Religious universities are all across the United States, and some of them are among the country’s most powerful athletic schools. But there’s no other school exactly like Brigham Young University, the Utah hub that serves as a flagship institution for the Mormon faith and plays big-time Division I sports.
BYU is unique in a lot of ways. One is its unbending insistence that it not play sports on Sunday, the day the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recognizes as its Sabbath. There are no Cougars games on Sundays, ever, for any reason. BYU’s is the only major athletic department in the country to observe this rule.
Not playing on Sundays is rare, but BYU has shown it’s not that big a deal.
And it shouldn’t be an obstacle for the Big 12.
The Cougars are independent in football, and it’s conceivable they could join the Big 12 solely on the gridiron. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said football-only membership is possible, in general. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, while apparently open to a football-only agreement, would rather get all the way in.
Because college football is played on Saturdays, BYU’s no-Sunday policy would be irrelevant in a football-only world. But if the Big 12 and BYU want to partner in sports beyond football, there’s no reason that can’t work in a way that accommodates BYU’s customs.
BYU plays almost all of its non-football sports in the West Coast Conference, which has demonstrated pretty easy ways to make a no-Sunday policy work.
It’s not especially hard, in most sports, to avoid scheduling regular season games on Sunday. And, for one example, the WCC’s done something pretty simple with its men’s basketball tournament: it’s stretched its tournament beyond Sunday, taking that day off.
The biggest conference tournaments in men’s basketball usually end on Selection Sunday, right before the NCAA Tournament field gets set. But the Big 12’s tournament typically ends on the Saturday of that weekend. That still means no Sunday final and virtually no change required for BYU to fit in.
The conference’s women’s tournament has most recently gone Friday through Monday, but that’s as simple as moving things up two days or establishing one off day. The same should work for sports like soccer, which also have weekend championships.
On the whole, The Oklahoman figured out that only a handful of BYU teams would need any special accommodation at all to participate in Big 12 championships. It's maybe a hassle, but not insurmountable.
Some sports do require special circumstances, but BYU’s proved willing to take on most of the inconvenience itself.
When it comes to scheduling around a no-Sunday policy during the regular season, the sport that takes it the hardest might be softball.
In that sport, the Cougars had 20 doubleheaders last season, totaling more than half their games. That’s a physical grind for BYU, but it’s a burden the Cougars have shouldered. No opponent got stuck with more than one doubleheader against them, so this is a lot tougher on the Cougars than it is on anyone else.
In baseball, Friday-Saturday-Sunday weekend series are a staple. Doubleheaders work for BYU here as well. BYU played four last year to avoid Sunday games, both in Provo and on the road. Again, this burdened no opponent more than once.
The NCAA itself got creative recently to help BYU’s women’s golf team. The Cougars qualified for the national championship tournament in Oregon in May, an event that runs from Friday until Wednesday with a cut after Sunday.
To give the Cougars their Sunday off, the NCAA had the team play its "third" round on Thursday, before the tournament even began. BYU played to Sunday pin positions in an effort to replicate the Sunday experience, though weather conditions turned out not to be the same. Hey, that happens at The Open, too.
There are two reasons for the Big 12 to work with BYU here.
One is as straightforward as dollars and cents.
If the Big 12 decides BYU will make the conference stronger in more sports than football, the league would benefit from making it as easy as possible for BYU teams to fit in. That would mean better competition, better exposure and more money.
The other reason is more altruistic.
BYU is a school for a religious minority. Its student-athletes happen to be really good at several sports. For the Big 12 to embrace those players as competitors while respecting a long-held Mormon norm would be an example of open-mindedness that college sports could use.