BYU Honor Code Used to Harass Black Atheletes

Last month, when just about everyone was applauding the NCAA-tourney bound BYU basketball team for benching forward Brandon Davies for violations of the University honor code, we sounded a note of caution here at RD about the “dark side” of honor code enforcement.

After all, the honor code had been created during the 1960s in an effort by ultra-conservative BYU President Ernest Wilkinson to root out liberals, and honor code enforcement (including anonymous referrals) had been used to bait and harrass feminist, liberal, and gay students, shut down campus free speech, and compromise the privacy of pastoral counseling for students.

Yesterday, at the sports blog Deadspin, Darron Smith—who is African-American and Mormon, and editor of the praised Black and Mormon (University of Illinois, 2004)—argued that the Davies incident is but one in a much larger pattern of honor code harrassment of African-American athletes at BYU.

According to Smith, athletes of color, who make up about 23% of the athletes at BYU, make up nearly 80% of the athletes suspended, dismissed, or forced to withdraw for alleged honor code violations.  African-American athletes are experiencing a disproportionate rate of honor code enforcement.

Interviews with African-American former BYU athletes conducted by Smith and his co-author Luke O’Brien present an even more damning picture of “bait and switch” tactics used by BYU recruiters inferring, promising, or actually supplying easy access to women and alcohol to lure teenaged athletes to Provo, downplaying the University honor code, then expecting young men to fend for themselves in a highly conservative Utah town where trouble finds black folks fast.

It’s a picture not at all surprising to those of us who have attended BYU and witnessed both the differential status accorded to BYU athletes as well as the potential for honor code enforcement abuse.

Twenty years ago, when I worked for the independent BYU student newspaper Student Review, we regularly ran exposés on honor code enforcement abuses of students whose differences—anything from protesting the Iraq War, to having a tattoo, to being black—made them vulnerable in a community that placed a high priority on conformity.

In 1994, the Student Review also ran a story alleging widespread alcohol use by star basketball, football, tennis, and golf players, with the knowledge and even the protection of University officials.

So accustomed were we to the idea that BYU athletes partied that many of us scratched our heads when the Brandon Davies story broke. Why would the honor code be enforced this time?

Smith’s damning story argues that enforcement on Davies must be understood as part of a racially-hierarchized enforcement of the honor code, where white athletes enjoy more protection than their Polynesian and African-American peers.

Yes, it is a story that calls up Mormonism’s troubled history on African-American issues. (And Smith, surprisingly, gets some of that history wrong: for example, some African-American men were ordained to the Mormon priesthood until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when regressive racially discriminatory policies were instituted.)

And it is a story about the contemporary exploitation of college athletes. There can be no question that black college athletes are economically and socially exploited at universities from coast to coast. At BYU, as Smith argues, that exploitation takes on an extra moral dimension when University recruiters hungry for talent lure young non-LDS Black men to Provo with false promises and little awareness of what it actually takes to support African-Americans on a campus where only 176 students—out of 32,000—are black. That’s just plain bad faith on the part of BYU.

Smith’s article also reveals the extent to which the misogynistic exploitation of young women as bait for atheletes continues to be a part of college recruitment, even at BYU. I’m not forgetting about the 17 year old Provo local who—as detailed in Smith’s article—was allegedly brought from a local mall to the home of two football players houses, given alcohol, and raped, and neither should you.

But most of all it’s a story about how morality gets played in America.

Behind every celebrated institutional “moral victory” like the Brandon Davies story stands another less glamorous story about someone who got caught because they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with less savvy, less money, less privilege, and less power.

And in America, that someone is usually black.

We live in a country that criminalizes and incarcerates young black men at incredibly disproportionate rates—in 2009, African-Americans comprised 12.4% of the general US population and 38.2% of its prison population—and in some regions spends more money on prisons than it does on public universities. How moral is that?

I truly wish I could say my religion, my alma mater, were different, somehow better than the rest of America on this front. I wish I could say that black athletes at BYU weren’t set up to experience disproportionate rates of honor code enforcement.

But I can’t.