decision that needs to be hidden.

The final salvo in their tour-de-force of overt lack of self awareness came from the public-relations official who allowed this quote from Briles to run in the news release: “You’ll make no bigger impact in this world than when you shape the lives of young people.”

In one artless and tactless swoop, Mount Vernon solidified itself as the new moral basement for high schools around the country. It has willingly brought in Art Briles, who ran a program at Baylor that had a stunning amount of sexual violence tied to its football team. And with it, tiny Mount Vernon has become the latest and most glaring example of how winning trumps ethics and an eternal reminder that the glare of Friday Night Lights can blind adults from acting in the best interest of children.

How bad was Baylor under Briles? One of the lawsuits to come from his tenure — and there were plenty — alleged there were 52 acts of rape, including five gang rapes, during a four-year period while Briles was the coach.

Those numbers were never independently verified, but anyone who has been awake the past decade would come to the conclusion that Briles recruited a roster filled with vile humans and did little to curtail their behavior or set a culture that did anything close to respect women. Another report listed 19 players involved in 17 instances of sexual or domestic assault and four gang rapes.

The numbers are awful any way you cut it, and they still fail to quantify the haunting pain, anger and anguish that lingers with all the women whose lives were indelibly altered by players that Art Briles brought to Baylor. He helped shape many lives. Yes, he did.

Google Tevin Elliot, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2014 after being found guilty of two counts of sexual assault. He was recruited and brought to Baylor by Art Briles. Google Sam Ukwuachu, who transferred to Baylor from Boise State. He was convicted of sexual assault of a Baylor soccer player in August 2015. Art Briles brought him to Baylor, too.

Google Shamycheal Chatman. Google Tre’Von Armstead. Google Shawn Oakman. (He was recently acquitted of rape, but Google him anyway to see if Briles should have recruited him.) There’s sickening allegation after sickening allegation, so many lives shaped so horribly.

If the Googling isn’t convincing enough, you can read the book about Briles’ tenure at Baylor: Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University amid College Football’s Sexual Assault Crisis. The book doesn’t pin all the issues at Baylor on Briles, but a USA Today review sums it up this way: “Any potential employer that reads Violated will come away with the impression of a coach whose program invited dangerous characters onto campus with little or no vetting, didn’t have a drug-testing program and allowed a culture of invincibility to grow with regard to conduct.” Well, almost any.

There’s a small faction of Baylor truthers who’ll point out that Briles was never fired from Baylor for cause, as the school has reportedly paid him more than $15.1 million. And they’ll point to administrators, board members, police and anyone else but St. Art as the root of the chronic dysfunction and sexual assault at Baylor. And if those are the people that Mount Vernon administrators like superintendent Jason McCullough listened to, it sounds like they selectively searched for the parts about full stadiums, 60-point offensive performances and roaring crowds.

“The bottom line is that when a school takes on someone like that, they’re taking on a giant risk,” said Kathy Redmond, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “It says a lot about the school being insulated.”

Briles supporters will also point out that he was a successful high school coach in Texas before going to college. (But this Deadspin report alleges that Briles’ players had issues with sexual assault back then as well, and it paints a convincing portrait of his ambivalence toward that behavior.)

The people and students of Mount Vernon have a clear choice that started the moment their administrators tried to news-dump Briles into their lives on Friday night. It took just 12 hours for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats to capitulate amid a public outcry when the team attempted to hire Briles as an offensive assistant in 2017. Sponsors threatened to pull their ads. Prominent Canadians complained. He was gone before the news cycle could end.

The people of Mount Vernon have been given an opportunity to actually shape the lives of the young people there. They can petition the school board, picket the superintendent’s office and scream into every microphone put in front of them. (And if Briles does arrive, the school and town should be ready to live under a microscope and amid many microphones.) Are the female students offended? Do the parents of the players find Briles’ history unseemly? Do the teachers find this counterintuitive to the values that should be taught? If the answer is “no” to those, they should be prepared to say it over and over into cameras and microphones.

The people and students in Mount Vernon can still prevent their town’s reputation from careening toward some B-list Friday Night Lights caricature. Perhaps they can teach the alleged educators something about shaping the lives of young people.

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