I don’t really follow college sports, but I couldn’t help but notice the attention BYU has been receiving in the national media this year. I kept hearing about this fellow named “Jimmer,” who, evidently, is quite a fine basketball player. (He’s looking to surpass Danny Ainge as BYU’s top scorer of all time, for example.) BYU was surging ahead in the rankings, a system which I don’t understand in the least, but is supposed to be a big deal. BYU ranked #3 in the nation, something like that.
With all this hype BYU was poised to make some noise during March Madness. Then they announced the suspension of a key player. A lot of national media coverage was positive, praising BYU for their integrity in suspending a player despite the risk of ruining one of BYU’s finest basketball seasons ever.
I have some mixed feelings about the circumstances but I wanted to take a look at a report from NPR’s “All Things Considered,” which plays nationally, not just locally in Utah. Michele (Mee-shell) Norris is interviewing an NPR sports analyst Stefan Fatsis:
FATSIS: Yeah, BYU kicked its second-best player, sophomore center Brandon Davies, off of the team for violating the Mormon school’s honor code because he’d had premarital sex with his girlfriend. And almost universally, the media has praised BYU as courageous for sticking to its principles in a world of college sports cheats, especially at time when it was doing so well, the argument being that BYU students know what they’re signing up for: no caffeine, no alcohol, no cursing, no beards. Living a chaste and virtuous life is the way the honor code puts it.
Columnists and commentators love to defend righteous acts. But I think there’s more to this conversation.
NORRIS: More like what?
FATSIS: Well, these rules, for one thing. We haven’t heard much about whether these rules are applied uniformly across the student body. And it’s also worth noting that Brandon Davies is African-American, and the last two athletes who left their BYU teams for the same reason are of Pacific Island descent. And this is a campus that is overwhelmingly white.
Then you’ve got the stickier subject of whether these rules should maybe be questioned by people outside of the Mormon Church. And finally, I think it bears asking, you know, does BYU’s willingness to shame a 19-year-old in such a public way, is that the best approach, honor code or not?
NORRIS: Now, BYU was trounced in its first game without Davies, just its third loss this season…
A few things stuck out to me as I listened to this on the radio.
First, the implication of racism stuck out, but I’ll get to that below. Overall I thought the rhetorical structure of Fatsis’s response made it appear as though BYU publicized the actual violation (premarital sex). He begins his comments by announcing the actual violation, premarital sex, which BYU themselves did not comment on. He concludes by noting “BYU’s willingness to shame a 19-year-old in such a public way.” At no point does he distinguish what BYU said and what was ultimately reported by media outlets. Had I not been following other coverage I would have been under the impression that BYU announced his sin as a public shaming of some sort; a scarlet letter moment. This isn’t to say the suspension doesn’t shame the player at all. To the contrary, given his stature and the national coverage I think it’s a really unfortunate situation. At the same time, BYU is not announcing his sins in public in an effort to publicly shame him (in fact, Fatsis’s remarks disclosed more “shameful” information than BYU did, ironically).
Second, Fatsis says “We haven’t heard much about whether these rules are applied uniformly across the student body.” From what I understand, a violation is a violation, no matter the religious background. But are LDS players, students, coaches, teachers, more likely to be “found out” because of the ecclesiastical connection to the school? Say a practicing Muslim breaks the honor code. Would she be as likely to be found out as someone who confesses a sin to an LDS bishop? I don’t know.
Third, a question about Fatsis’s list of forbiddens: “BYU students know what they’re signing up for: no caffeine, no alcohol, no cursing, no beards.” No caffeine? (Or maybe he’s talking about purchasing caffeine on campus, I can’t remember if you can get caffeinated fountain drinks or not, for example. Anyone?) And I admit, I’m 100% with Fatsis on the beard ban. Time for that hoary rule to be buried (especially in regards to visiting Sikh professors, whose beards are part of their religious obligations although BYU has required them to shave). Compared with more difficult issues involving morality, etc. the beard thing ought to be a no-brainer. Maybe they fear the “if you give a mouse a cookie” scenario? The “camel’s nose in the tent” situation? The “how close to the side of the road can you, a trucker applying for a job at my trucking company, drive without falling off the cliff” circumstance?
Finally, I was pretty surprised to see Fatsis’s veiled charge of racism, which slipped by without analysis or challenge by the interviewer. But this is part of the radio journalism game: quick coverage is the goal. Radio reports like this one are built to be bite-sized sound-bites. It’s obvious they’re just trying to get through quickly. NPR spends much more time on bigger stories, this was sort of a side-show story of sorts, March Madness is on the horizon. Still, Fatsis basically implies that race may be behind sports suspension and as evidence, points to other players who “left their BYU teams for the same reason.” Why not distinguish between what teams? What about non-sports players who receive sanctions based on honor code violations? BYU is “overwhelmingly white,” that’s understood. But do the sports teams accurately reflect the overall ethnic makeup of the school? My guess is that they don’t, and that raises questions neither Fatsis nor Norris raise. Incidentally, I’ve only seen implied charges of racism in one related story about NBA star Amare Stoudemire’s Twitter comment: “Don’t ever go to BYU, they kick a Young Educated (Black)Brother OUT OF SCHOOL. The kid had premarital sex. Not suspended, Not Release. Wow!” He quickly issued a wooden apology though.
I mulled over some of these thoughts as NPR quickly moved on to weightier stories about Libya, gas prices, and local traffic.