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Baylor is good, and that's problematic

Ray Carlin/USA TODAY Sports

WACO, Texas -- As McLane Stadium filled Saturday night and players from Baylor and Oklahoma State loosened up before kickoff, a jarring message played on the large scoreboard above the south end zone.

"It's on us to talk when we think someone needs help," a Baylor student said as part of a 90-second video that played multiple times during the warm-up period.

Produced by Baylor athletics this summer in conjunction with the school's Title IX office, the video featured students who voiced their commitment to create an environment at the school in which a culture of care exists and sexual assault is not accepted.

It served as a piece of Baylor's involvement in the national "It's on Us" program, which began in 2014 to help prevent sexual assault and encourage students, faculty and staff to make a personal pledge to "be part of the solution and intervene" when problems arise.

It was jarring, because this is Baylor.

This is Baylor, where scandal rocked the campus over the past year as several victims of sexual assault filed Title IX lawsuits against the school, accusing its administration of negligence in handling their claims.

It's where Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, hired by Baylor, found wholly inadequate processes in place and specific failures among the football and athletic department leadership to account for student-athlete misconduct.

All of that raises an unavoidable question: Is Baylor's success on the field mutually exclusive from its failures as part of society?

Barring a major upset, Baylor figures to enter a Week 9 test at Texas -- three days before the release of the first College Football Playoff rankings -- as a top-10 team and the Big 12's best hope to salvage something significant from this season.

That's a potential headache for the league, which admonished Baylor in July, and for the sport at large. But as far as College Football Playoff protocol is concerned, it should have no impact.

"The committee's only task is to pick the best teams," CFP director Bill Hancock told ESPN.com. "They do pick those teams based on what transpires on the field."

Evidence lingers that Baylor and its football community struggle to grasp the magnitude of the Pepper Hamilton findings and recommendations. The staffers hired by former coach Art Briles, including his son and son-in-law, continue to call offensive and defensive plays. After the Bears' Sept. 19 win at Rice, former Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman, indicted for sexual assault in July, entered the locker room. And Saturday, former school president Kenneth Starr described Briles as a victim of "grave injustice," calling him "an honorable man who conducted an honorable program."

At the same time, Baylor has looked like a playoff contender, with a dazzling offense (42 points and 549 yards of total offense per game) and an opportunistic defense. Quarterback Seth Russell owns one of the best stat lines in the country -- 13 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 158.3 passer efficiency -- and is now 12-0 as a starter.

"I've never been around a team that gave a better effort than we had tonight," interim coach Jim Grobe said after the victory. "For me, personally, as a coach, I think the No. 1 thing you want is to think you're getting their best effort. You might not always get their best play, but if you get their best effort, you feel like you're doing something good."

So is it fair to penalize current players for the school's previous transgressions?

"The current team and coach don't need to have that albatross hung around their neck at every occasion," said Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

"Not every single reference to Baylor football has to include that discussion, but I don't want to see it completely go by the wayside and allow people to believe that [Baylor] has checked off a box."

Brenda Tracy, an advocate for victims and rape prevention who spoke this summer to the Baylor team, said: "When people say that it's unfair, it is. And that was the administration's fault. They should not have put those kids in the situation to where, now, they have to deal with the backlash. They had nothing to do with it. That is unfair."

Tracy said she was raped in 1998 by four men, including two Oregon State football players. She and her son petitioned the NCAA this year in an effort to ban sexually violent student-athletes from college campuses.

The NCAA's board of governors last month asked a committee of leaders, on which Tracy will sit, to develop policies on violent athletes.

At Baylor, Tracy said, the firing of Briles and resignations of Ian McCaw as athletic director and Starr as president and chancellor did not fix the culture.

"This horrible thing happened there," Tracy said. "Everybody's mad, and it's in the media. People got fired. But back to football. Back to winning. Back to trying to make the playoff. Where are the victims in all this? What happens to them? This was a huge, huge scandal on a national level that was exposed, but are we just going back to business as usual?"

Baylor players continue to field questions from the media about overcoming adversity and avoiding distractions.

Meanwhile, victims' voices, according to Tracy, are too often "lost in this discussion."

Burrhus-Clay said she's taking a wait-and-see approach on Baylor's response. In other cases, she said, universities have "slowly drifted back" to the place at which the problems initially rooted.

"I'm hoping that Baylor isn't just doing all this as window dressing," Burrhus-Clay said. "But only time is going to tell that for me."

Still, football moves forward.

Linebacker Taylor Young shrugged Saturday night when asked if he considered it important for the Bears to receive recognition as a playoff contender.

"Hey, write us off," Young said. "Write us off, then all of a sudden, we sneak up on them [and] everybody's so shocked. But this is what we talk about. Every week needs to be a win. Every play needs to be a win.

"I mean, that's the stuff we preach. You can write us off, but at the end of the year, if we practice -- if we keep on practicing and we having that intensity every day -- it'll be great. It'll be a great thing."

Great for the Bears -- but a predicament outside the Baylor locker room.

"For a victim, you have to understand that every time there's a story about Baylor, it opens a wound," Tracy said. "And for me, personally, I don't think they should be winning right now, because I think there should be sanctions against them."