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BILL PLASCHKE

BYU deserves honor for making tough call to uphold code

Cougars probably cost themselves riches and glory after suspending one of their best players, Brandon Davies, for the rest of the season for violating the school's honor code by having premarital sex.

March 03, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • Brandon Davies pulls up for a jumper over UNLV's Derrick Jasper during a Mountain West Conference game in January.
Brandon Davies pulls up for a jumper over UNLV's Derrick Jasper during… (Ethan Miller / Getty Images )

They are charged with assault on a Tuesday, and play linebacker on a Saturday. They are caught smoking dope in the morning, and practice free throws in the afternoon.

Today's college playing fields are dotted with athletes bearing fresh mug shots, lingering handcuff marks and not a trace of accountability.

Athletes are often punished only to the degree at which the team will not feel pain. If the game is important, they are suspended only for the first half. If there is even a hint of the word "allegedly," the school abdicates its moral authority to the legal system and doesn't suspend them at all.

All of which would classify what happened with the Brigham Young basketball team as one shining moment.

This week, the highly ranked Cougars probably cost themselves riches, glory and a legitimate chance at their first national basketball championship after suspending one of their best players, Brandon Davies, for the rest of the season for violating the school's honor code.

The infraction? Davies had premarital sex.

The rule? A section of the honor code that requires BYU students to "live a chaste and virtuous life."

That might not be your rule. That might be the kind of rule that makes you titter and wince and wonder, how can any school not attached to a seminary demand celibacy of college kids in a world in which seven out of 10 Americans have had sexual intercourse by age 19?

But the point is, it is BYU's rule, and kudos to the school for publicly enforcing it at the worst possible time with one of the most visible of students while risking damage to the school's athletic reputation and national stature.

BYU knows this will hurt immediately, Davies' suspension robbing the team of its leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, probably dashing all chances of ending their NCAA record of tournament futility — 25 appearances and zero Final Fours. BYU knows this will hurt in the future, costing potential athletic and academic recruits who may now be wondering: How can I spend four years at a place that really gives suspensions for sex?

BYU knows the news could make it the butt of jokes, dragging its owner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, back into public scrutiny, causing a stir the size of "Big Love."

BYU knows all this stuff, and it suspended the kid anyway, and if you don't believe in its code, you have to love its honor.

"Nobody else would do this, nobody," said Mike Smith, the Clippers broadcaster who spent four years starring for BYU's basketball team in the mid-1980s. "I'm really saddened because this could cost us our best year ever. But I'm really proud of us for sticking by the rules when it would be so easy to overlook them."

Before the suspension, the Cougars were the third-ranked team in the country with the No. 1 RPI rating and a record of 27-2.

In the first game after the suspension Wednesday, they were hammered, 82-64, by unranked New Mexico while being outrebounded, 45-29. The game ended with their star Jimmer Fredette, one of the nation's best shooters and a potential tournament darling, sitting alone on the bench with his head in his hands.

"It's been difficult," he told reporters afterward. "It's tough to lose a guy like that and pull together."

The coach, Dave Rose, chose his words carefully.

"I think a lot of people try to judge this, whether this is right or this is wrong … that's not the issue," he said. "It is a commitment that you make. And everybody makes the commitment."

The commitment is the signing of an honor code that also includes honesty and clean language, and abstinence from drugs, alcohol, coffee and tea. But nothing is apparently as difficult for hormone-driven college kids as the "chaste and virtuous life" clause, which includes no sexual relationships outside marriage.

"People have asked me, 'Hey, you're a tall, nice guy from Southern California, how did you survive four years under those rules?' " Smith said. "I tell them, it was virtually impossible. But I did it, because I believed in it."

During his four years there, sandwiched around two years of missionary work in Argentina during which he wasn't even allowed to date, Smith said that temptations were everywhere, but that nobody on his teams succumbed.

"Do guys have girlfriends, are their hormones raging, are they always tempted? Yes," he said. "But because the women also signed the same code, there is usually at least one person who would say stop."

Perhaps as amazing as BYU officials enforcing the code now is the fact that they didn't actually catch Davies breaking it. Either Davies or his girlfriend came forward, and Davies later admitted his transgression not only to school officials, but also to his teammates.

"Honestly, it's kind of like golf," Smith said. "You've got to call that two-stroke penalty on yourself. That's why it's called an honor code."

But why couldn't a young couple live with their infraction at least until the end of the NCAA tournament?

"The guilt just overtakes you," Smith said. "If you really believe in a higher authority, and most people who attend BYU believe, then the guilt would just destroy you."

Davies is the second high-profile Cougars athlete to fail the honor code in the last two years, BYU's career rushing leader, Harvey Unga, withdrew from school in the spring of 2010 with one year of eligibility remaining after violating the honor code. Two months later he was married, and, in July, his wife had their first child.

"You are set apart from the rest of the world," Smith said. "It's not easy. It's not for everyone."

The rules are not, but the conviction to enforce them on your powerhouse basketball team at the outset of this country's premier basketball spectacle? That could be the only thing about this March that isn't madness.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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