Admiration and respect may not be what Brigham Young University was going for in upholding a unique honor code or forfeiting a Sunday sporting event, but both have come as a result of recent events.
Media outlets around the country, including the New York Times, the Sporting News, CBS Sports, ESPN, the Associated Press and others, have run stories or offered columnist opinions regarding the BYU women's rugby team forfeiting its Sunday playoff game along with the news of BYU running back Harvey Unga's decision to withdraw from school for failing to follow the honor code in mid-April.
While some were critical, many offered favorable dialogue in their coverage of the events. Why?
"The one thing some people appreciate in this day and age is there are institutions that take a stand and enforce that stand, even when it isn't popular or in their best interest. That is what makes it a news story," said Val Hale, BYU's athletic director from 1999 to 2004. "I think people, for the most part, appreciate that type of commitment to an institution's values and standards."
Rondo Fehlberg, another former BYU athletic director, agreed with his colleague.
"I think there is admiration, for the most part, even among institutions and individuals who disagree with us. They admire the fact that we take a stand and we stick to it, that we do not compromise," said Fehlberg, who oversaw BYU athletics from 1995 to 1999. "Because BYU has put itself in such a unique position, it raises the stakes much higher anytime we stumble."
National attention started on April 16 when Unga, the Cougars' all-time leading rusher, and his girlfriend, Keilani Moeaki, a member of the BYU women's basketball team, voluntarily withdrew from school for violating the school's honor code.
Gregg Doyel, a national columnist for CBSsports.com, said he was "stunned" by several aspects of the Unga story, especially when considering BYU students do not engage in premarital sex. "It was a big deal when a guy that good kicks himself off the team. Then to see what a college student isn't allowed to do at BYU was eye-opening. I would not have been mature enough to say I am going to go there, not in a million years," Doyel said. "I am stunned that a school in the 21st century would have an honor code as 17th century as that honor code is. I am stunned that in spite of that honor code, BYU has kids that want to go there. Holy cow — how does BYU get recruits and win? It blows me away.
"It's not like BYU is a safety school where people go there if they can't get accepted somewhere else. Thousands of people want to go there where they will be kicked out if they get caught having sex or drinking a beer. That is just absurdly stunning. It's just not the world we live in. Obviously it's the world they are living in, but it's not the world I have ever lived in, and I am not a hedonistic pagan or anything."
The BYU women's rugby team was scheduled to play No. 1 Penn State in the quarterfinals of the USA Rugby national championship tournament on April 18, but the team forfeited the game, thus ending its season.
David Whitley, the national columnist for fanhouse.com, wrote that BYU is the updated Title IX version of "Chariots of Fire." The movie is about Scotsman Eric Liddell, a devout Christian who refused to run the 100 meters in the 1924 Olympics because it fell on Sunday. Instead, he trained to run the 400-meter race and despite being called a traitor to his country, he persevered and won a gold medal.
"There have been other conscientious objectors to Sabbath play. This may be the first time an entire team has stood up by walking away," Whitley wrote.
When Whitley asked team captain Kirsten Siebach why not just play, she responded that as members of the LDS Church, they were committed to keeping standards and commandments, and everyone may not understand that.
"No, but we should all understand principles. And nowadays when anybody refuses to compromise theirs, it's worth applauding," Whitley wrote.
Former NFL and BYU football player Chad Lewis was also impressed by the rugby team's commitment to the standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a situation where they would have loved to compete for a national title, there was no grumbling or dissention.
"I thought it was pretty sweet," Lewis said. "In their finest hour, as a team, they were one. They walked away together for something they believed in and stuck to their principles. That was pretty sweet."
Doyel disagreed. He said if BYU wants to play in NCAA tournaments and events, it should conform to when those events are scheduled, not the other way around. For example, he said had the BYU basketball team advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2003 tournament, the Cougars would have been switched from the South region bracket to the Midwest bracket due to a Sunday scheduling conflict. He believes BYU's no Sunday play policy will be the main reason the Cougars won't ever be invited into a big-time BCS conference.
"College sports is the dog and BYU is the tail trying to wag the dog every now and then. If you want to be part of the group, be part of the group. Don't force everyone to bend over backwards to accommodate you," Doyel said. "If you can't play Sundays, then maybe you can't be in the NCAA. You may win the battle, but you lose the war."
If there is one school who can sympathize with BYU, it's North Carolina's Campbell University, the only other school in the country that won't play on Sunday.
Campbell, a Baptist school, has had a long-standing policy of not playing on Sunday. It has the support of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Fighting Camels have not had to forfeit any games but did have to change conferences in the mid-1990s when other members of the conference wanted to play the men's basketball conference championship on Sunday, according to athletic director Stan Williamson.
However, in May 2009, the Campbell board of trustees revised its Sunday play policy primarily due to financial issues involving make-up games and students missing class. The revised Sunday play policy supports the ruling that no regularly scheduled games will be played on Sunday but does provide an exception in certain situations including NCAA Championship play, weather delays and multiday events such as golf tournaments.
"I have a great deal of respect for individuals and institutions that take a strong stand on an issue based on their faith and are then willing to follow-through. This is one of the issues that drew me to Campbell University," Williamson said. "However, there are many that look at Campbell through this issue and see hypocrisy and do not see why a compromise is wrong."
Should other institutions respect a school's decision to not play on Sunday?
"No, other institutions do not have to respect Campbell or BYU in this area. In Campbell's case, other institutions are compelled due to the overall conference agreement to work within the policy. That sometimes creates bad feelings from other conference team participants because the situation becomes an inconvenience for them, personally," Williamson said. "However, I do think most people can respect the conviction of individuals who choose to make this an important part of their lives. In our world today, the majority of people are not convicted about anything; it is certainly refreshing when we find individuals or even institutions who take a stand no matter the costs.
"If we could all live by an honor code and then be honest enough to admit our mistakes, the world would be a much better place. My personal beliefs about God may be different from most Mormons, but I sincerely appreciate the strong moral standards outlined by the folks at BYU. They are certainly people of integrity, and that is hard to find these days."
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Y. rugby team falls to California in Men's DI Championship Game
For Mormon Times
PALO ALTO, Calif. — A failure to get on track offensively doomed BYU in its bid to repeat as national champions in rugby.
BYU was held scoreless in the first half by California and could not rally from the resulting deficit — falling to the Bears 19-7 in the 2010 USA Rugby Men's DI Championship Game on Saturday, May 1.
California sprinted out to a 13-0 halftime lead after Eric Fry and Niell Barrett each converted a try and Keegan Engelbrecht tacked on a penalty kick. Shaun Davies had a chance to put BYU on the board before halftime with a penalty kick, but he missed from 45 meters out. After Engelbrecht converted a second penalty kick to make it 16-0, BYU scored its only points of the match on a loose play try and conversion by Davies with 5:30 left.
This marked the fifth consecutive season California and BYU have met to decide the national championship. The Cougars are now just 1-4 in those matches.