‘Disgraced’ Nails the Selective Amnesia That Follows College Sports Scandals

‘Disgraced’ Nails the Selective Amnesia That Follows College Sports Scandals

A new documentary on the 2003 Baylor athletics scandal sheds light on just how fleeting institutional memory can be.

How easily we forget. That is the overriding message of the new documentary Disgraced, directed by Pat Kondelis, about the 2003 Baylor athletics scandal — the one you’ve probably forgotten about.

That June, Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy went missing. His teammate, Carlton Dotson, the last person to see him alive, fled home to Maryland the same day Dennehy disappeared. Dotson would eventually confess to shooting Dennehy in a field outside Waco. The two men had gone there to practice shooting guns they had recently purchased after they had been threatened, they said, by another player, Harvey Thomas, and his cousin, Larry Johnson. Thomas denies this. Dotson pleaded guilty and is currently serving 35 years for murder.

But that wasn’t the whole story. Not even close. In a major NCAA violation, Baylor head coach Dave Bliss had been paying Dennehy under the table. In the weeks while Dennehy was missing, his girlfriend called the NCAA to report this, hoping to get the FBI involved and lead more people to look into his disappearance. After Dotson’s confession and the discovery of Dennehy’s body in a gravel pit near Waco, Bliss began concocting an elaborate scheme in which he asked multiple players to lie. Bliss wanted them to say that Dennehy had been dealing drugs, specifically mentioning wads of $100 bills in Dennehy’s possession. That, Bliss claimed, is how Dennehy paid his tuition. Bliss resigned after Baylor’s internal committee investigating the violations requested his bank statements, knowing he had been caught.

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Little did Bliss know that Abar Rouse, a brand-new assistant coach, had wired himself with a tape recorder and had spent three days secretly taping Bliss outlining his scheme and passing it on to the players. Rouse then gave those tapes to the NCAA and Danny Robbins, a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Bliss was eventually punished by the NCAA and effectively blackballed from coaching an NCAA member team until 2015.

Bliss is the documentary’s driving character, in large part because despite the death of one player, the incarceration of another, and the evidence on Rouse’s tapes, he continues to believe that he is a victim. Bliss blames his choices on the devil and on the high-stakes pressure of Division I coaching, and he’s a master of the passive voice. When he resigned in 2003, he said, “Today I was made aware of some situations within our program after meeting with the inquiry committee, that rules were broken.”

The film also shows Bliss giving a talk at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes Event, where he describes his role in the scandal this way: “Unfortunately, a month later, one of the individuals who was involved in my payment was murdered, and my life spun out of control.” He cries while talking about how he missed “being called ‘Coach.’” He was there to sign copies of his new book.

In one of the film’s most stunning scenes, Kondelis is interviewing Bliss about Dennehy. “He was selling drugs. He sold to all white guys on campus,” Bliss tells Kondelis, thinking he is “off camera,” as he puts it. When asked by Kondelis if Bliss meant that Dennehy was selling drugs, Bliss responds, “Oh yeah, he was the worst.” Kondelis pushes Bliss on this point, saying he’s never heard that from anyone. Bliss responds by getting out of his chair and acting out how Dennehy would usher people into his apartment, take them to a back room, and make the deal. Bliss says Dennehy’s drug dealing never made it to light because “they were so busy hanging me.” He is still the only person on record to ever make this claim about Dennehy.

As a former player says about Bliss in the documentary, “The guy is a marketing genius. He’s got a book coming out. … He is who he’s going to be. And that’s what it is. What really sucks is that for the world to see what kind of person that guy is, that somebody had to die.”

In the end, Disgraced asks more questions than it answers, since no one took the time to ask the questions back in 2003. Everyone, especially Baylor, was ready to move on. The university cleaned house in its athletic department, which is a strange sentence to write in 2017 given that we are currently more than  a year and a half into the ever-unfolding sexual violence scandal at Baylor, in which so many people in the athletic department, especially the football team, are implicated.

Disgraced, though, doesn’t mention the current scandal at all. It doesn’t need to. It’s ever-present in the subtext of the film. The Dave Bliss era is a prologue, a foreshadowing of the Art Briles era. What was so easily forgotten is more relevant than ever.

Rouse tried to coach again and was not successful. No one ever told him directly that secretly taping Bliss cut his coaching career short, but he knows it. “They just don’t return your phone calls,” he told the Observer. Today, he’s a teacher in a federal prison and says he loves his job. After the premier of the film at SXSW, the crowd gave Rouse a standing ovation.

Bliss, on the other hand, is now head basketball coach at Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma. How easily we forget.

Disgraced airs on Showtime March 31 at 8 p.m. Central Time.

Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist and author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. She lives in Austin and can be reached on Twitter.

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Published at 10:56 am CST
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