Guest commentary: It’s OK if BYU fans want to pay for a church football team

Published: Monday, Aug. 18 2014 1:20 p.m. MDT

A Q&A session with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and athletic director Tom Holmoe  is broadcast during BYU's media day at the BYU Broad Building in Provo on Tuesday, July 12, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) A Q&A session with BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and athletic director Tom Holmoe is broadcast during BYU's media day at the BYU Broad Building in Provo on Tuesday, July 12, 2011. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The NCAA’s long-coming autonomy proposal for the Power 5 conferences passed earlier this month, but no official new rules have been enacted. Reading the local newspapers, it would seem that now is the time for BYU fans to panic.

Salt Lake media have been speculating, as they sometimes do, about if the end is near for the BYU football program. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last.

Regarding these new rules, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jay Drew pondered:

“Oh to be a fly on the wall at LDS Church headquarters as well when the topic comes up. Does the church, which owns and operates BYU, really want to be in the business of paying some students who just happen to be gifted athletically, while others struggle to make ends meet financially just as much? The questions go on and on.”

To me, this seems like an odd question. The church is obviously already OK with its school compensating some athletically gifted students, since it has 250 or so currently on scholarship. As unfair as that may be to the other thousands of BYU students, it doesn’t seem any less fair than rewarding other students with scholarships for being good at math, being able to write well, or whatever talents they have that the school wants to encourage and its alumni want to pay for. BYU has been in the scholarship business for a long time, and I wouldn’t anticipate that changing, even if the value of the scholarship does.

The pondering continued on Saturday when Deseret News columnist Brad Rock opined,

“The last thing the LDS Church needs to be operating is a quasi-professional football team.”

Both of these articles leave me asking, why is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints singled out for these kinds of questions? Why is it OK for states across the nation to consider paying more to their university football team’s players, but once the discussion shifts to a church-owned school, top-level football has to go because of the moral implications of it all?

Why should we all go happily along with state schools adding more financial obligations to programs that are subsidized and sometimes heavily subsidized by student fees and general funds while asking the church school that lets its fans fund and operate a profitable program to shut down?

It seems to me the LDS Church should be able to consider running its school and athletic program within the same rules the 65 other Power 5 schools are running theirs. If fans of BYU want to pay for their football team, what’s wrong with that? It seems it would be OK for schools with similar size enrollments, football stadiums and endowment resources operating under the same rules.

I don’t know how BYU students feel about football players getting paid, but I’m guessing the financially struggling students will like it better as long as they are only contributing to the players by buying tickets instead of having a couple hundred dollars of fees tacked onto their general tuition.

Rock’s opinion that operating a quasi-professional football team being the last thing the LDS Church needs seems especially odd coming from a church-owned newspaper. Where do newspapers fall on this list of things the church should or shouldn’t be operating?

BYU seems better prepared to keep up with these changes than many state schools that already operate their budgets at the bleeding edge of viability. BYU builds facilities fully paid for rather than taking out a 30-year mortgage. This financial direction likely comes from church leadership, but it’s a competitive disadvantage to recruit against teams that can build a new press box, stadium,or team facility with tens of millions, or in Cal’s case hundreds of millions, of bond debt.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has levied a similar critique, asking, “Why not say nobody breaks off unless they are operating in the black?” Fairly compensating the players for what they do sounds great, but for a program that already is breaking the bank to keep up, where is all this new money coming from?

BYU appears to be one of the few programs out there able to show some restraint as it lives within its means. Despite that financial disadvantage, the Cougars still manage to field competitive, entertaining teams. BYU will never out-Oregon Oregon with shiny new buildings, but the Cougars get what they need (and it’s getting to the point that they really need that basketball practice facility so hopefully that comes soon).

While some fans love to raise conspiracy theories of BYU’s athletics funding, we’re told that the Cougars are self-funding. Donors, endowments, ticket sales, TV revenue and the church permission are what allow the program to operate.

Yes, BYU recently shut down BYU-Hawaii athletics. Last year, their entire athletics revenue was a shade over $2.5 million, according to the Department of Education. The church shut down Ricks College athletics rather than operate a second athletics program close to the one it already had.

Do we really want to talk about those decisions in the same sentence as the idea of shutting down a $50-million-a-year program like what the church has at BYU?

As long as my tithing money isn’t paying for it, I think the church can do whatever it pleases with the football team. I’d just like to see the nation’s taxpayers care as much about all those other schools’ moral and financial obligations.

I’m not able to be a fly on the wall when the topic comes up at church headquarters, but I would hope the conversation sound like this:

Tom Holmoe: “So, we’re going to be changing our scholarships to keep up with the national model. There’s been some changes to the NCAA rules and we’re going to do what they allow us to do.”

Board of Trustees: “Are you guys still paying for all that on your own?”

Tom Holmoe: “Yeah, it’s all in the budget.”

Board of Trustees: “OK, good luck this year. We’ll see you on ESPN.”

Finally, years ago, when a fan at Education Week questioned something about the BYU football program, athletics director Tom Holmoe replied that the school didn’t build the indoor practice facility to turn into a barn for hay storage. We will have to see exactly how the new rules shake out for BYU. I don’t know what divisions or rules will be coming, but I don’t really see the school turning the IPF into a barn any time soon, either.

Gregory Welch is a regular contributor to LoyalCougars.com.

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