Brigham Young University has shot itself in the foot — right in the middle of a race.
The Daily Herald (my daytime employer, though I had nothing to do with the story) broke the news Tuesday night that starting center Brandon Davies will not complete the season because he violated the school’s Honor Code. The news is a big blow. And though I can’t make a decent prediction about the consequences of the news, nothing good can come if it.
But while Davies obviously let down his team and community, an equal share of culpability goes to BYU for its opaque enforcement of a bizarre and arcane set of rules. In other words, Davies screwed up because he broke the rules, but BYU did the same when — by implementing and enforcing those rules — it set the stage for Davies’ failure.
Davies’ experience illustrates a few problems with BYU’s Honor Code. Most importantly, the policy includes an array of rules that other institutions see as unrelated to academics or sports. If Davies got caught plagiarizing, doping, or doing some other stupid thing, his suspension from BYU’s basketball team would make sense. He alone would be accountable.
But the reality is that BYU’s Honor Code includes all sorts of regulations that have nothing to do with academics or sports. Davies might be a criminal — or he may have forgotten to shave one too many times. He could have stayed past midnight in a girl’s apartment (or stepped into a female’s bedroom). He could even have ordered a coffee at some point, or simply have worn clothing that was too tight.
The point is that while BYU’s Honor Code addresses typical collegiate issues, it also goes much further, making it that much harder to comply with. If Davies broke some of the school’s more unique rules would he really be a bad person? Would he be academically unfit? Would he be off the team at any other school? Even if Davies transgressed LDS Church doctrine — also more or less part of the Honor Code — aren’t those rules optional, with punishment meted out in heaven, for non-BYU Mormons?
Another problem this incident illustrates is that the Honor Code lumps all offenses under one umbrella. Davies could be a serial cheater, or a sloppy dresser. Who knows? As of Tuesday night BYU hadn’t said what Davies did, and I’d be surprised if the school ever divulges that information. But because this sort of feels like a KGB fantasy, where all offenses are treated as mortal sins against the regime, we’re left to guess if Davies did something serious or silly.
BYU’s decision to have a broad, extra-academic set of rules may have just wounded it on the basketball court. But the fallout isn’t limited to a shamed athlete and a disappointed fan base. After all, schools make a lot more money when their teams win. How much money will BYU lose if its team suddenly plummets? How much prestige will the school sacrifice to ensure the homogeneity of its student body? And losing face and finances doesn’t just hit the school on the basketball court, it has broad negative repercussions across all fields.
Earlier this year, in the wake of a Gawker article criticizing BYU, I wrote about the school’s image issues. This is a perfect illustration of that problem and makes the point that if BYU wants to compete — in athletics, academics, and research — it has to learn to be a school, not a monastery. It needs to modernize its Honor Code to focus on the things that matter in the university world.
In the end, could all of this have been avoided if BYU had an up-to-date code for student conduct? Possibly. Though I don’t know Davies personally, most students at the school are good people who would behave appropriately even without such stringent rules. As it is, the school sets itself up for failure when it makes it so easy to criminalize (and, therefore, victimize) its stars. It costs the school prestige, money, and influence. It scares future students away, and crushes some of those it already has — in this case, at a critical moment.
If BYU wants to succeed on the basketball court and elsewhere, it should let go of its antiquated Honor Code and focus on being an institution of higher learning.
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