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The Valley: Notes from the Ruins

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Grappling with the Pepper Hamilton report and the collapse of "New Baylor"

Richard Hirst | Lariat Photo Editor

Even five years later, I can still conjure my state of mind at the end of Baylor-OU 2011 with perfect clarity. This is just after The Throw to Terrance Williams, RG3’s Heisman-clenching moment of ascendency, and just before the field rush; memories of those moments are cloaked in anxiety and jubilant relief, respectively. I am in the student section of dearly departed Floyd Casey, bobbing dreamlike on a rising tide of ecstatic gold, even now pressing inexorably forward in anticipation of the flood gates opening at game’s end. I am at once fully immersed in the moment—in this seminal, glorious present—and far away from it, watching from high above as a path long-hinted at suddenly unfurls before Baylor and into a triumphant future beyond imagining. This is the tipping point, when something that was very abruptly becomes something else, when the possible bursts through the probable and into the assured. This is the birth of New Baylor, and there’s nowhere to go but up.

*****

I am indebted to Baylor and to my time there for most of the best things in my life and for most of the best parts of myself. Though born an only child, Baylor gave me brothers. Though convinced of one career path, Baylor opened me to ambitions I hadn’t even considered; then, it helped me to reach out and grasp them with an assurance I didn’t know I possessed. Though an introvert by nature, Baylor drew me into a community of love and grace that I could not even begin to deserve, one where I could be fully myself in a way that would never have been possible otherwise. Though frail of heart and prone to doubt, Baylor strengthened my faith and shored up the fragile backwaters of my mind. This is Old Baylor, the one that was, and is, and will hopefully continue to be.

*****

There are few things more seductive than a good narrative. The scrappy underdog catapulted to national acclaim; the folksy coach who builds a good football team by building better men; the Christian university that parlays the momentum of athletic success to broaden its appeal while remaining committed to its mission and students. These tidy heuristics, these castles in the sky, are so viscerally appealing precisely because they fly in the face of the arc of history and run counter to the natural inclinations of a fallen world. Narrative rarely tells the whole story, power corrupts, and entropy winds all things slowly towards dissolution. Icarus falls, not because it is wrong to chase the sun, but because of the very nature of what it means to be human. Bubbles are made to burst, and in spite of our best efforts, light and darkness blind in equal measure.

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The Pepper Hamilton report released earlier today is a glaring indictment of the exaltation of narrative over lived experience. My heart aches for the victims, and I pray that they find healing and solace in the midst of unendurable circumstances. My mind rages against the reality of self-reinforcing injustices, of systems that can make monsters of otherwise good and caring people, of corners cut and bridges burned and warning signs ignored in service of the twin idols of growth and progress. This is the harvest reaped of pride, a bumper crop born of enforced ignorance and a blithe sense of invincibility. In its hubristic push toward new horizons of success, Baylor has done near-irreparable damage to the very thing that made that success notable in the first place. New Baylor is collapsing, and it threatens to crush Old Baylor in its descent.

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This is not a time for impassioned defenses or qualified reasoning, but for deep humility and contrition. In every way that matters, Baylor has failed those who most depend on its commitment to nurturing students in a loving community modeled on the life of Christ. For the sake of those students—not to mention all those to come in the future—this corruption must, and will, be rooted out, cut off, and cast into the fire. Gaining the whole world is not worth losing our soul, and the safety of students is worth any and every price required to ensure it.

*****

That road I saw unfurling in front of Baylor on that crisp evening five years ago, so pregnant with promise and afire with possibility, has led us to treacherous places indeed. Now, we find ourselves in a canyon, wrapped in shadow and cut off from the sun. This is a place of suffering, of buried crimes now unearthed; this is a place of grief, of quiet pain at long last made loud. However much we may be inclined to push onward or look for some path back up the side of the crevasse, it is actually our obligation—as co-heirs of Baylor’s legacy and participants, however unknowing or indirectly, in its collective indiscretions—to linger here a while in the dark, deep valley the river of progress has carved out for us. Then, and only then, can we set out in search of Old Baylor once again.