In the midst of March Madness, we received a little sign of sanity.
On March 1, Brigham Young University suspended one of its key basketball players, forward Brandon Davies, for the rest of the season. The decision seriously hurt BYU's chances to advance in the NCAA tournament, although the Cougars did in fact make it to the final 16, without Davies, before losing.
Davies was suspended for violating BYU's student honor code; specifically, his premarital sexual relationship with his girlfriend broke the code's standard of chastity.
In the world of Division I athletics, where the primary ethical value often seems to be, Win at any cost, Davies' case was a breath of fresh air.
It would have been easy for school officials to sweep this case under the rug, or at least to wait until after the season to enforce any penalties. Instead, BYU acted swiftly and decisively with an immediate suspension after Davies admitted to breaking the code. The university's integrity was costly: BYU stood to gain much valuable publicity and recognition by a potential trip to the Final Four or a possible national championship.
ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde commented, 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.
While others have suggested that BYU unfairly singled out Davies, the young man himself took full responsibility and was reportedly extremely remorseful. Davies' star teammate, senior guard Jimmer Fredette, reported,He told us everything. He told us he was sorry and that he let us down. We just held our heads high and told him it was OK, that it is life, and you make mistakes, and you just got to play through it.
The BYU honor code, which students must sign every year, expects students to adhere to moral virtues encompassed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Among these are honesty, living a chaste and virtuous life, respecting others, using clean language, following a strict dress code (including, for men, no beards, earrings or other body piercings) and abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, tea, coffee and substance abuse. Not exactly the stereotypical image of an NCAA Division I basketball star.
Perhaps the majority of Americans would regard BYU's honor code as old-fashioned and no longer applicable to the modern world. Others might question individual parts of it, such as the need to abstain from tea and coffee.
Beyond such questions of detail, however, what BYU's action clearly does is to challenge our society's ever lower expectations of our young people. While virtually all colleges talk about high ethical standards for their students, many do not follow through in practice. Many overlook or rationalize unethical behavior among students as youthful indiscretions. BYU's actions, however, show that it takes its ethical standards seriously.
If more institutions followed BYU's lead in matching deeds and words, we just might be surprised at how many of our young people would rise to the challenge of meeting those high expectations.
Martin Albl teaches religious studies at Presentation College. Write to him at the American News, P.O. Box 4430, Aberdeen, SD, 57402.