Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Case of the Sex-Starved Cougar

Brigham Young’s men’s basketball team, ranked #3 in the nation at the time, lost the other night. Indeed, they were pretty much blown out at home by a decent but certainly not tremendous New Mexico squad. All anyone wanted to talk about, of course, was that this was the Cougars’ first game in the post-Brandon Davies era. Davies, who had started the majority of BYU’s games this year and was their leading rebounder, had recently been dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season (at least).

Team and university officials are being coy, saying only that Davies’s actions were not criminal in nature, but it certainly appears that the young man violated the university’s honor code by having sex with his girlfriend. Coach Dave Rose is widely quoted as saying that Davies’s “heart is in the right place.” The problem, apparently, is that other bodily organs weren’t.

OK, easy stuff first. 1). if BYU wasn’t the most over-rated team in the country, they were close, and 2). they’re not the only team to have to get by without a key player. Just ask Kansas, who Wednesday night played only their third game of the season with all of their top nine players in uniform, or Duke, who has played its last 22 games without Kyrie Irving, whom many regard(ed?) as the best collegiate player in the nation. Both of those teams are in the top 5 in the country, by the way.

That said, let’s move on to the more controversial elements. It is certainly true that BYU’s honor code is, well, rather quaint by today’s standards. Neither I as an undergraduate nor the overwhelming majority of my students, past or present, could (or at least would) last a week. In addition to the usual litany of unacceptable behaviors enumerated in most such policies (injunctions against illicit drugs, academic dishonesty, and the like) BYU’s code prohibits not merely pre-marital sex, but also obscene language, pornography, alcohol, caffeine, beards, skirts shorter than knee length, more than one piercing per ear for women, or any for men. Students must be re-endorsed annually as being compliant with the honor code.

Of course, for people of my generation, one of the first BYU alumni to come to mind would be former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who was, shall we say, not exactly the poster child for the restraint espoused by the honor code. Those of a cynical disposition (perish the thought) might note certain disparities between the treatment of the two athletes, remarking, perhaps, on the fact that McMahon was a). a great collegiate player in his sport, not merely a good one, b). a ground-breaker in that BYU had not previously been part of many national conversations about major athletic powers, and c). white. Ultimately, however, such snarkiness would be a little much, even for me.

And, frankly, even if a double standard did exist in McMahon’s case, that doesn’t mean it ought to apply more than a generation later to Davies. Indeed, the logical extension of that line of reasoning is that no violation of the honor code could ever be punished again just because McMahon was given a pass. (“Pass.” Get it? Quarterback joke. Yeah, I know… moving on.) This is clearly not a tenable position, either ethically or pragmatically.

OK, so the BYU honor code is pretty rigid. Facing disciplinary action for possessing coke is one thing; doing so for having a Coke is another. But the rules are, in fact, consistent with Mormon values, and while they may lead to sanctions for non-criminal behavior, they don’t violate civil rights (or, rather, they don’t do so more than, say, DADT does). Readers who recall the millions of dollars of funding the LDS Church poured into California’s Proposition 8 initiative may be surprised to learn that the BYU honor code states explicitly that while any expressions of same-sex intimacy are forbidden, a student’s “stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue.”

Moreover, as Coach Rose points out, “Everybody who comes to BYU, every student if they're an athlete or not an athlete, they make a commitment when they come…. A lot of people try to judge if this is right or wrong, but it's a commitment they make. It's not about right or wrong. It's about commitment.”

Years ago, I applied for a job at a Christian college. I got as far as a phone interview, at which I was asked about my thoughts on the college’s “declaration of faith,” required of all employees. I asked some questions about how certain passages were interpreted, and it soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to fit in there. I wished them good luck in their search (they actually hired a friend of mine), they wished me good luck with my career, and we moved on. Conversely, Brandon Davies went to BYU completely voluntarily. If he’s a good enough basketball player to start for the Cougars, he’s clearly good enough to play for a lot of other teams. In choosing to attend a Mormon university, he agreed to abide by their rules. It didn’t work out that way, and the fault is his, not theirs.

I attended a college with a strict honor code. It didn’t apply in most of the social ways BYU’s does—we weren’t forbidden access to tobacco, caffeine, or alcohol, for example (the drinking age was 18, so the specific problem of under-age drinking was less of a problem simply because virtually the entire student body was of age). But in academic terms, we were expected to maintain very high ethical standards. Professors left the room during exams, confident (generally with good cause) in students’ integrity. When that faith was misplaced, students could be (and sometimes were) punished not merely for cheating, but also for knowing someone else had done so and not reporting it.

The honor code worked. It didn’t necessarily create permanent ethical standards—some of my fellow alumni are utterly contemptible people—but it served a very significant purpose, indeed. We were treated as adults, with all the concomitant privileges and responsibilities. College is as much about growing up as anything else, and our honor code helped. And I suspect it also served as something of a recruiting tool. I’d be willing to bet that BYU’s version serves many of these functions, as well.

The fact is that any system of rules and regulations is going to have its violators, and if there is any sense of real justice, there will be a sliding scale of punishment based on a host of extrinsic factors that are not and probably should not be made public: mitigating circumstances, first offense vs. habitual conduct, a technical or accidental as opposed to willful violation, etc. We may speculate about whether Brandon Davies received preferential treatment as an athlete (would someone else have been suspended from the university for the same conduct?) or held to a higher standard because, willingly or not, he took on some of the responsibilities of role model by means of the fame generated by his skills on the hardwood. We might wonder if a white player, or a star player, or a player whose Daddy is worth a couple hundred million might have been suspended, say, through the conference tournament, returning just in time for the NCAAs.

There is no evidence that Brandon Davies was treated any differently than any other student would have been. BYU may deserve no special praise for actually enforcing its own policy, but neither should we lose sight of the fact that a major university did make a statement, whether they really believe it or not, that ethics trump athletics. Everyone directly concerned seems disappointed but not indignant: the university, the athletics department, the coach, the team-mates, Mr. Davies himself. I don’t see any reason the rest of us shouldn’t concur.

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