Director Pat Kondelis’ disturbing documentary “Disgraced,” which made its world premiere Sunday at South by Southwest, opens with a shot of former Baylor men’s basketball coach Dave Bliss sitting under a spotlight in a darkened gym. The dichotomous shot literally puts him in a revealing light, but the darkness behind him almost seems to swallow the polo-clad coach who, with his waxy skin, looks like the evil door-to-door preacher in “Poltergeist 2.”
There is also a competing nature to the story he tells. Despite being pinned down by the lighting and camera, he wiggles around the truth, as he does throughout the entirety of the movie. And, most tellingly, he makes his statement all about him.
“A question that a man has to ask himself when he goes through something like I went through: ‘Are you in a better spot than you were before? Was it worth it?’” Bliss says to the camera.
When a man like him goes through something? Is he in a better spot? There is no mention of murdered player Patrick Dennehy, whose death Bliss seemingly attempted to cover up after personally paying for his tuition and lying about it. There’s no talk of the families and loved ones of Dennehy or those of teammate and alleged killer Carlton Dotson. For Dave Bliss, this is about Dave Bliss.
And if the gross egoism and lack of accountability isn’t enough, Bliss invokes, almost blames, the idea of “evil” grabbing hold of him, and then rushes in the idea that he has found salvation through religion. Bliss should be “disgraced,” but instead he looks to be using faux humility to be “absolved.” He ends his half-baked and couched confession by saying that he should never be forgiven, then he spends much of the film avoiding acknowledging the depth and darkness of his complicity.
With the most recent horrific rape scandal surrounding the Baylor football team, it might be easy for some to forget that scandal has surrounded this university for almost 15 years. In the summer of 2003, Dotson, without a public trial, was sentenced to 35 years in jail for killing his friend and new teammate Dennehy, a star on the team and a transfer student from University of New Mexico.
The case made national news, as Dennehy was missing for more than a month before his body was found. But in Waco there seemed to be a cover-up from the start. Several of Kondelis’ interview subjects make it very clear that Baylor University is a very powerful institution in Waco, and that everyone surrounding the university and in the town wanted the event “wiped from the pages of history.” Baylor may be an extremely conservative institution steeped in Baptist religion, but as one subject said, that sense of conservatism and ethics doesn’t extend to the athletic program.
While the list of people who refused to be interviewed for the film — the roster of names appears on screen at the end — was much longer than those who did chose to talk, Kondelis was able to use the voices of a Waco police department investigator, Dennehy’s friends and family, Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Danny Robbins, and former Baylor assistant basketball coach Abar Rouse to paint an almost complete picture.
Dennehy and Dotson had become friends in their first few weeks of knowing each other. By all accounts they got along great and never had beef. But a player named Harvey Thomas, whom we meet a few times in the film, and his cousin, Larry Johnson, soon disrupted Dennehy’s and Dotson’s lives. The friends allegedly felt threatened and feared their safety, eventually buying guns for protection. It all went south fast. What happened isn’t exactly clear. It seems fairly obvious that Dotson, whom we never meet, shot Dennehy multiple times. But it also seems very likely that Dotson was suffering from some sort of mental illness or was at least under extreme duress and might not have acted alone.
Muddying the picture is Bliss, who ties himself up in lies as he takes some blame, acknowledging he paid Dennehy’s tuition, but avoids clearly explaining his role in what seems to be an obvious cover-up. Kondelis uses conversations Rouse taped between himself and Bliss and other players that prove Bliss was trying to create a false narrative to distract from the truth. Even when confronted with taped evidence of conversations that refuted his account and timeline of the June 2003 events, Bliss continues to lie and manipulate. He attempts to sell a story about Dennehy and Dotson selling drugs, hoping to create a scenario by which it might make sense that the two got caught up in violence due to their own bad decisions.
“I got in the mud with the pigs and paid a price. And the pigs liked it,” Bliss says, as he plays the victim and continues to push the narrative that Dennehy was a major drug dealer on campus, a story corroborated by nobody else in the film. Bliss continues to claim he was just going along with the cover-up led by the investigative committee, according to an interview he did with the Houston Chronicle after the film premiered.
It is disgusting to sit and watch a man who continues to cloak himself behind a veil of Christianity in his new job at Southwestern Christian University (yep, he still gets to mold young men) disrespect the living and the dead without fully owning his role in the murder and cover-up. And it is equally disturbing to see how the university and the justice system, from the judge to the defense attorneys appointed to Dotson (all Baylor alumni) did so little to get to the truth and to vindicate Dennehy’s life. The university officials, from Bliss on through to the top of the administration, simply wanted the case to be done with, so they could continue playing sports and taking tuition dollars, all at the expense of truth and justice.
As one person says at the end of the documentary, Dotson was not the main problem but a symptom of the cancer at Baylor.
“And if you don’t get it all, it will come back,” he says.
Those final words hang in the air like a cloud, leaving you cold, as you think about the rape scandal that has now engulfed the university in Waco.
“Disgraced” will air March 31 on Showtime and screens again at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Alamo Ritz and at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Zach Theatre.