The dream season for Brigham Young basketball was interrupted this week when Brandon Davies was dismissed from the team for violating an honor code that prohibits pre-marital sex, leaving All-American Jimmer Fredette and the No. 3 Cougars without their leading rebounder and one of the team's best players. Wednesday night, New Mexico throttled BYU with an 18-point upset.
And... What a bizarre story. In the middle of the best basketball season in school history, on the verge of a conference title and a no. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, BYU kicks off one its best players for a "violation" that at any other school would just be considered "Saturday night."
Especially now, in an America that's perpetually at war with itself over morality, it's a story that's instantly bigger than sports. But it's not the first time BYU's honor code has been a problem for a BYU athlete.
A year ago, BYU's star running back, Harvey Unga, was forced to withdraw from school along with his girlfriend, a basketball player for BYU's women's team. The two athletes had been dating for three years and were even engaged to be married at one point, but when it became clear they'd been having pre-marital sex, there was no other choice.
Now there's Brandon Davies, a sophomore who played high school basketball in Provo and grew up immersed in the BYU culture. Every BYU athlete is told of the honor code before they accept a scholarship, but Davies likely knew the letter of the law better than most.
The parameters of the honor code, from BYU's website:
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
Davies' reported pre-marital sex obviously violated the "chaste and virtuous life" aspect of the code above, and just like that, school officials had to choose between making his weakness an example or becoming an example of weakness, themselves. They chose to punish Davies and protect their school's founding principles, and I'm sure a lot of folks see that as a rare victory in a world that too often puts pragmatism above principle.
But hold on. Can we just talk about how completely insane this is? I mean, Brandon Davies knew the rules, broke the rules, and got thrown off the team. That part makes sense. But the rules are CRAZY.
This past Saturday, I carved out some time and went to a bar to watch BYU play San Diego State. It was a huge game, and I hadn't seen enough of BYU this season, so I figured it'd be a good time to check out this Cinderella team that everyone's talking about. And they looked great; so great that the game itself became an afterthought by the middle of the second half. So with BYU dominating, I couldn't help but joke to a friend, "BYU may win today, but no matter what happens, San Diego State is going to be a lot more fun than Provo tonight."
Like, newsflash to BYU students. "College: You're doing it wrong."
But some people seem to like college that way, I guess. And in any case, that's the way BYU wants to be known. The better their teams do, the more attention it gives the school, and the more people will say, "You know they don't drink, or smoke, or have sex, right?"
To people like me, that's hilarious. To others, it's admirable. To Charlie Sheen, it's probably blasphemy. But to everyone in the entire country, because of the exposure sports have given the school, it's BYU. They'd rather be known as the counterpoint to San Diego State's craziness, as the people at Brigham Young have taken great pains to promote this culture of chastity and virtue, and nobody gives their work better promotion than the athletes who live the principles.
So when one of those athletes strays from the path and gets caught, it's really just another opportunity for promotion. Not only has Brandon Davies helped put BYU's virtues in the spotlight this season, but his mistake gave the school the chance to make an emphatic statement about what they stand for, and what they simply won't tolerate at BYU. Brandon Davies is BYU's best promotion yet.
Someone like Pat Forde at ESPN may admire the commitment to honor from BYU's administrators, and he's not alone. That'll be a popular refrain around the country this week, as people point to BYU as an example of an institution unwilling to lower its standards in 2011.
But for me, I just see a kid getting exploited for his mistakes. Look closer, and think about the messages this really sends. BYU claims to be all about character, but to most reasonable people, this latest news turns their commitment to character into a caricature.
By leaving no room for error or reasoned explanations, the letter of BYU's honor code just makes the spirit behind it look even more divorced from reality. It's not like Davies committed a crime, right? And when he got confronted about his mistakes, he was apparently forthcoming and remorseful. Jimmer Fredette, the superstar that's put BYU on the map more than anyone else this year, described the scene.
"He told us everything. He told us he was sorry and that he let us down. We just held our heads high and told him it was OK, that it is life, and you make mistakes, and you just got to play through it.”
Forgetting how ridiculous this is within a broader social context, the implications from a practical standpoint are just as perverse. Like, if you're a BYU student that gets caught having sex, wouldn't you lie about it? If you're a BYU athlete that gets a girl pregnant, wouldn't you be tempted to encourage an abortion? And why would anyone embrace BYU's standard of morality if the slightest misstep could cost them everything at BYU?
It's true, by prosecuting Brandon Davies here, the school protects its principles, and promotes the school's honor code in the most public way possible. In that sense, it's a proud moment. But they also set a precedent for everyone else that shows no tolerance for weakness. And as far back as Adam and Eve in the Bible, we know that even the best of us are susceptible to weakness. So, in other words, not only is BYU showing no tolerance for weakness here, but really, no tolerance for humanity. Maybe San Diego State doesn't look so crazy, after all.
Again, "that is life, you make mistakes," Jimmer said of Davies' lapse in judgment.
But now we know: If you make mistakes at BYU, life at BYU gets taken away, and you can "play through it" on your own. And to all those that see this as a righteous victory, I guess I just don't see it. The school's best season in years just took a major hit, nobody's happy, and BYU's rigorous ideals look more ridiculous than ever.
Because really, here's what happened: A school that defines itself by virtue and chastity just turned its back on a kid who willingly embraced those ideals when it came time to choose a college, but wasn't quite perfect enough to live up to them when he got there. Sorry, but where's the honor in that?