On February 28, 2018, a tearful Shawn Oakman exited a courtroom in Waco, Texas a free man, and in the process creating the perfect storm in the NCAA and NFL.
Baylor University, located in Waco, Texas is not known as a football powerhouse. It isn’t one of the pillars that the NCAA builds its ratings and revenue streams upon, and casual college football fans likely never knew much about the school. But Baylor’s obscurity within the national college sports landscape came to an end in 2016. The Athletic Department, specifically the football program, was accused of failing to act and investigate numerous accusations of sexual assault involving student athletes. This led to the demotion and subsequent resignation of University President Ken Starr, the resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw, and the dismissal of head football coach Art Briles.
After completing a comprehensive investigation into Baylor’s Athletic Department, the NCAA issued a notice of allegations against Baylor which includes a lack of institutional control. Usually this comes with a significant punishment such as the NCAA death penalty. Frankly, some of the information and allegations surrounding Baylor University warrant severe punishment; over 125 accounts of sexual assault were reported from 2012 to 2016 on Baylor’s campus, and two football players were eventually found guilty for sexual assault. Nevertheless, this scandal rocketed to the front page when star football player and viral social media sensation Shawn Oakman was arrested for sexual assault. He became the unofficial face of the predatory environment that was Baylor athletics.
Mr. Oakman, known for his freakish size, went viral during a primetime game when he stood next to opposing players during the coin toss. He looked like a man standing with boys and his production on the football field matched his imposing appearance. Listed at 6’9 and 275 pounds, he recorded 17.5 sacks during his time at Baylor. Many members of the scouting community labeled him a potential first round pick based upon his production and size. It was undeniable Oakman had the potential to be a contributor in the NFL, but he went undrafted and unsigned during the 2016 offseason.
After being accused and subsequently indicted on sexual assault charges in 2016, Mr. Oakman’s hopes of playing in the NFL were put on hold. Over the course of two years, Mr. Oakman maintained his innocence, stating he had consensual sex with his accuser. He even rejected what the prosecutor described as a “generous plea deal.” Ultimately, the jury decided Oakman did not sexually assault the individual who accused him. The fact that Mr. Oakman has been found not guilty means double jeopardy applies; he can’t be indicted for a crime arising from the same conduct (the encounter with his accuser) he was found not guilty for in the state of Texas. In short, he is a free man and can resume his football career.
This verdict is of equal significance to the NCAA and the NFL as Mr. Oakman’s innocence raises questions about the investigation and eligibility. Let’s be clear, Baylor was not found innocent; the university, its administrators and coaches was investigated by the NCAA separately from Oakman. The issue surrounding Baylor was the way the university investigated and processed complaints about athletes’ conduct, specifically allegations of sexual assault. Now that Oakman has been found innocent, the legitimacy of the investigation is called into question due to publicity his indictment garnered. Unfortunately, this places an additional burden on the NCAA to justify its investigation and punishment of Baylor—even if this is only in the court of public opinion, the victims and new university administrators deserve a chance, without pushback, to make the campus a safer environment.
The problems don’t stop at the collegiate level. The NFL is in an equally precarious position. On one hand, being a part of Baylor’s toxic culture may not sit well with fans and the League may want to take a stand. Notwithstanding his lack of criminal conviction, Mr. Oakman likely could be punished by the NFL for conduct that is detrimental to the league to serve as a sign the league takes accusations of sexual assault seriously. This is unlikely because it presents a slippery slope that can lead to innocent players being punished for merely being accused or associated with noncompliant universities. Not to mention, this type of situation can further erode an already contentious relationship between the NFLPA and the League itself.
Currently, clubs are free to sign Mr. Oakman and as we have seen before, talent talks. If Mr. Oakman has stayed in shape and hasn’t lost his ability to rush the passer, he will likely get a chance to try out for a club at some point, absent League action. Although, Mr. Oakman has lost millions and many felt the system has failed him by letting his career end before it began, Mr. Oakman has no way to compensate for these losses. A civil claim against his accuser is ill advised as the publicity can make him unemployable in the eyes of clubs. Assuming for the sake of argument, Mr. Oakman had loss of value insurance, this form of compensation only covers medical issues. Off the field problems are a factor that weigh in favor of disclaiming coverage. This unique situation leaves Mr. Oakman with only one option, put the past behind him and stay ready for an opportunity. There is no added value to trying to change the past.
By Tony DiPerna
Photo credit: Jerry Larson/AP