Race, Religion, and The Honor Code At BYU Revisited

Trigger warning for discussions of sexual assault.

Follow-up to the Brandon Davies case: Deadspin has an interesting and disturbing article alleging severe racial disparities in how BYU’s honor code is applied. Authors Luke O’Brien and Darron Smith, a black Mormon and sociology professor who has written extensively on anti-black racism in the LDS Church, tracked down honor code violations by student-athletes going back to 1993. Their research, if accurate, suggests that athletes of color, and black male athletes in particular, are subject to much higher scrutiny and different standards of behavior than their white peers, and also shows that, at least among athletes, the honor code is overwhelmingly used to punish minorities:

Honor code violations that come to light almost always involve student-athletes. And they almost always involve athletes of color. Since 1993, according to our research, at least 70 athletes have been suspended, dismissed, put on probation, or forced to withdraw from their teams or the school after running afoul of the honor code. Fifty-four of them, or nearly 80 percent, are minorities. Forty-one, or almost 60 percent, are black men.

These numbers are particularly shocking given how few students of color attend BYU. While fourteen percent of the student body is nonwhite, “23 percent of the athletes are minorities, according to the university [and o]nly .6 percent of the student body is black (176 out of the 32,947 students enrolled in 2010).” So there are huge discrepancies in more than one sense – one, black students at BYU are very disproportionately likely to be student athletes, and two, minority athletes are punished for honor code violations at rates several times more than their actual representation in BYU athletics.

Further, O’Brien and Smith claim that white players, especially those who belong to the LDS church, are held to far more lenient standards than other players:

Several former BYU football players told us that their white teammates routinely broke the honor code and got away with it, either because they didn’t get caught or because their violations were covered up… Mormon athletes can turn to bishops and church leaders from their own homogeneous communities — people who look like them and might even be related to them — to “repent” and avoid official punishment. Black athletes, who are typically non-Mormon, rarely have this option…The dreary truth about the honor code is that athletes of color — particularly black athletes — are rarely afforded the same treatment as their white peers….

[Later in the article] “For every one black guy, I can also name you a white guy, another kid who just returned off a mission or didn’t go on a mission who did the exact same thing and didn’t get in trouble,” says Tico Pringle, a black Mormon defensive back who played for BYU in 2006. “The black athletes get called on it. Returned missionaries don’t get turned in… It’s political. You go to the honor code office and..talk to your coach and your coach pulls strings if he needs to…There are guys who got their girlfriends pregnant and didn’t get in trouble. They pick and choose who they want to punish.”

Hudson saw the same discrepancy: “I went to parties up there in the mountains. I saw Mormons drinking alcohol and having sex…They were being regular college students. … I’ve seen Polynesian guys [Polynesian students at BYU are mostly Mormon] get in trouble… it went to the honor code, and it was dismissed. Polynesian guys, they’re similar to us, but they’re not like us….they’re treated a little bit differently than African-Americans are. I’ve seen white Mormons doing some things and they made it go away.”

O’Brien and Smith argue that this double standard is a natural consequence of a pattern where BYU recruiters downplay the honor code and its ramifications when courting black athletes, only to throw the book at them once they are students. Several black BYU athletes alleged that their campus visits included being taken to drunken “orgies.” They were led to believe BYU would overlook such events and were not informed about the consequences if the university chose not to overlook an infraction: “I wasn’t told that if I violated the honor code I would get kicked out of school and lose my scholarship and eligibility to attend another institution.”…”I was told that everything was kept on the hush and that everything would be OK in respect to the honor code.”

The gender dynamics of these parties, and how they are used to recruit athletes (certainly not just at BYU) are particularly troubling. Male athletes seem to have been tacitly encouraged to see women as prizes to be awarded in exchange for attending the university: “You’re getting introduced to college women. … It was partying, girls, completely the opposite of what was supposed to be going on. I was exposed to so many women on my recruiting trip to BYU, I couldn’t wait to get back.”

The fostering of this kind of predatory heterosexuality among male athletes is an important context to keep in mind with respect to the 2004 scandals at BYU in which several male black athletes were accused of rape in two separate incidents (one of which turned out to have been consensual group sex, at least by the admission of the woman involved; the other went to trial and led to acquittal, but of course this doesn’t mean the sex was actually consensual). Even if consent was given in both cases, there seem to have good reasons for the players involved to be suspended or sanctioned.

However, former BYU athlete Ray Hudson alleges that the honor code office began to scrutinize other minority players uninvolved in either of these cases even more closely in the wake of these scandals:

“When I first came to BYU and signed the honor code, they knew I had a girlfriend who was pregnant,” Hudson says. Administrators, coaches, teammates — everyone knew, according to Hudson…

[After the scandals] “A lot of people were questioned,” he says. “I was interrogated. We didn’t know shit. I wasn’t around none of that. I was in a totally different apartment. They said: ‘Come to the honor code. We need to talk to you. This dean needs to speak to you’ — the same dean I first spoke with when we got there and I signed the honor code, one of the same guys who welcomed me to campus. They brought up the incident about my son. They said, ‘Well, don’t you have a son?’ And I said. ‘Yes, I had him before I signed the honor code.’ The guy looked at me in the face and said, ‘You had a baby out of wedlock.’ I was respectful but we almost got into it. And I said, ‘Why you tell me that now? You should have told me that would be a problem before I became a part of the program or I would have gone somewhere else.’”

The entire article is worth reading. Trigger warning for its discussion of the 2004 rape accusations, which is somewhat problematic in its assumption that being acquitted for rape is the same thing as not having committed rape.

Of course this is just one informal study, and not conclusive proof of racial disparities in the administration of BYU’s honor code. However, it suggests that the various concerns that some have raised about the honor code may be warranted and at least call for further investigation. If these accounts are true, BYU maintains hypocritical double standards for male vs. female sexuality, and also hypocritically punishes student athletes who what the LDS church teaches is the right thing when faced with an out of wedlock pregnancy.

Smith also sees these discrepancies as being related to the LDS Church’s history of anti-black racism, a subject which he’s very familiar with, and a subject on which there’s still a lot of progress to be made in the LDS church. In fact, Smith was a lecturer at BYU until he edited a volume on the history of LDS racism and became an increasingly vocal critic of the church’s handling of race issues – at which point he was fired from his position at BYU.

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