Monday, May 21, 2018

Movie Review: Disgraced

Disgraced (2017) **** / *****
Directed by: Pat Kondelis.
Disgraced is a documentary about the 2003 scandal that rocked Baylor University in Waco, Texas – where one basketball player murdered another, and the fallout that followed that discovery, when it turned out head Coach Dave Bliss wasn’t following the rules. What’s odd is that this really should be a scandal of greater proportions – something talked about as much as Penn State and Joe Paterno, but it really isn’t. It’s likely that many don’t know anything about the story at all. In part, this is because as the movie tells us at the beginning, it’s something the people of Waco don’t talk about – at all. They don’t like to. But it’s a fascinating and troubling documentary, mainly because it gives Bliss so much rope to hang himself with.
When Bliss was hired as head coach of Baylor’s basketball team, he already had a successful NCAA coaching career under his belt – but he was taking over a team that wasn’t very good. To help make the team better, he recruited Patrick Dennehy to follow Baylor from New Mexico to Baylor, where he was promised a scholarship and playing time. He also recruited other players – including Carlton Dotson, who would become Dennehy’s friend and roommate – and eventually, his killer – and Harvey Thomas, who according to some harassed and threatened Dennehy and Dotson alongside his cousin, Larry Johnson – so much that the pair of friends went out and purchased guns. It was when they were practicing with those guns out in the desert that Dotson eventually killed Dennehy. A motive has never been established – Dotson has mental health issues – some psychiatrists at first deemed him unfit to stand trial – but his side of the story has never really been established. In a surprise move, five days before trial, he changed his plea to guilty in the hopes of getting a lesser sentence. It was a move that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, since even the prosecution admits that he could have argued self-defense and had a decent change or winning.
If that were the whole story, it would be a sad and tragic one. We’ve never seen a story is sports where one teammate murders another one – certainly not at the level of the NCAA in basketball. But that’s all it would be – another tragedy of young men killing each other for reasons we cannot comprehend. But the scandal goes deeper than that. That is because after the murder, the police naturally started digging around. Apparently, Dennehy wasn’t really at Baylor on a scholarship. So who paid his tuition? Who bought him his Chevy Tahoe?
As it all threatens to come crashing down, Bliss started scrambling – and wanted to get everyone in line, to lie to the police and the administration to cover his ass. This didn’t sit well with assistant coach Abar Rouse, who started recording his meetings with Bliss. What he gets on those tapes is shocking. Bliss essentially wants to tell everyone that was a drug dealer – and that’s how he paid for his own tuition. Because of those tapes (and bank records) that lie didn’t stick. Since then, Bliss has tried to sell his story of one of regret and redemption – that he did bad things, but learned from them and moved on. Then, in the documentary’s most shocking moment, when he thinks the camera is off, he goes on a rant essentially blaming Dennehy for his own death – and bringing up all the crap he had previously tried to paint Dennehy with. Its clear Bliss is the same piece of shit he was when this all went down.
This scandal really should be bigger than it was – it should have rocked the NCAA system more than it did. What’s odd is that other NCAA coaches sided with Bliss, not Rose – essentially saying that what Rouse did by recording Bliss was disloyal, and they would never have an assistant like that. 10 years later, Bliss found another coaching job (he couldn’t before that, because he was suspended). Rouse never did.
There are a few reasons it didn’t blow up bigger. For one, Baylor and the NCAA have reasons for wanting to keep this out of the spotlight – and they succeeded. For another, almost no one involved wants to talk about. The list of people involved in the scandal, the murder, the cover-up, etc. who refused to be interviews for the film is long. We still don’t know the truth about what happened in that desert and why – or what led to it. What we do know, as the documentary makes clear, is just what kind of person Dave Bliss is.

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