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Doug Robinson: Is there still a place for BYU in college sports?

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 12:13 p.m. MDT

In the wake of Honor Code Gate and the Pac-10 snub and the challenges of Sunday play, etc., etc., this seems like a good time to pose this question:

Is there still a place for Brigham Young University in college sports?

The sports business and culture are changing, but BYU isn't.

Will there ever come a time when the Cougars just can't make it work anymore?

Will the LDS Church, BYU's owner, decide enough is enough?

The school formerly known as Ricks College — also owned by the LDS Church — once boasted one of the top junior college athletic programs in the country. The school changed its name and dumped intercollegiate athletics nine years ago in favor of intramural competition.

Could the same fate await the Cougars, given the many problems they face in collegiate athletics?

Last spring the BYU Women's Cougar Rugby Club forfeited a quarterfinal game in the USA Rugby collegiate tournament in Samford, Fla., rather than play on Sunday.

The selection committee for the NCAA basketball tournament goes through special pains each year to accommodate BYU. But in 2003, the committee mistakenly placed BYU in a bracket that would eventually require them to play on Sunday. The committee had to devise a contingency plan: If BYU won its first two tournament games, the Cougars would move to another region to avoid Sunday play, switching places with another school. The Cougars lost their first game so it wasn't an issue, but there it is: BYU creates problems.

There was a time when few if any collegiate games were played on Sunday, but since TV took over the sports world it has become commonplace. BYU's ban on Sunday play creates headaches for tournament committees and bowl games; it might have been a contributing factor in its failed effort to gain membership in a BCS conference.

Last year BYU suspended its best football player and all-time leading rusher for violating the school's honor code, which bans premarital sex, alcohol, drugs and a lot of other things while also demanding certain grooming standards and specified behavior. With virtually no running attack, the Cougars proceeded to have their worst season in years. Last week, BYU suspended the starting center of its No. 3-ranked basketball team for honor-code violations. The Cougars lost their next game.

The school has demonstrated courage and consistency in supporting and enforcing its honor code and remaining true to its religious beliefs even at the cost of wins and dollars. It has been widely applauded for this stance. Notwithstanding, the honor code does create unique challenges for a school that is trying to compete in Division I athletics. Many non-LDS athletes are reluctant to sign up for what they might consider the life of a monk to play sports for BYU. You can bet rival coaches mention all of this when they're sitting in a recruit's living room. Like the military academies, BYU has a small talent pool from which to recruit as the world increasingly leaves behind traditional values.

You also have to wonder how patient church leaders will be if athletes continue to bring public embarrassment to BYU. After all, one of the purposes of collegiate athletics is to raise public awareness of schools. Over the years, the Cougars have lost a number of star football players to the honor code, including two future NFL players in Ronney Jenkins and Reno Mahe. Both cases attracted considerable media attention.

While BYU is trying to hold that line and preserve traditional values, the competition seems to be headed the other way. For instance, most of the top collegiate athletic programs not only sign players who have criminal histories, they sign a lot of them. According to a report published by Sports Illustrated last week, the rosters of the top 10 college football teams in the nation last season included 138 players with criminal records — almost 14 per team. The report also revealed that 7 percent of the players on teams finishing in last year's top 25 had criminal records, including charges for assault, domestic violence and burglary.

Schools will sign almost any player if they think he can help them win games and earn millions of dollars. BYU won't do that.

When the Pac-10 set out to expand its membership last year, it signed up Utah and Colorado but not BYU, even though the Cougars' athletic program has rivaled and often outperformed those schools during the last 30 years, Utah's recent football resurgence notwithstanding. In the end, the considerations for membership seemed to be dictated by TV sets (read: money), Sunday play, political leanings (read: too conservative for the liberal Pac-10 crowd), and, according to some snobs, academics. In the end, BYU felt its best option was to drop out of the Mountain West Conference and compete as an independent.

BYU is going it alone, which, in some ways, is what the school has been doing for decades anyway.

e-mail: drob@desnews.com

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