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Liberty University Settles Claim That It Expelled Football Players To Make Up For Hiring Disgraced Baylor Officials [CORRECTED]

Illustration for article titled Liberty University Settles Claim That It Expelled Football Players To Make Up For Hiring Disgraced Baylor Officials [CORRECTED]
Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

Liberty University appears to have paid settlements for hiring several key athletic-department officials who had been accused of creating “a hunting ground for sexual predators” when they worked at Baylor, then allegedly overcorrecting by expelling three football players on unfounded sexual-assault charges.

In March, Liberty quietly settled lawsuits filed last year by three former football players who alleged defamation and Title IX violations. The cases had survived Liberty’s dismissal attempts and were set for jury trials later this year. The settlements came very shortly after the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Joshua Farmer, told Deadspin that he had discovered new information that “is going to blow up this Liberty case.”

The athletes who filed suit—Cameron Jackson, Kyle Carrington and Avery James—had been kicked off the football team and expelled from Liberty following an accusation from a female student that they had sexually assaulted her at an off-campus party thrown on Aug. 22, 2015. The punishments weren’t handed down until September 2016. Administrators at Liberty, a school in Lynchburg, Va., founded and operated by the televangelistic Falwell family, said they didn’t hear about the assault accusations until nearly a year after the party where the incidents allegedly occurred. According to the suit, the accuser first told administrators that she’d been assaulted after the school started investigating her own alleged misconduct at the same party, an inquiry that began because of social media posts about sexual activity at the event. According to court filings from the accuser, she left Liberty voluntarily before the players were punished. Each plaintiff asked for damages of $50 million from the school and $50 million from the accuser.


Liberty had trumpeted the punishments in a September 12, 2016 press release, which named the accused players and said they had violated the university’s “Policy on Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Assault.” Liberty’s release mentioned that the school had referred the assault allegations to the Lynchburg Police Department, but no criminal charges were ever filed against the players. Lt. David Gearhart, LPD’s public information officer, declined Deadspin’s request for police reports related to his department’s investigation. But Gearhart said that all findings were turned over to the Lynchburg Office of the Commonwealth Attorney, and that the prosecutors “determined there was insufficient evidence to file charges and prosecute the case.”

Shortly after the punishments were announced, Farmer pronounced Jackson’s innocence and began blasting the school’s handling of the accusations in interviews and posts on his law firm’s website. Farmer said the application of Title IX, the federal regulation that, among other things, calls for equal treatment regardless of gender for students at any institution that receives public funding, was flawed throughout Liberty’s handling of the investigation. (Though a private school, Liberty gets public grants and must abide by Title IX rules.) Farmer argued that Liberty violated Title IX by giving more weight to the accuser’s words strictly because of gender, alleging that the school’s Conduct Review Committee didn’t allow the accused players to review the evidence before doling out punishments. He also criticized the school for announcing the penalties while the players were preparing their appeals of the Liberty punishments (those appeals were rejected) and before the criminal investigation was completed.

After prosecutors told involved parties that no charges would be filed, Farmer said, Liberty offered the students the chance to reapply for admission for the next school year, which would require them to petition for their official status with the university to be reclassified from expelled to “in good standing.” Normally, students must wait a full year to reapply. Farmer took that offer as a sign that the school was aware the initial punishments were unjust. Of the expelled students, only Jackson applied for reclassification; Farmer said that within four days of receiving Jackson’s application, Liberty administrators ruled he was once again a student in good standing. Asked by Deadspin about Farmer’s account of Jackson’s reclassification, Liberty officials said the school “cannot confirm the accuracy of what you say you were told” due to federal privacy laws.

Though Jackson was again in good standing at Liberty, he and his fellow plaintiffs moved forward with their lawsuits against the school. Liberty lawyers successfully petitioned to have the cases moved from Lynchburg Circuit Court, where Jackson’s suit were originally filed, to the federal U.S.. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. But Liberty’s motion to have the suits dismissed was largely denied in August by U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon, who ruled that the defamation and Title IX cases would move forward. Jackson’s case was scheduled to be heard by a jury in July 2018.


In an interview before the settlement, Farmer alleged that Liberty “railroaded” his client, and said the school touted his expulsion so loudly as part of a bungled effort to mitigate the fallout from its hiring castoffs from Baylor’s athletic department. The Waco school was the site of one of the most notorious sexual-abuse scandals in college athletics history, and Liberty had hired in a trio of men who were involved in the debacle.

Ian McRary, Baylor’s Title IX officer from February 2015 to January 2016, was hired by Liberty in February 2016 as associate general counsel. Ian McCaw, Baylor’s former athletic director, was appointed AD at Liberty in November 2016. McCaw quickly hired Todd Patulski, his assistant athletic director at Baylor, as the Liberty athletic department’s associate athletic director and chief financial officer. McCaw, Patulski and McRary had all left their jobs at Baylor amid the investigation into that school’s handling of sexual abuse and assault allegations; administrators were accused in one of many resulting lawsuits with having “created a hunting ground for sexual predators to freely prey upon innocent, unsuspecting female students, with no concern of reprisal or consequences.” Not all the alleged rapists at Baylor were athletes, but the athletic department under McCaw and Patulski was viewed as the epicenter of the assault epidemic. McCaw, Patulski and McRary were all recently subpoenaed to testify in one of the lawsuits against Baylor related to the Waco sexual assault scandal.


The hiring of McCaw and his colleagues came at a time when Jerry Falwell Jr.—who has been running Liberty since the 2007 death of founder Jerry Falwell Sr.—was trying to use sports to grab more of the national spotlight that his late father had craved. A 2014 article in USA Today reported that Liberty officials had “blueprints at the ready” on a renovation of its football stadium that would “add 6,000 seats in the near term and more than 40,000 over time.” Hiring administrators from Baylor, which had experienced unprecedented football success in recent years, was a key part of the plan. (McCaw, for example, got much of the credit for getting the $266 million McLane Stadium built on the Waco campus.)


Liberty, a school whose motto is “Champions for Christ,” announced in February 2017 that its football program was moving from the second-tiered FCS up to FBS, the NCAA’s top football classification. When President Donald Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty’s graduation ceremony in May 2017, he spent much of the speech highlighting Falwell’s football dreams.

None of the ex-Baylor officials now atop Liberty’s athletics department were named as defendants in the expelled players’ suits; McCaw’s name, for example, appears only a few times in the complaint filed by Jackson, which goes on for more than 100 pages. And of the three former Baylor officials, only McRary had officially been hired by Liberty when the school put out the press release announcing the players’ punishments.


But the Baylor transplants were key figures in the case that Farmer put together against Liberty. The attorney alleged that Liberty was already planning to bring in McCaw and Patulski to join McRary by the time the school made an example of Jackson, and administrators felt they needed to make a very public anti-sexual abuse statement, he said. Jackson’s original complaint states that Liberty’s interest in McCaw “pre-dated McCaw’s resignation [from Baylor] by several months and included internal discussions between Liberty University chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. and other senior staff about the need to ‘act quickly’ if McCaw became available.” Furthermore, the suit alleges that Liberty “believed or had reason to believe that any public criticism of their decision to hire McCaw would be worse if the University developed a public image that was weak on Title IX.”

Falwell declined Deadspin’s request last year to answer questions about McCaw’s hiring, but he has publicly supported the embattled former Baylor AD. After court filings in a Texas lawsuit against Baylor accused McCaw with abetting a cover up of sexual assault allegations there, Falwell’s office released a package of pro-McCaw comments from members of Baylor’s board of regents. One of the regents, according to a round-up of the comments sent by Liberty to the Waco Tribune, told Falwell, “My personal view is that the Lord has moved Ian [McCaw] from Baylor to Liberty through this sad chapter in Baylor’s history.”


As for the discovery that Farmer’s Feb. 17 email to Deadspin predicted would “blow up” Liberty’s defense? The fact that McRary, for all the notorious Title IX fiascos he oversaw in Waco, assumed oversight of Title IX matters at Liberty as soon as he arrived in Lynchburg.

“Based on what happened at Baylor, McRary shouldn’t have been within a country mile of any school’s Title IX policy, but when he got to LU’s Legal affairs department...they put him in charge of the whole damn thing,” Farmer said. “When [McRary] got to [Liberty], they were so sensitive to the problems at Baylor that they overcorrected. Baylor had been accused of ignoring accusations, so at [Liberty] they went 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Overcorrected and railroaded these guys.”


In response to a request from Deadspin, Liberty confirmed that when McRary began work for the school in February 2016 his duties “included advising the University and its employees on all aspects of compliance with the Title IX federal sex discrimination law.”

On Feb. 26, nine days after Farmer’s email about a bombshell discovery, the parties began filing motions in U.S. District Court to dismiss the case. Court records show that Judge Moon accepted the motion two days later. On March 20, the court clerk entered that Jackson’s case was dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning the suit cannot be refiled. The resolution of Jackson’s suit was first reported by the Lynchburg News & Advance. Three days later, court records show, the Carrington and James suits were similarly dispatched. No settlement terms were registered with the court in any of the cases.


Neither Farmer nor Stephanie Karn, attorney for the accuser, responded to a request for comment following the resolution. Liberty officials declined to comment, other than to issue a brief statement: “The parties have resolved this matter to their mutual satisfaction.”

Despite being deemed fit for re-admittance to Liberty, Jackson chose to transfer out. A source close to Jackson said he intends to resume his football career at Coastal Carolina, Liberty’s main rival in the Big South Conference before the Flames jumped to the FBS.


UPDATE: On May 29, Joshua Farmer, who represented Cameron Jackson, a former Liberty University football player who alleged in a now-settled lawsuit against the school that he’d been unfairly kicked off the team and out of the school because of a mishandled sexual assault investigation, posted a statement on his law firm’s Facebook page, that said that he did not intend his statement to Deadspin “to be for publication.” Deadspin maintains that Farmer’s statement was on the record.

CORRECTIONS: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that Ian McRary, while serving as a Title IX officer at Baylor, was part of Baylor’s athletic department alongside Ian McCaw and Todd Patulski. Baylor’s Title IX office is separate from the school’s athletic department. The article also seeks to clarify McRary’s tenure and role in the investigation. The original article also said that “McCaw, Patulski and McRary had all left their jobs at Baylor as a result of the investigation into that school’s handling of sexual abuse and assault allegations.” McRary says he left Baylor in January 2016 “for unrelated personal reasons.”

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