BYU and college honor codes — good and bad

Colleges and athletics are so intertwined that it is sometimes difficult to know which is the tail and which is the dog. And it is easy to see why. Many alumnae prefer gyms to classrooms and newspapers give more ink to sports than academics. High school hallways are filled with team photos and trophies; scholars’ pictures and awards are hard to find.

Oh, the prestige! the prestige! And, of course, there is the money or at least the perception that successful teams, teams that go on to championship games, bring in dollars.

Teams are sexy; the rest is commentary.

It isn’t surprising, then, that college sports are awash in scandals, ethical and otherwise. What is newsworthy is when a college stands up to the vested interests and says, This is too much.

Such is the case of Brigham Young University, run by the Church of Latter Day Saints. With one of its most successful seasons drawing to a close (BYU is ranked No.3 in the country in several polls) and just before the start of March Madness (where the real money is made by colleges with basketball teams), Brandon Davies, the number three player on the stellar team, was dismissed for the rest of the season. A committee is looking into whether he will be allowed to remain at the school.

Dropping Davies this late in the season is a very big deal. It has dramatically reduced BYU’s chances of being successful in the NCAA playoffs, the very thing that college basketball lives and dies for.

Davies’ problem is that he violated the school’s honor code. BYU students are required to attend church regularly, abstain from alcohol, tea and coffee and drugs. These rules are part of the code that requires students to “live a chaste and virtuous life.”

Davies engaged in consensual, pre-marital sex.

If all college students who engaged in pre-marital sex were expelled, classrooms would be near empty. But few colleges have rules against such behavior. The concept of in loco parentis was abandoned decades ago by most colleges and the government no longer takes an interest in sexual matters when engaged in by consenting adults.

There is something courageous and praiseworthy about BYU standing by its principles. It would have been far easier to brush Davies’ violation aside until after the NCAA tournament. Standing up for the school’s integrity is admirable. Too many colleges turn a blind eye to violators.

I don’t subscribe to the same values as the Mormons and I don’t like the details of BYU code of ethics, but no student is forced to attend the school and no one is compelled to remain. This isn’t a public or secular university. It has a specific mission and should enforce rules that are consistent with its stated goals. Perhaps the mission should be altered, but that’s another story.

There is another problem, though. And that is how strictly a code should be enforced. US military academies, too, have codes of ethics. After all, who doesn’t want military officers to be people whose integrity you can count on? However, years ago West Point and the Naval Academy discovered massive cheating and cover-ups because of the one strike and you are out rule. Not allowing for mistakes produced an unanticipated and unwanted outcome.

One admirable aspect of this story is the reaction of BYU’s superstar, Jimmer Fredette, who was recently featured in the NY Times Sports Section. If anyone had the right to be bitter, it was Fredette and his teammates. Instead, Fredette says Davies “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 okay, that it is life, and you make mistakes, and you just got to play through it.”

In the Cougars’ first game without Davies, the Cougars lost to New Mexico by 18 points.

But everyone may come out winners, even as hope for a championship evaporates. Perhaps other colleges will be inspired to come clean with their athletics. There are things more important than money, success and prestige.

Davies has said he is truly sorry and there is every reason to believe in his sincerity. Holding to standards is important, as BYU has done, and so is forgiving those who are contrite. Sitting out the rest of the season seems an appropriate punishment; being suspended from the university does not.




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