by Tom Walker
March 13, 2011
American cultural schizophrenia is alive and well. When it comes to athletes and celebrities, we often turn a blind eye to behaviors we otherwise scorn and sometimes even punish under the law.
Witness the latest American fascination with all things Charlie Sheen and his very public self-destruction. Radio airwaves and television play his delusional rantings on perpetual loop as audiences hang on every word, whether for entertainment or to glimpse preliminary signs that the next headline may scream that his lifeless body has been recovered in a ravine somewhere. Sheen’s affinity for drugs and hookers is public knowledge, so how exactly is it that he has seemingly escaped the attention of law enforcement, and why do Americans fuel his popularity when we would be angry with our own loved ones for behaving similarly?
In my own home, ‘angry’ would be a gross underestimation of the consequences for living the life of Charlie. I have been assured that ‘rusty garden shears’ would somehow be mentioned in the Coroner’s report.
In the sports world, there is never a shortage of misbehaving athletes to grab the public attention. Mention the names Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, or Tiger Woods, and odds are that even the non-sports fans are aware of their off-the-field indiscretions. Each has managed his respective fall from grace differently, some with more success than others. Some have jeopardized their chances for Hall of Fame consideration, and others will deservedly be followed by asterisks for life.
College athletes are not immune from making headlines for unsavory reasons such as cheating, substance abuse, or various forms of assault. Often the severity and the timing of punishment is influenced by the potential impact on a university’s championship aspirations.
Addressing the state of college sports discipline, TIME magazine’s Sean Gregory commented:
“At Seton Hall University last season, for example, a basketball player who caused an accident while driving under the influence, causing an injury to the other driver, was suspended for only eight games. This year, a top player from Robert Morris University got a four-game penalty after a drunk-driving incident. In February, two players from Marshall University were charged with battery over a bar fight; they played in a game the next evening. Schools often let athletes off easy for on-field transgressions too. Two seasons ago, a University of Florida football player intentionally gouged an opponent’s eyes. He was suspended for a half.”
And so it is against this cultural backdrop that the honor code of Brigham Young University has recently captured the interest of sports fans and become fodder for national discussion.
On March 1, 2011, BYU dismissed sophomore center Brandon Davies from its then third-ranked basketball team for violating the university’s honor code. It didn’t take long for word to get out that Davies’ violation involved having sex with his girlfriend.
At 99% of colleges throughout the country, such an honor code provision doesn’t even exist. If anything, America has largely accepted pre-marital sex as a fact of life, particularly among star athletes. As long as you’re not guilty of rape, most universities couldn’t care less what happens off the field.
But Brigham Young University isn’t just any institution of higher learning. Privately owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), BYU takes its name from the famed prophet-leader who guided the church from a period of fatal persecution in the 19th century Midwest to relative security in the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Though membership in the church is not required to attend the university, adherence to strict rules of conduct and grooming are.
The internet link to BYU’s honor code states clearly that the collection of church-owned schools, “exist to provide an education in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That atmosphere is created and preserved through commitment to conduct that reflects those ideals and principles. Members of the faculty, administration, staff, and student body … are selected and retained from among those who voluntarily live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ” as taught by the LDS Church.
The key word in that phrase is ‘voluntary.’ Whether or not one agrees with the strictness of BYU’s honor code – and it’s safe to say many if not most Americans view it as anachronistic – no one can claim that students enter the university unaware of the expectations that they are committing themselves to. The code is emphasized quite clearly to all incoming students, whether or not they are members of the Church.
The university’s website goes on to specify key portions of the honor code as follows:
Live a chaste and virtuous life
Obey the law and all campus policies
Use clean language
Abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, and substance abuse
Participate regularly in church services
Observe the Dress and Grooming Standards
Encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code
Looking at that list may cause many to pause and wonder, “How the heck did Jim McMahon survive for four years?” McMahon addressed that very question in an interview with Gino Torretta and Steve White on South Florida’s WQAM Sportsradio 560.
Well, sort of.
The former Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl winning QB acknowledged that the code existed during his tenure at BYU, but didn’t actually discuss specifically whether his own behaviors warranted university action, except to say generally, “they’re college kids, man they’re going to do things. You know sometimes people will tell on you and sometimes they won’t.”
Later in the interview, McMahon commented “I’m sure there’s other players on that team and probably in the whole school who are still doing things they probably shouldn’t according to the honor code, but it happens.” And he’s probably right about that to some degree. The question in this case, then, isn’t so much whether or not people always live up to their highest ideals, but whether the university is consistent in its handling of honor code violations when it is made aware of them.
If last year’s withdrawal of BYU football’s all-time leading rusher, Harvey Unga, is any indication, the answer appears to be affirmative. Unga was a campus superstar and still had his senior year ahead of him, but the honor code put an abrupt end to his collegiate career last April. In July, Unga became a father, got married, and signed a four-year contract with the Chicago Bears, in that order.
Widely regarded as a quarterback factory, BYU has turned out the occasional NBA star, including Danny Ainge and Shawn Bradley. Once upon a time, the Cougar faithful heralded the 7’6” Bradley as their bright hope for a Final Four appearance. After his freshman year and a two-year Church mission in Australia, however, he opted to turn pro and was selected 2nd in the 1993 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers.
Responding to the Davies story, Bradley discussed the challenges of living the BYU honor code with TIME.
“It was difficult for me. We all have those urges. You’re dealing with hormones, which are out in full force. But you have to stay focused, and put yourself in the right places to protect yourself.”
Ainge, the current President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics who also currently serves as a Mormon bishop, defended the honor code in an interview with Fox Sports.
“I think it’s a great code of conduct. It teaches discipline, teaches kids to not live in a world of instant gratification. It’s a different culture — and I love that culture.” Nonetheless Ainge, a multi-sport athlete who also played professional baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays, expressed concern at how the public would respond to the Davies incident.
“People will ridicule it because they don’t understand it.” Remarkably, at least in the media, reaction to the story has been quite positive for BYU.
Jim Rome, one of the most outspoken sports commentators on the planet, immediately took to the air with his take:
“Look, you can criticize BYU for being too rigid,… but that’s their honor code and you know what you’re signing up for when you go there. And credit to the school for not compromising its integrity and selling out for the millions they could have made for a deep run in the tourney. How many programs would have let a player skate for violating a rule right before the NCAA tourney? Especially, if they were looking at their best season ever. Most of them? All of them?…not BYU.”
Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times also weighed in on the subject. He recently remarked:
“That might not be your rule. That might be the kind of rule that makes you titter and wince and wonder, how can any school not attached to a seminary demand celibacy of college kids in a world in which seven out of 10 Americans have had sexual intercourse by age 19? But the point is, it is BYU’s rule, and kudos to the school for publicly enforcing it at the worst possible time with one of the most visible of students while risking damage to the school’s athletic reputation and national stature.”
Even Jon Stewart of The Daily Show expressed amazement that a star athlete would be sidelined over an honor code violation:
“Also sticking to its principles, Brigham Young University. The school with the #3 ranked D-1 basketball team, who believe it or not just dropped one of their star players from their team. … Wow, D-1 squad losing a star player on an honor code violation? Well I wonder what loophole they’re going to exploit to get him to play. After all, it’s March Madness, they’re not gonna lose a game because of the honor code. … They actually sat the guy? A star player? What was his honor code violation? … BYU suspended one of their best players, right before the NCAA tournament, because he had consensual pre-marital sex with his girlfriend. You know what they call a Division One athlete that limits his sex to either just his girlfriend, or just to consent? A fictional character. So kudos to BYU for standing by the rules at great possible financial cost, and kudos to the athlete himself for accepting his punishment and still being at the game supporting all of his teammates.”
While there have also been negative commentaries to the story, most have portrayed BYU in a positive light for sticking with principle at the expense of success on the court.
To fully understand Brigham Young University and its honor code, one must first come to grips with the fact that the mission of the university and its sponsoring Church isn’t to win NCAA championships. Rather, it is to educate and send out generation after generation of young people who aspire to incorporate their understanding of the teachings of Jesus Christ in their lives and bless the world by sharing them.
The university motto is “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve.” One of BYU’s proudest distinctions is its annual recognition by the Princeton Review as the #1 stone-cold sober university in the nation, a streak which recently increased to 13 straight years. The school also regularly ranks highly in Princeton Review’s “Got Milk?” list for low rates of beer drinking, the “Scotch and Soda, Hold the Scotch” list (self explanatory), the “Don’t Inhale” list for low rates of marijuana consumption, and the “Most Religious” list.
If one were to ask the Mormon Church, the BYU administration, or the Cougar student body whether they’d rather win a major NCAA championship every year or annually remain among the top schools in the aforementioned categories, there’s really no question which they would choose. How many universities and student bodies out there would make the same choice?
While BYU itself appears to be weathering the storm fairly well, there is also much interest in how Brandon Davies is doing. Some might assume he has become an outcast on campus or that a scarlet letter has been sewn onto his letterman’s jacket.
To the contrary, it seems that the only thing he might have to hide from right now is an avalanche of support from well-wishing fellow students. In the final game of the regular season, BYU secured the top seed in the Mountain West Conference tournament by defeating Wyoming 102-78 in front of the home crowd. Seated on the home bench, dressed in coat and tie, was Brandon Davies cheering his team to victory.
After the game, the celebrating Cougars each ascended a ladder with scissors to cut down a piece of the net. Though he did not play, Davies took his rightful turn climbing the ladder to the thunderous reaction of the fans who shouted “Davies! Davies!”
Steve Young, former BYU and San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and as a decendant of the actual Brigham Young perhaps the most famous of BYU’s numerous posterity, commented to TIME magazine about his alma mater:
“It’s really a pretty compassionate place. I guarantee you there’s a huge outreach to make sure that he’s O.K. If I could talk to him, I’d put my arm around him and say, ‘Hang in there, get back on the court when you can, and make it right.’” And so far, indications are that Davies may try to do just that.
Going into Saturday night’s Mountain West Conference championship game, the San Diego State Aztecs’ only two losses this year were to BYU. With Davies out of the lineup, the Aztecs easily dispatched the Cougars 72-54 to claim the conference crown. Both teams received easy selection to the NCAA Tournament, but Brigham Young has definitely begun feeling the sting which can accompany the courage of one’s convictions. In all likelihood, the pain will continue with a sooner-than-anticipated elimination in the early rounds. And yet, the university holds its head high, and deservedly so.
Getting back to where we started, contrast this story for a moment with a nation captivated by the Charlie Sheen spectacle, whose life epitomizes everything which is opposite of the BYU honor code. How refreshing it is in our mixed-message society to observe a university sticking by its principles at the peril of diminished Final Four aspirations, and to witness a young man – whose personal life has been mercilessly discussed at the national level – holding up so admirably with poise and class. Regardless of the outcome of this year’s tournament, the one word which may yet best describe the BYU honor code, and hopefully Brandon Davies, is this: Winning !
Tom Walker is a contributing writer for INSIDE SPORTS. Be sure to check out his article on the San Jose Sharks.
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