The latest lawsuit against Baylor University alleging rampant rape committed by football players with impunity has again cast attention on college “hostess clubs,” groups of women often selected for appearance and personality to greet prized high school football recruits when they visit campus.
More than a decade after the NCAA changed its rules to discourage the once-common groups, now viewed on many campuses as archaic, they continue to feature prominently in sexual-assault and recruiting scandals in college sports. In the lawsuit filed Friday against Baylor, in which plaintiff Elizabeth Doe claims she was gang-raped by two football players in April 2013, Doe says she joined the football hostess program “Baylor Bruins” when she arrived at the Baptist university’s Waco, Tex., campus in the fall of 2012.
Doe joined the Bruins, formerly known as the “Baylor Belles,” hoping to make friends, the complaint stated, because she couldn’t afford the cost of joining a traditional sorority on campus.
Baylor athletics administrators publicly abided by NCAA rules and guidelines that strictly limit contact between athletes and hosts, according to the lawsuit. But when recruits visited, the complaint stated, the Bruins were “unofficially … expected to make sure the recruits have a good time.”
“Do you like white women?” one Baylor assistant allegedly asked a recruit, according to the complaint. “Because we have a lot of them at Baylor, and they love football players.”
“Though the Bruins had an official policy of no sexual contact with the recruits or football players, Baylor had an unofficial policy of looking the other way when there was sexual intercourse between the Bruins and the football players,” the lawsuit alleges. Sex between Bruins and players was common, according to the complaint.
“Baylor’s recruiting policies and practices, along with the Baylor Bruin football hostess program, directly contributed to the creation of a culture of sexual violence that permeated Baylor and from which Ms. Doe would soon suffer,” the lawsuit stated.
In the complaint, Doe’s lawyers claim to have collected evidence of at least 52 rapes committed by at least 31 Baylor players over four years. Her attorney, John Clune, declined to comment this week or to release any of the evidence supporting the number of sex crimes described in the lawsuit. Baylor officials, who have acknowledged that athletics officials impeded rape investigations on campus involving football players, released an apologetic statement last week that did not address the allegations in the lawsuit.
When previous scandals have erupted involving hostess groups, school officials have defended them by pointing to strict rules against socializing. Victims’ advocates have long argued, however, that the mere existence of a group of women solely devoted to hosting football players sends dangerous messages to recruits about their place on campus and gender roles.
“Why is it females for male recruits, and why is it usually limited to football and basketball, which are the major revenue sports? Those give you the answers to every question that should matter about this,” said Katherine Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.
Redmond attributes the continued existence of hostess groups to realities of college sports unlikely to be affected by any NCAA rule.
“The obvious reason they still exist is recruiting. This is big time, big money, and sex recruits high school kids,” said Redmond, who has said she was raped by a football player while at the University of Nebraska in 1991.
Like many recruiting innovations in college sports, hostess groups can be traced to the Southeastern Conference. In the 1960s, legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant created “Bear’s Babes” — later renamed the more stately “Bama’s Belles” — and soon Alabama’s competitors joined suit. Auburn had the “Tigerettes,” Florida the “Gator Getters” and Mississippi State the “Dog Catchers.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, some of these hostess groups adopted more politically correct names (Gator Getters became Gator Guides; Dog Catchers became Bulldog Hostesses), but the job remained the same: escort star football recruits and their families around campus. Hostesses also often did clerical work around athletic departments, earning a few bucks an hour or academic credit for those majoring in sports management or related degrees. They also secured prime seating for football games, and hundreds of undergraduates typically applied for a handful of spots.
“They are invaluable,” Lance Thompson, a former LSU assistant coach, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2003. “There are only so many coaches, especially when you have big crowds [of recruits]. . . . [And] the key to a player is his mama, and girls are easier for Mama to talk to. It’s a good way for information to travel both ways.”
In 2004, the NCAA tried to crack down on hostess groups amid a series of recruiting scandals. A former Colorado student was suing her school, alleging she had been raped by a football recruit, and former hostesses at Arizona State and Oregon had gone public with stories of fellow hostesses having sex with recruits. That year, a new rule passed that required schools to move any hostess groups to the jurisdiction of the admissions departments, prohibiting athletic departments from having their own devoted campus hosts exclusively for football and men’s basketball teams.
Despite the rule changes, though, hostess-related scandals continue to emerge every few years, as athletic departments act with apparent disregard for the NCAA rules.
In 2009, “Orange Pride” hostesses for the University of Tennessee traveled hundreds of miles to attend the high school football game of a recruit in South Carolina, prompting an NCAA investigation that eventually found a number of rules violations. Former “Orange Pride” hostess Lacey Earps said she and others were encouraged to flirt with recruits and that former Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin once gave her $40 to take a prospect out to dinner, according to the 2013 book “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football.” Kiffin denied the allegations.
Last year, the NCAA alleged lax oversight by Rutgers athletics officials of dozens of mostly female ambassadors for football recruits as well as improper contact between ambassadors and recruits. As the NCAA investigated, a Rutgers athletics official told the Newark Star-Ledger the school’s hostess program was similar to those at “almost every football program in the country.”
In the past few years, many schools have done away with hostess programs. The Bama Belles, Auburn’s Tigerettes and Tennessee’s Orange Pride are no more. In an email, a Baylor spokeswoman said the Bruins also have folded and that the school’s admissions department now handles hosting duties.
Texas A&M still has Aggie Hostesses, but they no longer help with recruiting. In a phone interview, David Batson, the senior associate athletics director in charge of compliance, said that keeping the hostesses involved in recruiting while navigating rules restricting their contact with recruits proved too difficult. The Aggie Hostesses now assist the athletics department in other ways, Batson said, including with alumni events.
“It’s a bit frustrating, but I can understand the rules and how [hostess groups] can go wrong,” Batson said.
Still, Redmond doubts that the disbanding of hostess groups has meant the end of football officials using female students to lure recruits. She just suspects coaches are being more discreet.
“There are schools where it just kind of goes underground,” Redmond said. “Sex is a great way to recruit, period, and I’m not sure how you remove that.”
In a 2015 rape trial of two Vanderbilt football players who were later convicted, the victim claimed in court filings that former coach James Franklin had asked her to get “15 pretty girls” to assist with recruiting, an allegation Franklin denied.
The coach told her it was something all colleges did, the victim said.