Brandon Davies and not-so-short shorts

This week, Brandon Davies was suspended from playing on the BYU basketball team for violations of the Honor Code. (ie: he had sex with his girlfriend) The responses have surprised me – Mormons everywhere have strong opinions about Davies’s suspension.

The reactions usually fall in one of the two following camps:

Some are cool with it. Even Jon Stewart – while cracking wise about the notion of a star athlete having consensual sex with, and only with, his significant other – gave a tip of the hat to the university for sticking by its rules despite the consequences. And Christian Post had this to say:

Every student and staff that enters the school understands the rules, fully aware of the code of conduct, knowing what they can and cannot do to best represent themselves and the school. Davies was not an exception. The honor code is simple and black and white. Follow it or be willing to face the consequences, top rebounder or not.”

Some aren’t so cool with it. Tessa Meyer Santiago describes this viewpoint well on her blog this week, saying that God is a God of exceptions, and that laws require a human eye – a judge – to “put thought and effort into the deliberation, to examine without preconception, and to allow for individuality.” And, she made the following excellent point:

“Like the ark that crosses the Jordan, the gospel of Christ and the university that supposes to embrace its principles does not need the steadying hand of consistency, of rules to make sure that the university is not caught harboring fugitives from perfection on its sporting teams.”

And so you have it. A complicated situation with many great arguments on both sides, and Brandon is off to face the consequences of not keeping the honor code.  I suspect he’ll be true to Mormon form and will humbly go through the repentance process, get back on the morality track, and be back on the court next year.

Underneath the whole story though, sits an Honor Code that begs for deeper inquiry.

I signed the Honor Code myself in 1990 for my Freshman year of BYU, knowing full well what I was signing and what the consequences would be if I failed to follow it. In theory, I had zero problem as a Mormon, signing and agreeing to be honest, to follow the Word of Wisdom, to remain celibate. But truth be told, I was (more than) a bit insulted to be a responsible 18-year old and find myself monitored like a child who wasn’t trusted to make her own decisions. I went through 4 years of seminary, had a good academic record, served in leadership positions at school and at church. I was an adult, and I was accepted by admissions. Isn’t that enough?

I soon discovered that living the realities of the Honor Code meant a micro-managing of students’ conduct which included being physically inspected whenever I went to eat at the cafeteria, the possibility of being turned into the Standard Office by any self-righteous person on campus, having a dorm mom who made sure no boys snuck up that elevator and – gasp! – studied in our rooms with us. (We all know what studying alone in a room together can lead to.) In short, I became fully aware that the campus had it’s own form of “Big Brother”.

I committed to sign and follow the Honor Code, but it didn’t stop me from pushing the limits in my own way or mocking it relentlessly. But that was the small stuff. An inch on the shorts was easy to mock, but everyone in my dorm took our core values seriously. We were Mormons after all, and committed to a clean life and celibacy before our signature was ever on an official honor code. It was easier for some than others, yet I remember almost all of the students making their best efforts to maintain them, and I believe it came from a place of personal integrity rather than a written contract.

No doubt, the Kindergarten approach to standards at BYU played into my decision to leave after Freshman year. I felt as if I was living in a bubble, and I knew it was time to live in “the world” a bit more. I found myself in Sacramento, hanging with Mormon kids at institute and the singles ward who were surprisingly capable of living moral lives, even without an Honor Code over their heads. It felt like a weight was lifted off of me when I meandered my new eye-opening campus and having the tables turned from being a liberal, snarky, limit-pushing girl in Happy Valley, to being the most sheltered person on campus in West Sac. And those shorts that kept me out of the BYU cafeteria? Let’s just say that they suddenly made me look like a Granny at my new school. My new non-member friends were exploring and expressing their sexuality, while my member friends and I took our standards as seriously as if we’d signed the honor code with actual ink.

There are many things I loved about BYU, but the Honor Code wasn’t one of them. The honor code took away my ability to make judgments for myself, at the very age where it is crucial to do so.

I’m sure that my opinion will garner a lot of influence with BYU (wink wink) so let me give a straight up suggestion: It’s time to do away with enforcement of the BYU Honor Code where personal living is concerned.  Keep the code (enforce academic standards for things like cheating), send it to every student, hold firesides on the importance of integrity, clean living and standards. Just leave the enforcing of it up to the individual. Here’s why:

1.    By taking punitive action against those who break the honor code, BYU takes the emphasis off of the natural consequences. Many people insist that Davies should accept the consequences of his actions, meaning expulsion from the team. But that is just the consequence for breaking the honor code. Has anyone mentioned any spiritual consequences for breaking a commitment of celibacy? Let’s have some faith in the universe without adding another layer of suffering!

2.    When we create a culture of judgment, where officials and students and professors are constantly looking for standards violations, we create a world where we look for flaws in others and not in ourselves. If we mind our own business, and place our attention on our own set of standards, we’ll reap much bigger rewards.

3.    The students will have a chance to work out their transgressions with themselves, and their Bishops if they choose, without worrying about their academic career. How many BYU students fail to reach out for help because of the punitive nature of the system?

4.    It’s time to recognize that human nature excludes us from perfection, and that a big part of grace is accepting our innate imperfection during this lifetime. For every human on the planet, making mistakes is a reality.

5.    We, as a church need to set a better example of how to manage shame and guilt and could stand to be a bit more tolerant of those who deviate from Mormon expectations.

6.    It’s time to get over using BYU as a public reflection of Mormonism in this world. BYU is a private educational institution, not a missionary tool. Let’s focus on quality education, not how the rest of the world views us.

8.    And, the most important reason in my book, is the importance of encouraging young adults to set and monitor their own morals and limits. College is the very time to be accountable oneself and one’s personal standards. If not then, when? It’s going to be OK – I promise! I know it’s scary to think about letting those wild ‘n crazy college kids loose on their own, but it’s OK to have some faith in your student body.

What say you? Do young adults need the force of what is essentially a written contract with lethal academic consequences to maintain their morality? Or do we extend a level of trust, knowing full well that some will likely fall down, and need a helping hand back up?

And just for the record, I still don’t own any short shorts…..


Jon Stewart