Commentary

BYU puts principle over performance

Originally Published: March 2, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

I can't relate to the Brigham Young University honor code. But I can respect it.

Would I have wanted to attend college at a place that has rules governing just about every aspect of your daily life, including how you dress and whether you've shaved that morning? No, thank you. In my youth I was not sober enough, chaste enough, conformist enough, dogmatic enough or decaffeinated enough to have been a very good student at BYU.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Davies and Jimmer Fredette
AP Photo/Colin E BraleyBYU's goal of a No. 1 seed and a Final Four run took a hit with the dismissal of forward Brandon Davies.

But today I am impressed by the school's commitment to its rules, even at a potentially tremendous cost to its basketball team.

When BYU suspended double-digit scorer and leading rebounder Brandon Davies from the team Tuesday for an undisclosed violation of the honor code, it might have ruined a dream season. He won't play again this season, just as the games become the team's most important ones.

And in the grand scheme of things, that really doesn't matter to the school.

"To me," said J.J. Despain, sports editor of the Daily Universe, the BYU student newspaper, "it's a testament to BYU holding to its own standards."

What makes this such a powerful testament is the fact that so many schools have cravenly abandoned their standards at such a time as this, embracing athletic expediency over institutional principle. It happens so often that we don't even raise an eyebrow at it anymore.

Player arrests or other antisocial behaviors are minimized as youthful mistakes, with strenuous institutional effort put into counterspinning any negative publicity. Academic underachievement is dismissed as merely the price of being competitive in big-time athletics. "Indefinite" suspensions often last only as long as they're convenient -- timed to coincide with exhibition games or low-stress games against overmatched opponents.

That certainly didn't happen in this instance at BYU.

Consider the situation: Key player on probably the best team in school history gets in trouble in the final week of a 27-2 season. With a Mountain West Conference title and a probable No. 1 NCAA tournament seed there for the taking, the school learns of an honor code violation on Monday, a violation that school officials said was not a criminal offense. On Tuesday, Davies is suspended for the rest of the season.

We don't know what Davies did. It might have been something that would have gotten him booted from the team at many other schools, too. Suffice to say, it wasn't a penny ante violation.

"It's more than not shaving for one day," Despain surmised.

But as of Wednesday afternoon, Davies had not been kicked out of school or suspended academically. Whatever he did has not brought public shame or ridicule to the school.

From that standpoint, the first impulse is to feel sorry for Davies -- if only he'd gone to State U, where the punishment might have been a week of running stadium steps at dawn. In April.

But Davies knew what he signed up for. Literally. He grew up in Provo and went along, eyes wide open, with the agreement saying he'd live by the BYU honor code.

From an outsider's perspective, it's remarkable that the school has been able to thrive athletically despite a code of conduct that would seem to be very limiting in recruiting.

There are plenty of socially conservative athletes to recruit. But how many of them are Mormon? Or want to matriculate in Provo, Utah? Or want to compete on overwhelmingly Caucasian teams? Or don't mind surrendering even the mundane freedom to grow a beard?

Apparently, there are enough. Because BYU has been very successful in football in the past 40 years, even winning a national title in 1984. It's been successful in basketball off and on -- especially recently, with the current team on its way to the school's fifth consecutive NCAA tournament bid.

Given the context in which it operates, Brigham Young might be the most unlikely success story in modern college athletics.

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But it won't let chasing that success compromise what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says the school is supposed to be about.

"In general, everyone is kind of sad to hear the news," Despain said of the mood on campus. "We know how big a part he is of the team and how excited everyone is about the rest of the season.

"There are some people who think the honor code is too strict. But there also are some people who understand the importance of the honor code. That's the higher standard we have here, and we understand that coming in. … Most people respect the honor code, even though it might make us look like goody two-shoes."

The two empty basketball shoes belonging to Brandon Davies will not be filled easily in the crucial games to come for the Cougars. A dream season may crumble as a result.

But BYU isn't willing to subordinate its principles for victories. That's a rare stance these days, and a respectable one.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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