Dick Harmon: BYU's decision to alter its honor code media policy was long overdue
George Frey, AP
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.
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.
But to have that discipline announced to the world just doesn’t settle, especially when one considers the mission of the university is to care for the spiritual, physical and academic welfare of the school's students.
A more congenial path in this kind of situation would be to allow a student to overcome a mistake in private, albeit, that's a tough thing to accomplish with a high-profile star. If one didn’t break a law or incur a criminal complaint or summons, they should have a pathway to correct their mistake without public scrutiny or a witch hunt to satisfy titillating curiosity.
"Violation of team rules" could mean anything from a missed practice or academic challenges to a scuffle. A myriad things. But, under the old policy, when BYU confirmed to the media it was an honor code issue, the entire discussion changed on the public stage.
In light of the public suspension Davies in 2011, and the accompanying national media attention to senior linebacker Spencer Hadley this past fall, BYU honor code issues spun crazily out of orbit. To some, it made the university look like it lucked into a public opportunity to advertise how unique it was and how “strict to its principles” BYU's leaders were. Many in the national media certainly touted that. BYU “stuck to its guns,” but offenders were run over — then backed over again.
"The time had come to change, and everyone on campus was supportive to go through the process we arrived at," said Holmoe, who said he didn’t spearhead the change but was involved.
It may have come down to a legal issue.
As a private university, it’s a little surprising the school would even confirm if a student was being punished or under review by the school’s Honor Code Office.
The common laws of right to privacy adopted in this country are very strict about student records, specifically academics.
Utah recognizes all four common law invasion of privacy claims, including intrusion upon solitude or seclusion and public disclosure of private facts or unreasonable publicity given to one’s private life.
There is an argument to be made that athletes are public figures, so they can expect scrutiny because they are on the field or court and under the lights. Commit a crime and have at ‘em.
But these are not professional athletes, and with accompanying grooming standards, BYU’s honor code is more restrictive than an LDS temple recommend.
The media will always say that the public has the right to know. While I can’t speak for everyone in the Utah media on this unique subject, I have had many discussions with print and broadcast media veterans about the topic. Most — with a few exceptions — believe BYU should have done this long ago.
Because of fairness. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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