PROVO In the past year, Brigham Young University has disciplined or suspended 10 football players for alleged violations of the religious school's Honor Code a list of personal-conduct rules to which all students must adhere.
Two were arrested in April on felony robbery charges. Four were kicked out of school in March for group sex at a January party. Four others were disciplined for Honor Code violations after an investigation into an alleged gang rape in August.
But in a series of interviews over the past month, several recently disciplined players and their parents told the Deseret Morning News that off the field, black players are treated unfairly by BYU administrators, Provo police officers and the Utah County Attorney's Office.
Their evidence? None of the players disciplined by the school in the past year is white.
BYU and law-enforcement officials vehemently deny any charges of discrimination against minorities. Several black players on this year's team also dismiss claims that university leaders lean harder on minority athletes in Honor Code probes.
"I don't think race has anything to do with it. I've heard of guys who are white being kicked out for lesser charges," says Curtis Brown, a black player on the team. "People want to make comments, but to me it's nonsense. When you sign the Honor Code, you've got to live it."
But some BYU athletic-department chiefs, professors and boosters say the school can do more to help urban and minority students adjust to life in Provo a mostly Caucasian, conservative city nicknamed "The Bubble" by students.
At BYU, where blacks make up 0.6 percent of the student body, some athletes say they feel disenfranchised.
"I hope these claims aren't true, and I talk to the players all the time and I haven't heard anything like that, but I don't know," says Tom Holmoe, associate athletic director at BYU. "I would never say that racism doesn't go on, because it does.
"Our society has issues that occasionally pop up. And you know what? Sometimes it pops up in your own back yard."
Is racism an issue at BYU? Are blacks treated differently by the school's Honor Code Office? Do Provo officers target black players?
The answers, to be sure, depend on whom you ask.
Yes for some. No for others.
Those interviewed by the Deseret Morning News said most encounter racism or discrimination sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant while living in Utah Valley.
Sometimes it is nothing more than stares.
Sometimes it is much worse.
Charges of racism
Marcus Whalen arrived at BYU in summer 2000, a highly touted high school running back. In the first game of the season, Whalen entered in overtime and scampered 16 yards, setting up a field goal that would win the game.
"That was a huge run," Coach LaVell Edwards said after the game. "He's going to be a good back." Edwards was right, but few remember Whalen for his accomplishments on the field.
Instead, he is mostly remembered for what he did when he wasn't playing.
In a span of a few months in 2001, Whalen was arrested twice, once for shoplifting beer and sandwiches and once for underage drinking. He withdrew from BYU, but the Honor Code Office allowed him to come back a year later.
In fall 2002, Whalen said his troubles were behind him. His mother moved to Orem to support him, and he had recently married. That year, he led the team in rushing.
At the outset of the 2003 season, he was injured and did not see much playing time.
This would have been Whalen's last year of eligibility, a final year to prove himself to NFL scouts. Instead, he has spent much of the fall in court, fighting charges of assault and robbery. Last week, he reached a plea deal with Utah County prosecutors who say he and another player, Breyon Jones, assaulted and robbed a man in April.
The incident was the proverbial last straw for BYU. Whalen was kicked out of school in June, effectively ending his collegiate career. Jones was suspended for a year.
Whalen says he was treated unfairly largely because of his race. There were second chances, yes, but he says he was also accused of things he never did.
"It's not hard to see that we definitely are targeted," he says. "There are white guys that do things, too, but I guess we're just cursed that way or pursued a lot harder."
Whalen and other players say they have known of white, Latter-day Saint athletes who regularly violated parts of the Honor Code, which prohibits sex outside of marriage, drinking alcohol and smoking, but were never disciplined.
He says white players are given the benefit of the doubt by police officers and BYU officials.
"I think it's hard for them not to give (white players) the benefit of the doubt. They're all white guys, and they're Mormon," Whalen says, referring to Provo's police department and BYU's Honor Code Office.
"It always comes in consideration that they went on an (LDS) mission. Like, 'We're not going to investigate this,' " he says. "When (black players) come in, instead of asking what happened, they say, 'We know what happened. We know you did this.' And no matter what you tell them, they try to get you to admit something."
Those accused of gang-raping a 17-year-old girl at the University Villa apartments in August say police immediately assumed they were guilty. One of the accused players, who says he wasn't at the apartment when the alleged incident occurred, says officers have repeatedly harassed him and his roommates since executing a search warrant on Aug. 10.
Officers have since returned unannounced and without reason, he says. One night, he says, police kicked in the front door of his apartment, trying to enter.
Provo police spokeswoman Karen Mayne says officers have not returned to the apartment since executing the search. And University Villa owner Dave Freeman says a door was never kicked in.
No charges have yet been filed against any of the players in connection with the August incident.
"We respond to the type of crime that allegedly occurred, and our investigative procedures are always the same," Mayne says. "We don't do anything different, regardless of age or race or anything else."
Don Harwell, president of Genesis, a support group for black Latter-day Saints established by LDS Church President Harold B. Lee in 1971, says the players would have been treated differently if they were white.
"These are kids who have never had a problem and then all of a sudden they show up (at BYU) and suddenly they have problems. People are too willing to assume they are guilty because of color," President Harwell says.
"I haven't met one of these kids who was not a good kid. They have been raised well, by good black families with a lot of integrity. They're not gang-bangers, they're not street people, and yet they're seen that way just because they are black."
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins says the Honor Code Office only responds to complaints that are made and never goes looking for violators. Race is not a factor when conducting a review, she says. "When alleged violations come to our attention, we respond," she says. "We make every effort to be fair and careful in the review."
Steve Baker, director of the Honor Code Office, told the Deseret Morning News earlier this year that most Honor Code cases do not result in time away from the university. Instead, counselors look for appropriate ways to keep the students on campus. The Honor Code Office handles between 300 and 1,000 cases a year.
"What it really gets down to is LDS athletes have a bishop that is a very big insulator between them and the university," Freeman says. "A lot of non-LDS athletes don't have anybody to talk to, and if they go to someone, they're worried they'll get turned in to the Honor Code Office."
Suspended players have been given letters outlining the conditions they must meet to re-enroll. These conditions may include visits with school counselors, service projects, drug testing and attending campus religious devotionals.
What the future holds for the four players most recently disciplined remains unclear.
Some may come back in a year, others may never return. As for Whalen, he hopes to play in the NFL one day. For now, he is working two jobs, one at the Provo Marriott, the other at a local bakery.
Black at BYU
Last semester, an estimated 179 black students enrolled at BYU out of a student population of 29,932. Those figures haven't changed much this semester, although hard numbers are not yet available.
One black student enrolled at BYU is Corey Riley, a freshman from Austin, Texas. Asked what it's like to be black at BYU, Riley smiles and shakes his head. "I wouldn't say there's a lot of racism, I'd call it more ignorance because people haven't talked to many black people," he says. "They just assume for you to act a certain way or to be good at sports. I'm all right at basketball, but people expect me to be amazing.
"Or they assume you're a convert to the church. People are shocked when they find out I served a mission."
Reginald Hyppolitt came to BYU from a neighborhood in Brooklyn where most of his neighbors were black. "Surprisingly I haven't come across prejudice very often, but it does happen, don't get me wrong," he says.
Both doubt the Honor Code Office would treat black students differently than whites. Because BYU is made up of students from all over the country, Riley says it is a more tolerant environment than the surrounding community.
This summer, for example, he said he was teaching swimming lessons at a Provo pool when a grandmother asked her crying grandson if he was upset because Riley's skin was brown.
"I told her, 'No, he's upset because the water is cold,' "Riley says. "I mean, comments like that you have to ignore. You just hope they are ignorant and not consciously making a decision to think that way."
This is the kind of racism many blacks in Utah commonly encounter, says Darron Smith, an adjunct sociology professor at BYU and editor of a recently released collection of essays called "Black and Mormon." He calls the daily insults blacks have to endure in predominately white areas "micro-aggressions."
"People don't think there's racism here because they think racism is burning a cross and calling people (a racial slur)," Smith says. "It's institutionalized racism. It's a subversive, normalized type of racism that we don't have to do anything about because nobody's talking about it and nobody wants to acknowledge it exists."
Most white people don't understand the daily frustration of being stared at or followed in stores or being asked to speak for an entire race, Smith says. And those are the minor annoyances.
The father of one black player currently suspended said his son called him shortly after arriving in Provo to tell him he "felt like he was segregated."
"You feel like you're always under surveillance, that you're always being watched," Smith says players have told him. "And if you're being watched, you're bound to slip up. You feel like a fish out of water."
"We have already paid the price all over the country for all this ignorance. It's time to stop," President Harwell says. "It's time to judge a person by their character, not the color of their skin."
Because many people in Utah have had little exposure to blacks, they form opinions based on what they see in movies or in music videos, President Harwell says. It's an observation shared by Whalen.
"When they see a black person, the first thing they think is trouble. They say, 'Oh, this guy's a thug,' and that's not true at all. That's just as racist as going up to some little black kid and calling him a (racial slur)."
Both President Harwell and Smith have talked to players recently dismissed for Honor Code violations, as well as their parents. The families feel hurt and betrayed, Smith says, and are growing impatient with how long the Utah County Attorney's Office has taken to investigate the case.
"If they're guilty, we as a black community want them charged and arrested," President Harwell says. "But if they're not guilty, then let them go. They have left these boys hanging since August. There's no proof anything went on.
"If they were white? I don't know what would've happened. But with no evidence, with nothing on them, I think they would have been given the benefit of the doubt."
Three black football players currently on the team Curtis Brown, Daniel Coats and Antwaun Harris say they don't think the Honor Code Office or the Provo police discriminate.
"It's not if you're white, it's if you're right or wrong," Coats says. "Anybody could've done it, and it would've come out the same way."
Still, Coates admits adjusting to life in Utah is difficult for blacks.
"I've lived here a good part of my life, and it still shocks me how ignorant some people are."
The search for answers
Holmoe, the BYU athletic department administrator, is white, but he understands how it feels to adjust to a different culture. When Holmoe came to play football for BYU, he found Provo "peculiar." After all, he wasn't LDS, and he was coming to Utah from Los Angeles.
"It was a transition, but you learn to adapt to the culture around you," he says. "Some kids I played with never adjusted. There are some LDS kids who never adjust."
For Holmoe the answer is involving former players as mentors to give student athletes advice on personal issues, academics and life beyond football. He says similar programs, like one at the University of Miami, for example, are successful.
"It would be for all athletes, not just minorities," he says. "The mentors would be seen as someone to talk to, not as a coach."
President Harwell and Smith see a formal mentoring program as a huge step toward helping minorities adjust to life in homogenous Provo. President Harwell says two weeks after the allegations of gang rape surfaced he met with BYU head coach Gary Crowton and asked if his Genesis group could in some way help the team.
He has come to practice every Tuesday since.
"We wanted to give them someone to turn to that looks like them," President Harwell says. "They don't have anybody just to chat with. They need someone to back them up."
In the end, it comes down to personal accountability, running back Curtis Brown says. Crowton and other coaches constantly remind players of the Honor Code and the implications for breaking it. In some ways, Brown suggests, it is racist to think black players need help to live it.
"You have to make certain sacrifices to play college football anywhere," Brown says. "At some schools, maybe you
sacrifice playing time. Here, it's the Honor Code, and if it takes you reading it every day until it's stuck in your head, so be it."
The Honor Code isn't a weakness for BYU's athletic department, Holmoe says. To him, it's the school's crown jewel. Visitors often tell him how impressed they are with the cleanliness of the campus and the appearance and behavior of the students.
As Coats, a BYU tight end says, "The Honor Code doesn't hurt you. It helps you become a better person. It's not like they're asking us to do things that would hurt us."
Holmoe is confident the proposed mentoring program will make it easier for students, regardless of race, to adjust to life in "The Bubble" and the world beyond.
"Does racism exist in our world? You bet it does. Is racism an issue in Utah Valley? Heck, yeah. Who am I to say these players didn't experience it? . . . There are two sides to it, but if it's an issue, if someone's complaining about being treated unfairly, we're going to investigate. I'm not just going to stick my head in the sand.
Contributing: Dick Harmon, Tad Walch; [email protected]