Dick Harmon: BYU's decision to alter its honor code media policy was long overdue

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 8:25 p.m. MST

Brigham Young University head basketball coach Dave Rose, right, talks to the press as university spokeswoman Carrie Jenkins, center and BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe listen at a press conference in Provo, Utah, Thursday, March 3, 2011. The press conference was called to discuss BYU kicking their starting center, Brandon Davies off the third-ranked basketball team for violating BYU's honor code. (AP Photo/George Frey)

George Frey, AP

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BYU’s administration will no longer put labels on the mistakes of its student-athletes.

It's a decision that's long overdue.

Earlier this week, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe explained a media relations policy change in how the school will handle inquiries on the status of disciplined athletes.

"As of Jan. 1, when we receive inquiries from the media about honor code issues, we no longer will address them from a campus perspective,” Holmoe told reporters in a question-and-answer session.

“There won't be a campus spokesperson that addresses any honor code issues anymore. There will be two exceptions to that,” explained Holmoe. “If there is something that is in public record, or if one of our student-athletes chooses to come public, then we would. We won't discuss any honor code violations anymore, so don't ask."

What this means is if a player doesn’t show up for practice or a game and the media makes inquiries, a coach could simply say — as every other coach at every other university in the country already says — “Well, there was a violation of team rules.” Or, “It’s a coaching decision.”

In the past, BYU labeled some discipline actions as honor code violations. It developed like this. If a BYU coach, say, football coach Bronco Mendenhall, told reporters a player was suspended from a few games for violating team rules, reporters immediately approached the administration. The protocol would be to ask university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins if the player was under review by the school's Honor Code Office. Rather than simply saying, "No comment," Jenkins was instructed to tell the media yes or no. The thought, I suspect, was to project an air of openness and cooperation with the media.

This, however, opened the door to label that individual and to further media scrutiny through friends and family. It was like providing a launch pad for a more salacious story, one that wouldn’t raise eyebrows anywhere else.

It was a praiseworthy move to be “open” that morphed into something else.

Several years ago BYU issued a press release announcing that all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga and his girlfriend, a member of the womens’ basketball team, were suspended for breaking the honor code. In speaking to family members, this announcement made a private matter even more difficult to mend. They asked, “Why?”

It placed a scarlet letter on those two people who were battling personal issues. The thinking was that this would come out eventually, so why not get ahead of it with a press release and be proactive, or handle media inquiries with a shotgun blast release? The story made national headlines.

In recent history, the honor code has been used against BYU by opposing schools. They've told potential recruits, “See, if you go to BYU and make a mistake, it will be a punch line on Jay Leno.”

And they had a point.

Becoming a Leno punch line actually happened to Brandon Davies, the BYU basketball player suspended very publicly in 2011 “for honor code violations” at the height of the Jimmer Fredette fever just after BYU had achieved a No. 3 ranking. First came a press release. Then an awkward press conference. Within hours, a Utah newspaper announced to the world that the violation occurred because of sexual relations with a girlfriend. That quickly made national and world headlines and was plastered all over ESPN's SportsCenter.

Circus.

Sure, student-athletes at BYU sign on with full knowledge of what’s expected of them. If they stumble, they should fully expect to be disciplined by the school and face the scrutiny that comes with it.

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