Targeting Black Athletes: The BYU CaseBy
Over the past several days, my colleague and I posted a story about honor code violations and patterns of racial disparities among former and current Brigham Young University athletes entitled “The Truth About Race, Religion, and the Honor Code at BYU” on Deadspin. The idea came about after Brandon Davies, an African American basketball player, violated the honor code by reportedly having sex with his girlfriend. The honor code office has institutionalized a set a standards for all students that prohibits alcohol and fornication among other things. However, the honor code violations that come to light almost always involve athletes of color.
Because Davies represents so few African Americans (<0.6% of the student body; 176 out of 32,947 enrolled in 2010 were black) on BYU’s campus, his high profile status and subsequent suspension from the basketball team came as a big surprise to many who follow collegiate sports especially during the NCAA basketball tournament where every starter is crucial in the world of high-stakes college athletics. In the wake of the Davies incident, BYU was heralded as a symbol of all that is decent in college sports for unapologetically holding to its standards. But the question arises: If this were James Anderson or Jimmer Fredette, would the outcome have been similar?
Upon closer examination of the honor code system, we found discrepancies in how the honor code is applied for athletes of color, especially African Americans. Since 1993, according to our research, at least 70 athletes have been suspended, dismissed, put on probation, or forced to withdraw from their respective teams or the school for various honor code violations. Fifty-four of these athletes, nearly 80 percent, are people of color. Forty-one, or almost 60 percent, are black men. These are conservative numbers compiled largely from media reports and interviews. From what we gathered, a clear pattern of conduct has been established for athletes of color who only make up a mere 23 percent of all athletes according to the university.
There has been much stimulating discussion nationally about what these numbers suggest. The Brandon Davies suspension was not a random act as much as it was a normal pattern of racial profiling on the part of school officials that selectively apply the honor code for Mormon versus Non-Mormon and Black versus White. By publicly casting out a disproportionate number of African American men, the honor code office creates the illusion that only black men “sin” and are in need of harsher discipline. Such has been the history for African American men in U.S. society since slavery times in which they have been repeatedly blamed for their own circumstances without regard for the historical conditions of institutional racism and racial mistreatment that continually blight their life chances.
Therefore, it is troubling to consider that BYU would wantonly engage in behavior that could be construed as modern racism particularly given its history of priesthood denial to black men which led to the racial protests by numerous schools in the Western United States in the late sixties. During that period several universities (UTEP, The University of Wyoming, The University of Washington) protested against BYU given the mainline LDS Church’s position that blacks were inherently inferior as evidenced by their “curse” of black skin.
If BYU plans to maintain an active roster of African Americans recruits, it has a responsibility to uphold and it starts with full disclosure of the particulars of its honor code as well as the reality of its consequences if rules were to be broken. In addition, BYU must re-evaluate its current honor code policy to ensure fairness and equanimity across the board and further avoid even the hint of bias. Further, if they do continue to recruit athletes of color, they have the responsibility to provide these students with mentors not just on the grid-iron and court, but in the classroom and administration by hiring and maintaining faculty and staff of color. A mentoring program should be established that will ensure the collegiate success of these student-athletes after the completion of their eligibility. Finally, as a show of good will, the university should allow any desirous former athlete the chance to complete their college degree to make a better life for themselves and their families. After all, isn’t forgiveness of sin the hallmark of any Christian religion?
Darron T. Smith is assistant professor at Wichita State University and a frequent commentator on various issues of race, including a New York Times post on transracial adoption on Haitian children. He is the co-author White Parents, Black Children Experiencing Transracial Adoption and Black and Mormon.
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