PROVO — BYU was in the news Wednesday for its investigation of allegations that some members of its football team over the years have received “improper benefits” from former director of football operations Duane Busby. While potentially an impactful development, at present this should fall under the “let’s-wait-and-see-the-facts-before-we-over-analyze-it” category of news stories.
There’s actually another BYU story right now that involves more important issues, in the big picture, than whether some college athletes stayed on someone’s couch for free or received minor assistance in other ways.
BYU and its supporters need to be prepared to make news for a totally different reason. They need to be ready to raise a little political havoc in the name of anti-discrimination and equality, if they want to remain legitimately in the business of college sports, and especially college football.
Anti-discrimination and equality are big topics in America right now.
One very recent, very public example is the NBA’s banning of LA Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling, for his remarks about blacks and other ethnicities.
Sterling, however, didn’t get himself banned from the NBA because he was a racist. No, Sterling was banned because the people demanded it; because enough people with influence finally stood tall and said, “We’re not going to stand for this anymore.”
By most accounts, it appears Sterling had been who he is for a long time. The recording that caught Sterling making his racist statements doesn’t appear to even be legal or admissible as evidence in a United States courtroom.
But it wasn’t the recording that got Sterling banned — it was the demand of the people, led and fueled by many people of influence. The punishment was unprecedented. The change didn’t happen because somebody asked nicely — what happened to Sterling came about because people forced the NBA’s hand.
Soon it very well might be BYU’s turn to force a few hands.
In college athletics, BYU, the flagship university of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is on the outside looking in right now.
Not only has BYU been excluded from entry into one of the Power 5 athletic conferences — the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC — but the SEC and ACC recently ruled that BYU would not even be considered a top-level program for scheduling purposes.
It’s reaching a point where BYU and its supporters need to be ready to stand up and say, “We’re not going to stand for this anymore.”
Can anyone rationally argue that BYU, based on its athletic accomplishments and other applicable merits, does not deserve to be included in the top tier of college athletics?
There is no valid argument against it.
There are 62 college football programs included in those Power 5 conferences. With Notre Dame it makes 63. These five conferences are not only the dominant controlling force in football, but generally are in all college sports. They have the money, the facilities and the power. They are the top tier.
Can anyone make an argument that BYU does not possess a top 60 athletic program or a top 60 football program?
In the Division 1 Learfield Sports Director’s Cup standings, which ranks entire athletic programs according to their on-field accomplishments, BYU finished the 2013 fall sports season ranked No. 11 in the country. Since the inception of the Director’s Cup 21 years ago, BYU has finished the fall season ranked in the top 25 nationally 17 times.
BYU doesn’t just squeak into the top 60 of athletic programs — it is well within the dividing line.
In 2009, ESPN created a comprehensive all-time college football “Prestige Ranking.” BYU was ranked No. 25 — higher than well over 30 Power 5 programs, including Utah which ranked No. 43.
In July 2012, Sports Illustrated’s Steward Mandel unveiled his “Program Pecking Order” for college football, identifying programs based on prestige as kings, barons, knights, or peasants. Mandel identified 13 programs as kings and 10 as barons. BYU and Utah were both labeled in the next category as knights, along with 27 other programs including Arizona State, Arkansas, Cal, Colorado, Michigan State, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Washington and other Power 5 programs (plus Boise State). While Mandel did not rank the schools within each category, this would put BYU somewhere between No. 24 and No. 52 in terms of college football prestige.
In 2010, Bleacher Report’s senior writer, Michael Pinto, did a power ranking of the top 50 college football programs of all time. BYU came in at No. 25.
In August 2013, scout.com released its list of the greatest college football programs by decade based on AP poll data. BYU ranked No. 15 in the 80s, No. 26 in the 90s, and No. 26 in the 2000s. Interestingly, Utah State is the only program from Utah to register AP poll data in the 2010s so far.
The prestige and pecking-order rankings of college football programs by Sports Illustrated and ESPN speak not only to BYU’s on-field performance but also to its overall prestige as a program. In December 2012, Jeff Call of the Deseret News wrote a piece on a statistical study that confirmed BYU’s strong national following.
In the article, Call quotes ESPN’s national college football reporter, Joe Schad, as saying: “I think BYU is certainly a national brand, in the same ilk as Notre Dame. They have a national recruiting base and a national following. BYU is a very attractive brand from a television perspective. My company desired BYU as a broadcast partner. BYU is attractive to our television audience and to our executives.”
So, again the question: Can anyone rationally argue that BYU, based on its athletic accomplishments and other applicable merits, does not deserve to be included in the top tier of college athletics?
If BYU so clearly deserves to be included, then why is it being forced below the large and ever-expanding dividing line between the Power 5 conferences in American college sports and the rest?
It’s a question that deserves attention from those that are, or claim to be, interested in equality and anti-discrimination in America.
Is it just a coincidence that BYU, the flagship institution of what one study in "American Grace" found to be the third-most hated religion in America, is the one institution finding itself in this situation? Maybe.
If BYU and its supporters want to secure the university’s place as a top-tier athletic institution long-term, however, they better make absolutely certain it is just a coincidence and they better be prepared to play every discrimination and equality card in the book.
In a wide-ranging 2012 survey from the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of LDS Church members said they face “a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today.” When asked to describe in their own words the most important problems facing them in the U.S., 56 percent cited misperceptions about Mormonism, discrimination, lack of acceptance in American society and similar issues. The word most commonly used to describe Mormons by others was “cult.”
That 46 percent statistic is a massively high number. In doing research, it’s not difficult to find examples of why many LDS members feel this way. BU Today had an interesting piece in 2012 called “Why We’re Afraid of Mormons.” A fairly recent poll by the Washington Post found that 20 percent of Americans would not want a family member marrying a Mormon.
It seems reasonable to assert that whether Mormons are discriminated against generally in the United States or not, the fact that BYU is being excluded from the top tier of college athletics, when it is so obviously belongs in the top tier based on its merits, is at least in some ways a demonstration of discrimination or inequality — whether by definition or by effect.
Historically, groups that have faced these situations do not find improvement in their status or circumstances by asking nicely or by waiting for those “above” them to extend an invitation.
The athletic program at BYU may seem like a small thing compared to other issues in America. There is an argument to be made that we place far too big of an emphasis on sports in our country as a whole, especially on college sports.
Being an emotionally invested fan of a sports team when we have no control over its successes or failures is irrational in and of itself.
Nevertheless, athletics play a large role in many ways in our society and in the lives of millions of Americans. For better or worse, sports matter in our country.
Sports at BYU are no exception. As I’ve written about previously, a separation of sports and school in America might be a good thing, but it isn’t going to happen.
To the contrary, the connection between sports and school, and the billions of business dollars that bind them together, is only growing stronger.
It’s altogether possible that BYU’s athletic program has only scratched the surface of what it can become in the future. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no stagnant or diminishing organization. No, the Mormons with their emphasis on education, family, missionary service and personal progress are only poised to grow in number and influence in the years to come, with the same being true for their flagship university.
First, however, BYU has to get itself included in the upper class of college sports, where it belongs.
Not only should BYU and its supporters care about this, but anyone that is in favor of equality and reward based on merit should be willing to lend support to the Cougars’ cause.
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Based on its merits as an athletic program, by all measures, BYU deserves to be included in the upper division of college sports.
If things don’t change soon, it might be time for the peaceful, conservative institution in Provo, Utah, to raise a little havoc.
Nate Gagon is an opinion columnist featured by the Deseret News, and writes a weekly sports feature called Utah Sports Ruckus. He shoots roughly 94 percent from the free-throw line and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or @nategagon.