Disgraced. Showtime. Friday, March 31, 9 p.m.
Last month, Baylor women's basketball coach Kim Mulkey, having just won her 500th game, felt secure enough to let everybody know how she really felt about the rape scandal that has swept through the school's athletic department like a tidal wave for the past 18 months.
"I'm just tired of hearing about it," Mulkey told an arena full of fans, then added her remedy: "If somebody [is] around you and they ever say, 'I will never send my daughter to Baylor,' you knock them right in the face." As the fans roared, Mulkey triumphantly dropped the microphone.
Presumably the targets Mulkey would like to punch out include the 17 women whose reports of rapes or assaults by Baylor athletes that school officials have admitted covering up since 2011. (Astonishingly, those may turn out to be low-ball numbers; a lawsuit filed in federal court by one victim says there were at least 52 rapes by 31 football players.)
Mulkey seemed surprised that, outside the arena, not everybody was cheering. In the uproar that followed, she had to apologize, sort of. ("Knock them right in the face," she explained, was just a metaphor, though she didn't say for what.) But, if the history of Baylor intercollegiate athletics offers us any lesson, there was no need. When it comes to vicious, criminal behavior, the memory of the school's administration, coaching staff and fans can be measured in nanoseconds.
Nobody, for instance, remembers Queso, the friendly alley cat who became a sort of informal mascot of Taco Cabana, a little Mexican-food joint just off the Baylor campus that was the hangout of a lot of the school's athletes. In 2011, two Baylor baseball players shot Queso with a pellet gun, beat him with a golf club and finally decapitated and skinned him. Penalty: suspension from the team for a little less than a month.
Two years after that, one Baylor basketball player murdered another, a crime that triggered a deluge of revelations about cars, cash, and other goodies provided to the school's athletes by their coaches, under the table and massively in violation of NCAA rules. In an attempt to contain the damage, Baylor's then-basketball coach Dave Bliss tried to frame the murdered player as a drug dealer whose sideline explained his lush lifestyle. When one of the assistant coaches took exception to the frame-up, Bliss threatened to fire him, which turned out to be a catastrophic misstep: The assistant began wearing a wire, and the resulting tapes sank not just Bliss but the entire basketball program.
The basketball scandal, too, has been little-mentioned in connection with the rape cover-up, though the parallels—an athletic department that considers itself above not only NCAA rules and state laws but even the standards of human decency—are obvious. That, however, may be about to change with Showtime's airing of Disgraced, a superb documentary that recounts the implosion of Baylor's basketball program in damning detail.
At heart, the crisp and intense Disgraced is a true-crime documentary set against a backdrop of big-time college basketball. Better known as a bastion of Southern Baptist morality—dancing was banned on campus until 1996, and homosexuality was on its list of sexual misconduct as late as 2015—than as an athletic factory, Baylor decided in the late 1990s to end decades of basketball ineptitude. In 1999, ignoring hints that he'd flouted NCAA rules while coaching at nearby SMU, Baylor hired Bliss, who in a quarter of a century had amassed more than 450 wins in major-college basketball.
Casting his nets far outside the sleepy boundaries of sleepy Waco, Bliss had startling success as a recruiter. And after three mediocre seasons, it looked as if his 2003-04 team might have a breakthrough year. But then, the summer before the season started, two of his players disappeared. (Their absence was first detected by an assistant coach whose tasks for the team included going around to the classrooms of players enrolled in summer school to make sure they showed up, which tells you something about the student part of the "student-athletes" Bliss had recruited.)
It's not uncommon for college kids to flake off for a couple of days, especially during summer sessions. But what some of the coaches knew—and didn't share with the cops or anybody else—was that the two missing players, Patrick Dennehy and Carlton Dotson, had told them they were being threatened by a third over some money that had gone missing from their apartment. Dotson's reappearance a few days later in his hometown in rural Maryland wasn't reassuring. "I had to get out," he said. "Things were crazy at Baylor."
As in any good whodunnit, the pieces of Disgraced start falling in place. Dennehy's missing vehicle turns up on the east coast, not far from Dotson's hometown. Then, in an interview with cops, Dotson's tongue slipped in a description of his roommate: "Patrick was—Patrick is—free spirited..." The investigation intensified, and eventually Dotson would confess to shooting Dennehy—by accident, he said—in a remote field where the two of them were out target-practicing with pistols they'd bought to defend themselves from the player who threatened them.
Dotson, alternately giggling and spouting religious mania ("I am much more than a prophet"), was clearly in the grips of a nervous breakdown, and his somewhat addled confession is almost certainly not the whole story of what happened out there. At the very least, his claim the shooting was inadvertent is doubtful, unless you believe he was so unlucky as to accidentally shoot Dennehy twice, the number of wounds found when cops eventually recovered his body.
Was someone besides Dotson involved? Writer-director Pat Kondelis picks at some loose threads in the investigation that might point that way; his efforts are interesting and well-told, but ultimately unconvincing. The most likely story remains that the Dotson shot Dennehy for reasons known only to his unraveling psyche. If Dotson has evidence of anything else, he's not revealed it in the 12 years since he pled guilty.
The murder, however, is only the prologue to the real story of Disgraced, Bliss' ugly attempt to skate free of the ice cracking under his program by pinning the blame for everything on Dennehy's decomposing corpse.
Leaks about the corruption in the athletic department were springing up in all directions. Before Dotson's arrest, Dennehy's girlfriend—worried that Baylor was using its influence to bury the investigation—had already revealed that he was getting illicit payments. (So was the girlfriend, a member of the women's track team.) The scope of those payments was revealed when it came out that Dennehy wasn't getting a basketball scholarship from Baylor. Then who was paying his tuition? Dennehy's stepfather demanded to know. Because it was sure wasn't him. And he didn't buy him that SUV, either.
As the basketball coaching staff held damage-control meetings, Bliss was in despair. "If somebody would just say that he paid Dennehy's tuition, I'd buy them a Cadillac!" he exclaimed. "Shit, I'd buy him four Cadillacs." Thinking out loud, he wondered if maybe they could account for the money by labeling Dennehy (who, like several other players on the team, smoked dope regularly) as a drug dealer. When assistant coach Abar Rouse, who had been with the program less than two weeks and knew nothing of its dark side, demurred, Bliss threatened to fire him.
The tapes Rouse made to protect himself and later delivered to a reporter comprise the most chilling moments in Disgraced. "There's nobody right now that can say that we paid Pat Dennehy, because he's dead ... so what we have to do is create the reasonable doubt," Bliss says to the other coaches. "What we've gotta create here is drugs." Players will be coached to recall luridly detailed scenes of Dennehy catering his parties with trays stacked high with drugs; Bliss makes up the details right there, on the fly. Asked if one of the players can be trusted to play along with this Mephistophelian scenario, Bliss snorts in reply: "That fucker will lie when the truth's easy."
The unguarded view of Bliss' sociopathic heart on display in Disgraced is in stark contrast to the image he's constructed over the past decade as he played the forgiveness card with Christian groups as a reformed sinner. But, during a moment when he thought the camera was off, Bliss once again portrays himself as the scandal's victim rather than its perpetrator. "I got in the mud with the pigs, and I paid a price, and the pigs liked it," he says. The real villain was Dennehy: "He was selling drugs. He sold to all the white guys on campus. He was the worst." And Queso the cat rammed his head into that golf club, too. Being part of the Baylor athletic department means never having to say you're sorry.