At Liberty University, All Sins Are Forgiven on the Altar of Football


Liberty plays football in Division I’s second rung. The university is run by Jerry Falwell Jr., a godly sort who understands the need for occasional accommodation with the secular world. Earlier this year he strolled around the Republican National Convention with his candidate, Donald J. Trump, a thrice-married man whom numerous women have accused of sexually harassing them.

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Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, at a campaign rally for Donald J. Trump on Nov. 6.

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This did not please Liberty’s students, who are expected to abide by the Liberty Way, which sets strict personal guidelines including, but not limited to, no NC-17 movies, no face piercings, no naughty music, and absolutely no canoodling, such as hanging out alone with a person of the opposite sex. Getting caught in a “state of undress” with the opposite sex is good for a $250 fine and 18 hours of community service.

When a Liberty student penned an editorial critical of Trump for the campus newspaper, Falwell censored it. (Liberty University also teaches Young Earth creationism, which is the belief that God created the universe, Earth and life in the last 10,000 years.)

The hiring of McCaw has also proved contentious. As the university’s Facebook page filled up with angry comments, Falwell felt compelled to offer explanations on the university’s website. He said Liberty had conducted an “investigation.” It found that McCaw was a fine man. Far from being pushed out of Baylor, Falwell said, McCaw’s “decision to resign was his own choice.”

“If he made any mistakes at Baylor,” Falwell said — let us pause here to appreciate his use of the conditional — “they appear to be technical and unintentional.” There is not an athletic director in America, Falwell added, who better understands the importance of complying with federal guidelines on reporting any sexual assault on a campus.

And thus tin is transmuted into gold.

At this point, it’s worth recalling the summary that Baylor provided about its confidential investigation. The law firm Pepper Hamilton, which oversaw the inquiry, said it had found that the “the choices made by football staff and athletics leadership, in some instances, posed a risk to campus safety and the integrity of the University.”

The report’s summary gloried in passive language, and in an act of apparent Christian charity, it omitted all names and, therefore, any accountability.

But this is what it meant, if not what it said: Athletic leaders (that would be McCaw) and football coaches learned of accusations of gang and date rape and decided not to report that violence; they met with the alleged victims, and their parents, and still did nothing.

The football team existed in the same hermetic world found at too many top college programs. This, the report found, “reinforces the perception” — and, of course, the reality — “that rules applicable to other students are not applicable to football players.”

McCaw, who had spoken of his hand-in-glove working relationship with Briles, oversaw all of this. When Briles chose to bring in Sam Ukwuachu, a talented defensive end who transferred from Boise State, all involved should have known his background, which was deeply troubling.

At 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, Ukwuachu was a terror to opposing quarterbacks, and to women with the misfortune to make his acquaintance. At Boise State, he was found to have beaten a former girlfriend. He was nonetheless welcomed at Baylor. While forgoing football for the year required of athletic transfers, he sexually assaulted a freshman soccer player. According to Texas Monthly, Baylor officials made a few not-so-pointed inquiries and cleared Ukwuachu.

As my colleague Joe Nocera has pointed out, reporters the next year asked why Ukwuachu was still sitting out during games. A university spokesman mumbled something about issues.

Ukwuachu was later sentenced to six months in jail and 10 years’ probation.

No good actors can be divined here. Our two Christian universities cannot even settle on a single narrative. Falwell claimed that McCaw had been beloved at Baylor and that his departure “was in no way a forced resignation or firing.”

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McCaw said he aimed to make Liberty, in Lynchburg, Va., “a pre-eminent Christian athletic program in America.”

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Chet Strange for The New York Times

Baylor’s interim president, David E. Garland, told a very different story to USA Today last month. “When you remove the president, the athletic director, and a successful and beloved football coach,” he said, “I think there’s incredible accountability.”

What we have here is a contradiction. I called Baylor University’s assistant vice president for communications, Lori W. Fogleman, and told her that Falwell had claimed to have conducted an investigation of the Baylor scandal.

Did Falwell’s people reach out to your people?

“I don’t know,” she replied. I suggested that perhaps her university might wish to be more forthcoming.

An hour or so later, she emailed me: “The university prefers not to comment.”

I was getting confused. So I called Len Stevens, a spokesman for Liberty University. He was a friendly fellow and quickly agreed that what we had here were conflicting accounts. Whom did your people talk to at Baylor, I asked. “We checked with Coach Grant Teaff, who knows lots of people there.”

Teaff, 83, is a football legend at Baylor. He last coached there in 1992 — 11 years before McCaw’s arrival.

Liberty University officials did not ask to speak with Pepper Hamilton, the law firm that conducted the investigation, Stevens said. But they did chat with a couple of members of the Baylor Board of Regents, several of whom are not at all pleased that nettlesome accusations of gang rapes and assaults had pushed out a beloved coach and athletic director.

I got off the telephone and reread Falwell’s statement, which nearly swelled with charity for McCaw. “He is a good man who found himself in a place where bad things were happening and decided to leave,” Falwell said, “and now Liberty is the beneficiary.”

God, or more to the point those people who desire a top football program and claim to hear his word, delivers.

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