The release of Disgraced, a new documentary that details a Baylor basketball scandal that shook the university nearly fifteen years ago, comes at an interesting time. The film premiered at SXSW on March 12, a few days before this year’s highly touted Bears squad started its tournament run. The national debut, on Showtime, will coincide with the weekend of the Final Four, one of the biggest events in all of sports and one that could include the Bears. That success, at a moment when the university remains entangled in a sexual assault scandal, has kept Baylor in a national spotlight.
But Austin director Pat Kondelis hadn’t counted on any of this when he started working on the documentary two years ago. He simply wanted to reexamine one of the darkest moments in the history of Texas athletics.
“There’s a reason why nobody’s done anything on this and it’s because nobody talked,” Kondelis told a SXSW audience after the premiere of Disgraced. “So the big thing was, who can we actually get on camera to talk about this?”
The documentary begins in June 2003 with the disappearance of Patrick Dennehy, a junior on the Baylor basketball team, not long after Dennehy reported to his coaches that he and teammate Carlton Dotson were receiving threats from another player, Harvey Thomas. In police statements and in an interview for the documentary, Thomas denies making any threats, but friends of Dotson and Dennehy recalled that the two were so fearful that they had purchased guns. About a month after Dennehy went missing, however, it was Dotson who confessed to killing him. Police later found Dennehy shot to death in a gravel pit north of Waco.
Through an extensive array of interviews with former coaches and players, police officers, attorneys, and journalists, Kondelis unravels the bizarre and tragic story in Disgraced. He highlights questions that exist in the case today, including whether Dotson—who, after pleading guilty, was sentenced to 35 years in prison—was mentally sound during his trial, or if Dotson’s lawyers, who had ties to Baylor, had properly represented him.
But the most troubling storylines to emerge in the documentary were that of Baylor’s head basketball coach at the time, Dave Bliss. Almost from the beginning, after the search for Dennehy began to uproot deeper issues in Baylor’s basketball program, it’s Bliss who orchestrates a cover up. He denies to investigators, for example, ever knowing that Dennehy had reported a threat. When Dennehy’s girlfriend confesses that Bliss was paying for Dennehy’s tuition, rent, and car, Bliss denies these claims as well.
But after Abar Rouse, an assistant coach for Baylor at the time, began secretly recording meetings with players and coaches, the extent of Bliss’s involvement is made clear to investigators. Days after Dennehy’s body is found, Bliss is recorded attempting to convince other players that Dennehy made money from dealing drugs. In another meeting, Bliss tells Rouse that Thomas would back up their stories about Dennehy dealing drugs. (Thomas has never been charged with anything related to the killing.) The audio from the tapes, revealed toward the end of the documentary, is chilling. At one point, Bliss assures other players that Dennehy won’t be able to deny their statements because “he’s dead.”
After investigators requested his bank statements, making clear that he’d been caught violating NCAA regulations by paying Dennehy, Bliss resigned from Baylor. In the larger NCAA investigation that followed, Bliss admitted that he had lied to investigators, and in 2005, he was given what amounted to a ten-year suspension from working in the NCAA.
Kondelis convinced Bliss to sit for several interviews for the documentary, and after the case is laid out on screen, you hope to see Bliss explain his actions and feel something close to remorse. Instead, Bliss seems to double down on his denials and continues to deflect responsibility onto other coaches, players, and the Baylor administration.
In one moment, he acknowledges why Dennehy’s parents might be upset with him. Barely. “I didn’t do anything,” Bliss said. “I mean, I said bad things about their kid.” In another part, when Bliss seems close to taking some responsibility, he casts it as still not quite his fault: “I had allowed the world of competitive athletics to take me to a place that was so dark.”
Still, Bliss seemed to quickly move past that darkness. Following his resignation and NCAA suspension, he found work coaching at several prep schools. He published a book, Fall to Grace, and went on a motivational speaking tour, sharing lessons he’d learned. And in 2015, after his punishment ended, Bliss became Coach Bliss again after landing the head coaching job at Southwestern Christian University.
At Baylor, concerns quickly shifted from that summer’s basketball scandal to issues with Robert B. Sloan, Jr, then president of the university. By the fall of that year, Bliss, and Dennehy, appeared to be an afterthought.
Rouse, the coach who recorded Bliss, also makes an appearance in Disgraced. In the months following Dennehy’s murder, Rouse was released from Baylor and basically banished from the coaching world, and sports pundits debated whether he’d done the right thing by recording Bliss. He now teaches at a correctional facility and provides the documentary with one of its most salient statements: “I know what fake redemption looks like.”
After the screening at SXSW, audience members, including some Baylor alumni, noted the relative silence in the years following Dennehy’s disappearance and death. Comparisons to Baylor’s current scandal—allegations of sexual assault by members of the Baylor football team, mishandling of the claims by the university, resignations by coaches and administrators—were hard not to make. There was a feeling among audience members that much like Dennehy’s death, it won’t take long to forget.
“Thank you for telling this story,” one audience member said to Kondelis. “Amidst the sexual assault scandal, I couldn’t believe that this seemed to be a story that would be forgotten, especially since it happened in 2003. Do you … anticipate [Baylor] attempting the same type of cover up in this rape scandal?”
“Oh yeah,” Kondelis replied. “That’s going on right now.”
Baylor’s sexual assault scandal was not mentioned in the documentary, because Kondelis believed the issue was too complicated to tack on to the end of the 2003 scandal. Instead, Kondelis said he used a comment by Grady Irvin, a lawyer who had represented Dotson, to explain how certain environments can cause such scandals. “Carlton wasn’t the cancer,” Irvin said. “He was a byproduct of that cancer.” Whether Baylor’s cancer has been eradicated is a question Disgraced leaves unanswered.