The Baylor Bears are good — whether you accept that is a different story

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While the favorites in the Big 12 — Oklahoma and TCU — lost and struggled, Baylor started their season at a sprinting pace last Saturday, opening up a 48-0 first-half lead on lowly Northwestern State in what would eventually be a 55-7 win.

The trademark high-flying Baylor offense showed no signs of rust. Quarterback Seth Russell completed 70 percent of his passes for 163 yards and four touchdowns before he was lifted in the second quarter, with his team up 41-0, while running back Shock Linwood ran for 100 yards on only nine carries — he too was lifted before the first half was even over.

The Baylor defense, which returned only one lineman, wasn’t tested much, but it allowed a paltry total of 78 yards last Saturday, with roughly 65 of those yards coming against the backups.

The Baylor Bears are good. Even with attrition on the offensive and defensive lines, they’re probably good enough to contend for the Big 12 title in what should be a wide-open year. It’s early, but they might even be good enough to compete for a national championship.

There’s plenty to celebrate with this talented Baylor team, and that leaves us with a moral conundrum: How can you cheer for Baylor football?

We remember what we learned over the summer and know that the process of righting those wrongs and preventing them from ever happening again has only just begun, but even the clean-up process has left a bad taste in the mouth of even the most ardent supporters. Baylor released only a summary of the findings of the Pepper Hamilton law firm’s investigation into the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations levied against football players. Calls for the school to release the full report have been rebuked for a simple reason — there is no written report. The Pepper Hamilton "Report" was an oral presentation. There’s no paper trail to be found.

But in that summary were troubling details — the most direct, and damning: in relation to sexual assault, the athletic department, and specifically the football program "hindered enforcement of rules and policies, and created a cultural perception that football was above the rules.”

The goal was to win, and win big, and morals didn’t seem to factor into the equation. Then, when Baylor reached the peak, the school did everything it could to maintain the success.

Pepper Hamilton found that key administrators participated in "victim blaming" and denied the possibility that sexual violence could happen at the school, which is private and unabashedly religious.

The Bears kept winning, but the administration’s denial didn’t make the problem go away.

In the last five years of Briles’ tenure, there were nine players alleged to have domestically abused or sexually assaulted women.

Those were just the public cases. At least two more cases of domestic violence weren’t reported, because, as the alleged victim told ESPN, it wasn’t worth the trouble: "As long as they’re catching footballs and scoring touchdowns, the school won’t do anything.”

She was hardly the first person at Baylor to say that.

That was the culture at Baylor. The details are grotesque and seemingly endless.

"I made mistakes. I did wrong," former Baylor head coach Art Briles told ESPN. "I understand I made some mistakes. There was some bad things that went on under my watch. I was the captain of this ship. The captain of the ship goes down with it."

The university is trying to turn the page and begin a new chapter, but in the process, it failed to remove some bookmarks.

Interim head football coach Jim Grobe, who was hired when Baylor suspended and then fired Art Briles this summer, maintained most of the former coach’s staff, despite Pepper Hamilton’s finding that, to quote: "football coaches or staff met directly with a complainant and/or a parent of a complainant and did not report the misconduct. As a result, no action was taken to support complainants, fairly and impartially evaluate the conduct under Title IX, address identified cultural concerns within the football program, or protect campus safety once aware of a potential pattern of sexual violence by multiple football players."

Baylor football had an infected culture, and the antibiotics have only begun to be administered — if they’ve been properly prescribed at all.

Athletics are the “front porch” of the university — to the average American, the football team represented Baylor University, in full. That’s the case in good times and bad.

That’s what makes Baylor’s current team such a conundrum. The times are bad, but the team is good.

That’s a dichotomy that’s difficult to handle. Sports are supposed to be an escape, not a venue for serious contemplation about morals.

Sports might be a prism into the human condition in large part because it is truly so unimportant. But the importance of sports is incongruent with its valuation in our society — entertainment shouldn’t be this aggressively tribal or all-consuming.

But it is. So when real issues arise in the immaterial but treasured realm of sports — Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the concussion epidemic in football, the labor rights of NCAA athletes, or the dangerous culture of Briles’ Baylor teams and the overarching lionization of athletes and sporting organizations in systems of justice, particularly in small markets with big college teams — the immediate response is to find a band-aid or rhetoric to slap it with so we can avoid any true scrutiny or contemplation, lest we add baggage to the thing that is supposed to be fun.

In Baylor’s situation, the firing of Briles could be viewed by some as a clean-sweep. The team wasn’t worth noticing before he arrived in Waco, and now that he’s gone, all of the problems that coincided with the success he created will go with it. We won’t have to be reminded of what happened because we won’t remember Baylor football exists.

It’s not working that way.

Baylor’s football program will eventually struggle as a byproduct of Briles’ firing. Depending on who the next coach is, that struggle might not last long, but some tough times are inevitable for the Bears on the field.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, and Baylor was getting really, really good at it before Briles’ was dismissed. After he was fired, though, Baylor lost half of its 22-member 2016 signing class — the 17th-best in the nation, according to Rivals — and nearly all of its 2017 recruiting class, which now has only two commitments (Oklahoma has 19) and is ranked below both South Dakota and South Dakota State of the FCS.

But the effects of that recruiting drought won’t be felt for another year or two — the team Baylor has on the field today doesn’t have as much depth as years past, but, as we saw Saturday, it hasn’t been undercut by much.

Baylor won 10 games last year. there’s no reason that the Bears can’t win 10 games again this year.

How will we handle that? How do you cheer for the players who had nothing to do with any wrongdoing while also acknowledging the harm that was done in the wake of the team’s success in years past?

There’s no right answer. We might not develop one this season, or next, but it’s a question we’ll likely have to grapple with soon. Baylor should move to 2-0 this weekend and then 3-0 the following Friday. If they beat Oklahoma State Sept. 24, they’re likely to be undefeated until Oct. 29, which will, in all likelihood, put them in the Top-10 of the rankings late in the season. They’ll be in the national football conversation.

No matter how much we’d like Baylor to stay out of the spotlight for anything positive, we’re going to have to attack this moral quandary soon. We might as well start contemplating it now.