These days, bad behavior among college athletes is a fact of campus life. Beat up a freshman in a barroom one night and you can be back on the court three days later. Just this week, a Sports Illustrated and CBS News investigation found that more than 200 players on the rosters of 25 major college football teams have run afoul of the law. Nearly a quarter of scholarship athletes on the University of Pittsburgh squad have criminal records.
College athletics is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and the pressure to win at any cost — including turning a blind eye to player misbehavior — can be overwhelming. That’s why the news this week that Brigham Young University (BYU) would force starting center Brandon Davies to miss the rest of the season for violating the school’s honor code was so surprising.
The team looked like a title contender. BYU is ranked third in the country, and Davies, who averages 11.1 points and 6.2 rebounds, is a key player; in their first game without him, the Cougars were trounced by the University of New Mexico, 82-64.
But the most surprising fact of the story is that Davies got booted for behavior that wasn’t criminal. What he did takes place, to put it mildly, every day in colleges across the country: Davies had sex with his girlfriend.
BYU is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which frowns on premarital relations. Davis, like 98% of BYU students, is a Mormon. Upon entering the school, students vow to abide by its honor code, which prohibits premarital sex as well as indulging in alcohol or coffee. “The honor code is an essential part of your recruitment to BYU,” says Hall of Fame quarterback and ESPN analyst Steve Young, who played at BYU from 1981 to ’83. “It’s not like you find out later — ‘Oh, you didn’t tell me! I didn’t know that!’ But there’s a spirit on campus that is just, ‘O.K., fine, now let’s now go have a good time.’”
The judgment on Davies doesn’t come without costs to the school. If BYU fails to advance in the upcoming NCAA tournament without its star center, the rest of the team — young men who worked hard, obeyed the rules and did nothing wrong — miss out on a life experience they may never recapture.
But you have to admire an institution that sticks by its principles. “The expression of love between a man and a woman is sacred, valued at the highest level,” says Shawn Bradley, the 7-ft. 6-in. former NBA player who spent a year at BYU and spent two years on a mission in Australia before entering the 1993 draft. Indeed, many BYU alums say they support the school’s decision. “Sorry, I’m choking up a bit here,” says Philadelphia sportscaster Vai Sikahema, a former NFL return specialist who played for BYU in the mid-1980s. “It’s just hard for me to express just how immensely proud I am of my university.”
He should be. When it comes to athletes and sex, the easy call is to let the jocks slip. On any campus, athletes are visible, and popular, especially when a team is winning. And though it’s probably easier for a student to squelch his or her desires at a place where all 30,000 undergrads are also trying to stay chaste, suppression is still a challenge. “It was difficult for me,” says Bradley, a devout Mormon. “We all have those urges. You’re dealing with hormones, which are out in full force. But you have to stay focused, and put yourself in the right places to protect yourself.”
The willingness of BYU to police poor conduct is sharply at odds with other college programs. At Seton Hall University last season, for example, a basketball player who caused an accident while driving under the influence, causing an injury to the other driver, was suspended for only eight games. This year, a top player from Robert Morris University got a four-game penalty after a drunk-driving incident. In February, two players from Marshall University were charged with battery over a bar fight; they played in a game the next evening. Schools often let athletes off easy for on-field transgressions too. Two seasons ago, a University of Florida football player intentionally gouged an opponent’s eyes. He was suspended for a half.
BYU has every incentive to just slap Davies on the wrist for his transgression. A successful run at the Final Four could generate millions of dollars in television revenues and alumni donations for the school, and the added exposure and prestige can increase applications.
BYU boosters, however, believe the Davies incident could be a selling point on its own, by broadcasting the school’s principled stand on honesty and taking responsibility. Davies himself has apologized to his teammates and took his punishment without complaining. And despite the stiff penalty it levied, BYU also teaches forgiveness. “It’s really a pretty compassionate place,” says Young, a great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young himself. “I guarantee you there’s a huge outreach to make sure that he’s O.K. If I could talk to him, I’d put my arm around him and say, ‘Hang in there, get back on the court when you can, and make it right.’”
Davies may learn a great deal from this experience. “This could be a seminal moment in this young man’s life,” says Sikahema. “Better that it happens at 20, rather than 50, with four kids. He’ll probably be a better man, and that’s ultimately what BYU is about, building leaders, building men. If that means missing out a chance at the Final Four, well, that’s what happens.”
Would any other school pay that price? More than likely, too few would pass the Brandon Davies test.