03.03.11

The Mormon Athlete Sex Scandal

Premarital sex ended Brandon Davies' dream season for BYU, shocking basketball fans. McKay Coppins on why the Mormon school's honor code outranks March Madness.

Earlier this week, the star forward on Brigham Young University's nationally ranked basketball team was suspended for the season after violating the school's Honor Code. The 6-foot-9 sophomore didn't plagiarize any term papers, nor did he commit any felonies. No, Brandon Davies was booted from the team after admitting to administration officials that he'd had sex with his girlfriend. (Commence the "scoring" jokes now.)

The news came at the high point of the team's best season in decades. Fresh off a road victory last weekend over No. 6 San Diego State, BYU was being projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and some pundits were talking about them as national-championship contenders. With all eyes already on the BYU Cougars, the suspension has lit up call-in radio shows nationwide and baffled the sports blogosphere. Is getting lucky with your girlfriend really so heinous a crime that the school is willing to blow its team's dream season—and maybe even a student's academic career?

BYU, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has mostly tried to stay away from that question. Rather than wade into a philosophical debate about the merits of chastity, officials have simply explained that all BYU students are required to live an Honor Code that requires, among other things, sexual abstinence before marriage. The rules are unambiguous, the argument goes, and to make an exception for an athlete would be an indefensible double standard. As BYU Head Coach Dave Rose put it, "A lot of people try to judge whether this is right or wrong, but it's a commitment they make. It's not about right or wrong, it's about commitment."

But as a former BYU student who isn't beholden to any approved list of talking points, I can answer the question a bit more directly. Does the BYU administration really see premarital sex as such a serious offense that it's worth blowing a national championship over?

Does the BYU administration really see premarital sex as such a serious offense that it's worth blowing a national championship over? Absolutely.

Absolutely.

The thing about BYU's Honor Code is that it isn't treated on campus as some vague set of academic policies that's forgotten after freshman orientation. It's a lifestyle—utterly linked to Mormon theology, and enforced by a mix of peer pressure and personal conscience. It's debated constantly in the pages of the campus newspaper, and local Mormon bishops frequently preach obedience to student congregations.

From BYU's website, here's the basic list of Honor Code principles:

Be honest
Live a chaste and virtuous life
Obey the law and all campus policies
Use clean language
Respect others
Abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee, and substance abuse
Participate regularly in church services
Observe the Dress and Grooming Standards
Encourage others in their commitment to comply with the Honor Code

Of course, some of these rules are taken more seriously than others. Your roommate isn't going to give you the stink eye just for growing out a beard or staying at a co-ed's apartment past curfew. But if, in breaking a campus rule, you also happen to break a commandment, the stakes are raised. Such is the case with premarital sex, which Latter-Day Saints consider to be among the most serious of sins.

The sexless student culture that pervades BYU's campus is alien to most college students, and the strangeness of it all can lead to a cynical assessment that instructing 30,000 students to stay out of each others' beds is unrealistic. (Prospects are improved, of course, by the fact that about 20 percent of BYU students get married before they graduate.) But the fact remains that thousands of Mormon kids flock to Provo, Utah, every fall—and for many of them, the Honor Code is the main draw. They want to attend college in a religious community where they have peers who share their values. After all, on-campus sex-toy demonstrations aren't for everyone.

And therein lies the university's real defense for Davies' suspension. To maintain the community that BYU students have come to expect, certain rules are needed, and enforcement of those rules has to be applied broadly and without bias—even if it comes at the expense of the basketball team's win/loss record.

At this point, it's impossible to know what's ahead for Brandon Davies. The school's disciplinary process is handled confidentially—the details of this particular case were leaked by a source close to the basketball star, not BYU—and it will likely include some period of university probation and ecclesiastical repentance. But if his fans have any say, he'll be back in uniform next winter. Almost immediately after the suspension was announced, Obama-style campaign posters with Davies' headshot began popping up on Facebook with the words, "Team Davies" written across the bottom.

Summing up the Team Davies sentiment on Facebook, BYU senior Steve Pierce wrote, "We were all behind him when he was scoring baskets and winning games, and I have yet to hear a good reason for why that should change now."

Honorable, indeed.

McKay Coppins reports on politics and culture for Newsweek.