Karl G. Maeser, the founder of what is today Brigham Young University, memorably taught his students concerning honor.
"I have been asked what I mean by word of honor. I will tell you. Place me behind prison walls — walls of stone ever so high, ever so thick, reaching ever so far into the ground — there is a possibility that in some way or another I may be able to escape; but stand me on the floor and draw a chalk line around me and have me give my word of honor never to cross it. Can I get out of that circle? No, never! I'd die first."
Maeser's founding ideals were placed in the balance this week as national attention focused on BYU's decision to suspend a starting basketball player who has been key to the team's success for an unspecified violation of BYU's honor code.
Many have commented on how hard this decision must have been, given that the BYU basketball team is looking toward a run at a national championship. Others have talked about the harshness for the player involved. Some have openly mocked BYU's stance.
But most of the national commentary has come to understand this issue for what it is: one of commitment and honor.
Sadly, in a world besieged with cowardice, betrayal and infidelity, those two words — commitment and honor — might seem somewhat quaint and old-fashioned.
We, however, can think of few characteristics more important for anyone to obtain than decisiveness in fulfilling their obligations and strict adherence to high ethical standards.
This seems especially true when one considers the cascading ethical lapses that have contributed to recent abuses of trust in high places and failures in our markets.
Brigham Young University, as a private institution of higher learning, has adopted a unique religiously based mission that emphasizes "the balanced development of the total person."
Consequently, character and integrity are more important at an institution like BYU than is academic excellence or athletic achievement. What is amazing to observe, however, is that as BYU lives up to its lofty mission and ideals, it is able to attract continually a stream of extraordinarily well-prepared students, faculty and staff who excel academically, athletically and artistically.
Indeed, it is because of those ideals rather than in spite of them that BYU is able to attract and cultivate its star talent.
And, we might add, that by making decisions consistent with the honor code that all students rely upon, BYU is honoring those students — even when those decisions are tough. It is honoring them as adults capable of exercising and accepting both the freedom and consequences of their moral choices.
In Robert Bolt's classic play, "A Man for All Seasons," the character of Sir Thomas More emphasizes the existential nature of commitment and honor when he says:
"When a man takes an oath … he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then — he needn't hope to find himself again."
The momentary rewards of athletic victory are precisely that: momentary. We applaud Brigham Young University for recognizing that what endures is character. By honoring that which endures they have brought fame and glory to the school more precious than any national championship.