The way to Mormonism’s heart may be through its football team.
In the 1960s and 70s, college football players protested Brigham Young University because the Mormon Church still banned black men from the priesthood. Now, decades later, LGBT groups are applying a different kind of pressure to the privately-owned school by asking the Big 12 athletic conference to deny BYU’s admission application.
“As organizations committed to ending homophobia, biphobia and transphobia both on and off the field of play, we are deeply troubled by this possibility,” over two dozen organizations wrote in an open letter to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, published on the Athlete Ally website on Monday.
“BYU’s anti-LGBT policies are bad for the Big 12 sports community, especially student-athletes,” the letter continues.
Its long list of signatories includes GLAAD, Lambda Legal, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Organization for Women, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Their central complaint is that, unlike most current Big 12 schools, BYU does not have an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
There are other issues, too: BYU’s honor code explicitly bans “homosexual behavior” on the grounds that it is “inappropriate.” And although the honor code does not specifically address transgender issues, it does require students to adhere to “the ideals and principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”—a religion that considers sex reassignment surgery to be an excommunicable offense.
Because of these policies, the Provo school was recently declared the sixth least LGBT-friendly campus in the country by the Princeton Review. No other school in the Big 12 ranks higher on that list.
Big 12 did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins responded to the letter on Monday with a statement: “BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards. We are very clear and open about our honor code, which all students understand and commit to when they apply for admission. One’s stated sexual orientation is not an issue.”
Indeed, students can technically be gay, lesbian, or bisexual at BYU but there’s a catch: If they engage in romantic or sexual “forms of physical intimacy” with the same gender, they can be suspended or expelled.
This is not the first time that BYU has found itself at the center of a sports-themed controversy over discrimination. Nearly half a century ago, black college athletes helped bring national scrutiny to the Mormon Church’s ban on black men in the priesthood, which was eventually overturned in 1978.
In 1968, as Phil White recounted in a post for the Wyoming Historical Society, black football players at San Jose State boycotted a BYU game and only 2,800 ticketholders showed up at the stadium due to protests. The next year, the University of Texas at El Paso kicked black track athletes off the team for boycotting a match.
Then, in October 1969, 14 black University of Wyoming football players were ejected from their team for “threatening to wear black armbands” at a BYU game, as the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Those players, later dubbed “the Black 14,” made a powerful statement anyway: As White noted, national TV networks and Sports Illustrated came to Laramie, Wyoming to interview the Black 14 and cover the fallout.
After Laramie, the protests and sanctions continued.
In 1969, Stanford ended athletic ties with BYU. And in 1970, black students at the University of Washington urged their school to do the same. As Dr. Craig Collisson reported for the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, the UW protests even prompted BYU to take out a defensive full-page ad in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
“Students of any race, creed, color, or national origin are accepted for admission to Brigham Young University provided they maintain ideals and standards in harmony with those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the ad read.
For comparison, BYU’s statement on the Big 12 letter reads, “BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards.”
It was not until June 1978 that top Mormon leaders announced that “all worthy male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.” The decision, they said, came after they spent “hours” together “supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.”
Those hoping for a similar reversal on LGBT issues may have to wait a while longer yet.
Last November, in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Mormon Church instituted a policy change prohibiting any child of same-sex parents from being baptized unless he or she “specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.”
Kyle Monson, a Mormon blogger at By Common Consent, has already outlined how the next couple of decades will play out if the church stays its current course: “Within ten years we’ll be seen as a fringe group. In 20 years, we’ll be a bigoted, extremist anachronism.”
But his most telling prediction was a question: “Think anyone will play BYU in sports?”