What could be more tragic than one college basketball teammate murdering another? How about the coach, accused of a myriad of NCAA violations, encouraging the player’s teammates to lie to investigators about the murder victim being a drug dealer, apparently to save his own ass? And at the center of it all is a Black assistant coach, who recorded the coach’s apparent confession. This is what Showtime exposes in its explosive documentary Disgraced.
It begins with former Baylor University coach David Bliss’s proclamation that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. From there, Disgraced teases Patrick Dennehy’s disappearance before establishing the nationally ranked Christian school as omnipotent in Waco, Texas. It was no secret that Baylor had a failing men’s basketball program. Bliss, now 73, was brought in precisely because he had a reputation for winning, having done so at other programs, including the University of Oklahoma and Southern Methodist University.
To that end, in the 2002-2003 school year Bliss recruited Dennehy, a sophomore who was a standout Black player at the University of New Mexico. Bliss, according to Dennehy’s family members and girlfriend, who speak in the documentary, lured him away from New Mexico with an athletic scholarship, a place to live and a Chevy Tahoe.
Also in the fold was Carlton Dotson, another transfer student with whom Dennehy, a native of San Jose, California, became fast friends. After a year as a redshirt to comply with NCAA Division I transfer policy, Dennehy was preparing to suit up for the Baylor Bears 2003-2004 season.
Things, however, took a scary turn after the friends claimed they were threatened with a gun by another player and his friend, an incident they reported to the coaching staff. A rattled Dotson and Dennehy purchased guns to protect themselves and often practiced shooting.
But soon after the incident, Dennehy went missing around Father’s Day in 2003. When his stepfather and other family didn’t hear from him on that day or the day after, they were alarmed enough to file a missing person’s report.
Dennehy was missing for weeks. His family even appeared on national television pleading for any knowledge of his whereabouts. A few weeks later, Dotson, who had journeyed to other college programs before Baylor, became a person of interest and then confessed to shooting Dennehy and leaving him in an open Texas field. By the time Dennehy’s body was found, it was so badly decomposed that only dental records could identify him.
But the story doesn’t end here. Dotson reportedly has mental issues, even claiming at the time of his questioning that he was from a family of prophets and could also tell who was going to heaven. Because of Baylor’s reputation, the case was oddly rushed along, with Dotson, being ruled competent enough by a judge who replaced another who had ruled the opposite. Dotson pled guilty and is now serving a 35-year-sentence that he can never appeal. Dotson’s first defense attorney, Grady Irvin, Jr., who is Black, speaks of the improprieties of the sentencing in Disgraced, which of course favored Baylor, not justice.
As details of Dennehy’s death were investigated, Baylor’s recruiting practices were also examined. Worried by the eventual discovery that Dennehy was not at Baylor on an athletic scholarship, Bliss encouraged his players to tell prosecutors that Dennehy was selling drugs to explain how his tuition got paid. The truth, according to the documentary, was that Bliss paid it. But instead of owning up to his wrongdoing, he was content to create “reasonable doubt” that his dead player did it and not him.
And how do we know this? Bliss’s assistant coach Abar Rouse, who is Black, began recording the coach. Rouse is a steady presence throughout Disgraced. The Baylor alum was relatively new to the coaching staff, his dream job, when the tragedy transpired. Fearful of losing his job and, worse yet, his freedom, he bought a tape recorder and started taping Bliss. So there is no disputing Bliss’s actions. They are on tape, thanks to Rouse.
And while Disgraced digs into Bliss’s background, they don’t dig deep enough. See Bliss is an Ivy League guy, with two degrees from Cornell. Guess what else is in his pedigree? He began his college coaching career working under Bobby Knight. Yes that Bobby Knight, the one who coached throwback March Madness fave, the Indiana Hoosiers. The one who threw chairs across the court during televised games but was never kicked out of the NCAA as long as he was winning. Bliss was there for Knight’s career at Army and his early years at Indiana. Suppose Bliss was not white would such information have been omitted? Would there not have been pictures of him with Knight?
In what he thinks is an off-camera moment, Bliss insists that Dennehy was indeed selling drugs and seems to register some disgust about it. Mind you this is the same man who didn’t report his players failed drug tests. Of course there is also a past blemish of him paying his basketball players at a previous program that never caught the light of day. Even those who advocate to pay college athletes know that the rules have always forbidden it. So those, like Bliss, who get caught are guilty and should face the consequences.
Bliss resign from Baylor, not coaching collegiately for a decade or so. But Bliss, who has a Christian book and is supposedly truly saved, has a job now. At Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma.
Rouse? It appears he’s been blackballed. Disgraced includes a conversation from a 2003 episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines with revered coaches like Duke’s Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim about Rouse not getting a significant coaching job since.
“If one of my assistants would tape every one of my conversation with me not knowing it,” Krsyzewski says, “there’s no way he would be on my staff.”
One Black man, Patrick Dennehy, is dead. Another Black man, with mental health issues, is imprisoned for his murder. The Black man who provided proof of Bliss’s improprieties can’t work in the sport he loves. But Bliss? To date, no criminal charges have ever been filed against him. And, in addition to having a college head coaching job again, Bliss is shown lecturing about his failings as a coach, presumably being paid to do so. Yet another White man rising up, as Black men go down. How is that for a Final Four weekend in a country where Donald Trump is POTUS?
Disgraced airs on March 31 on Showtime at 9pm ET.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies. Follow her on Twitter at @rondaracha.