Brad Rock: LDS bashing by sports fans crosses the line

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 27 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

It's a dangerous world out there. You never know who you might offend.

Don't like spiders? Better keep it to yourself. Mention the word "icky" and you might have the Arachnid Club of America on your case.

When you get into religion or ethnicity, though, you're wading into even deeper waters. Just ask Mike Smith, the former BYU player and current Los Angeles Clippers TV analyst. Earlier this season, he and co-host Ralph Lawler were discussing the Memphis Grizzlies' Hamed Haddadi.

Where's he from?" said Lawler.

"He's the first Iranian to play in the NBA," said Smith.

But Smith inadvertently pronounced Iranian as "Eye-ranian," prompting a viewer to complain to Fox Sports Prime Ticket.

The discussion had continued for a few seconds regarding Haddadi, but news reports claimed Smith's pronunciation was the impetus behind the complaint.

Apologies were quickly issued and Smith and Lawler were suspended for a game.

They can only hope nobody from Kyrgyzstan makes it in the league.

I bring this up because such concern for feelings doesn't seem to always apply. Saturday at San Diego State, BYU players and fans were exposed to a group of Aztec students, wearing missionary-like suits and white shirts, bicycle helmets and name tags. That's actually pretty funny. I say that on fairly good authority, considering I was once a missionary in San Diego and wore the same kind of suit.

And looked just as geeky.

But what wasn't funny was the part near the game's end when BYU fans chanted, "BYU Cougars!" and the hecklers responded with obscene gestures and taunts of "You're still Mormon!"

Sometimes there's a thin line whether it's BYU or the LDS Church that's being vilified, but either way, BYU is well acquainted with such treatment. I covered BYU games at Wyoming in the '80s when large portions of the crowd chanted, "(Expletive) you, BYU!"

It may not have been directed at Mormons, but for the players I talked to, it sure felt like it.

In 1995, when Roger Reid was coaching the Cougars, a Colorado State fan approached from several rows behind the BYU bench to scream obscenities and religious taunts at Reid. In that case, CSU did the right thing, removing the fan from the arena.

No such move was attempted by SDSU security on Saturday. The treatment was described by Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis as a "Totally classless move by several dozen San Diego State students who dressed up as Mormon missionaries to mock BYU when the Cougars came to town on Saturday night. Riding the opposition is fine, but there are a few things that are off-limits, and religion is one of them."

True. I can't picture fans chanting, "You're still Muslim!" or "You're still Jewish!"

I've heard Utah, Utah State and even Utah Jazz players derisively called "Mormons" even when, in some cases, there wasn't a Latter-day Saint on the team.

When Dennis Rodman said during the 1997 NBA Finals that "it's difficult to get in sync because of all the (expletive) Mormons out here," a New York area writer told me that if the same had been said of Jews in New York, "you wouldn't believe the uproar it would have caused."

The offending group at SDSU certainly didn't speak for the entire crowd. But the fact it wasn't stopped is embarrassing for the university. SDSU should issue an apology, and a warning that such behavior won't be tolerated.

After all, the NBA fined Rodman $50,000 for his anti-LDS remarks.

Cougarboard.com posted an e-mail Tuesday, purportedly from Don Oberhelman, SDSU associate athletics director. In response to a BYU fan's complaint, the note said, in part, "As an employee of a public university, I'm sure you understand the student's rights of free speech and freedom of expression. I don't approve of, or condone their attire, but their costumes are a regular occurrence based on who we are playing. 98% of what they do at our games makes for a fantastic basketball atmosphere, the 2% like this makes me cringe."

Which is interesting, considering it wasn't the costume as much as the chanting and gesturing that was offensive.

BYU can expect to get heckled with a basketball team that is nationally ranked. Cougar sports teams have won more Mountain West Conference championships than any other. Nobody heckles BYU better than Utah State and Utah fans, many of whom are LDS themselves.

But razzing is one thing. Deliberately insulting a faith is something else.

It isn't just wrong and intolerable.

It's also icky.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

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