Brad Rock: Religion expert sees Cougars at a crossroads

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Players warmup prior to game action as BYU and Utah State get set to play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A number of reports on conference realignment have referred to BYU as "high maintenance." One explanation for that is the parameters the school is setting on TV rights.

When you own the Ritz of campus broadcast facilities, you can afford to be choosy.

Yet no issue is more tricky than the one that has always existed: the whole Sunday-play, Honor Code thing. Does an automatic qualifier conference want a team that won't so much as toss a Frisbee on Sunday? A team that might complain if a beer company sponsors the player of the game?

In that sense, BYU really is high maintenance. It wants in, but on its own terms. It wants, well, the whole nine yards.

Which begs the question of whether there actually is a place for religion and big-time athletics. The obvious measuring stick is Notre Dame, but in truth it has few of the restrictions BYU does. It doesn't kick players out for sex outside marriage or suspend players for drinking beer. Sunday play is not a problem for the Irish, either.

There are other places where religion takes precedent. For instance, Southern Virginia, a school that espouses LDS values. It doesn't play games on Sunday. But it operates at an NAIA level, so there's no serious commercial conflicts to worry about there.

Dr. Thomas Forsthoefel, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Catholic-owned Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., says religion and sports can co-exist.

"I would say yes, "he said. "Most sectarian schools will say they are about the whole person — and the physical body is part of the whole person. The intellect, the spirit and the emotional development all have an important place in education systems. So clearly there is place for athletic achievement."

But …

"There is a challenge to some sectarian schools when the values of the bottom line are the values of 'the world,' which would involve revenue and prestige and certain power and publicity. These are very attractive and compelling in any kind of institution, and they can be seductive. There may be a challenge for the institution with a set of values governed by interpretation of religious values, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish traditions."

That's not to say Forsthoefel thinks BYU is about to sell out. He followed the situation with basketball player Brandon Davies and the Honor Code last spring and says he has "quite a bit of respect for Brigham Young. They have a clearly defined set of values and expectations … if you go to Brigham Young, this is who you are and there are expectations and they are willing to put their values on the line."

Mercyhurst is a Division II school in every sport except hockey (men's and women's), where it is Division I. Forsthoefel attended Fordson High in Michigan, an overwhelmingly Muslim school that the past two years held fall camp from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. in observance of Ramadan fast, whereby participants refrain from eating and drinking during daylight. Yet he notes many religious schools have adapted to cultural changes.

"There may be a kind of growing pain. BYU is in the real world and the real world works on Sunday. Can we (BYU) live with the adjustment? I'm empathetic with that, whatever decision is made, people are going to be unhappy.… Some will say get with the program, we'll be OK at the next level, others will say we've sold out and we've made a deal with the world."

Forsthoefel added that "the institution itself, be it BYU or Mercyhurst, has to attend to the overall needs and make some compromises. If your A.D. (athletics director) can't do that, it's probably not a good place to be."

As to whether it can work on the highest level, he said, "I'd like to say yes, but if you just look at the media and the advertising and what drives the networks, I don't see a great space for much compromise, though I think there should be." Christmas Day, he adds, is a special day for all of Christendom, but also a big day for both football and basketball.

"It's not all bad, because it's forcing the BYU community to really gaze at themselves and sort out who they are and what they're about and how to take that and move into the next 15, 20, 30, 40 years. It's anxiety-provoking right now."

A religious man will tell you there should be a place for faith-based decisions in big college sports.

If you ask the commissioner of a major conference, maybe not.

email: rock@desnews.com

Twitter: therockmonster

Facebook: rockmonsterunplugged

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