The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

Over the past month, BYU has been held up as a symbol of all that is decent in college sports for its unsparing treatment of Brandon Davies, the African-American basketball player who violated the school's honor code by reportedly having sex with his girlfriend. Davies was suspended shortly before the NCAA tournament, and a braying mainstream press lauded BYU for sticking to its principles. Sports Illustrated's website even wondered if a values-driven, "non-hypocritical" BYU was "on the verge of becoming America's team."

The reality isn't so appealing. While it's impossible to know how many students disobey BYU's honor code, which prohibits fornication and alcohol use, among other things, the honor code violations that come to light almost always involve student-athletes. And they almost always involve athletes of color. Since 1993, according to our research, at least 70 athletes have been suspended, dismissed, put on probation, or forced to withdraw from their teams or the school after running afoul of the honor code. Fifty-four of them, or nearly 80 percent, are minorities. Forty-one, or almost 60 percent, are black men. These are conservative numbers, compiled from media reports and interviews. In several cases, we could not confirm an honor code violation. In other cases, we could not establish the race or ethnicity of the athlete involved. We excluded those cases from our tally.

No Honor: A Deadspin Investigation

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU Athletes who've run afoul of BYU's honor code since 1993. VIEW »

In Their Own Words

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYUTico Pringle: "When you sign the honor code, you pretty much sign your life away." READ »

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYURay Hudson: "I would advise no African-American man to go" To BYU. READ »

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYUThomas Stancil: "Going to BYU was the worst decision I ever made." READ »

Clearly, though, something is amiss at BYU, where around 23 percent of the athletes are minorities, according to the university. Only .6 percent of the student body is black (176 out of the 32,947 students enrolled in 2010). Yet a majority of the honor code violations involve black athletes. Do these numbers mean these athletes "sin" more than everyone else? Hardly. Several former BYU football players told us that their white teammates routinely broke the honor code and got away with it, either because they didn't get caught or because their violations were covered up. (To a lesser extent, this holds true for Polynesian athletes, 14 of whom are included in our honor code tally. More on that later.) Mormon athletes can turn to bishops and church leaders from their own homogeneous communities — people who look like them and might even be related to them — to "repent" and avoid official punishment. Black athletes, who are typically non-Mormon, rarely have this option.

Leave aside the impossibility of requiring over 30,000 hormonal young adults to abstain from sex or alcohol in college. The dreary truth about the honor code is that athletes of color — particularly black athletes — are rarely afforded the same treatment as their white peers. This double standard exists because of the honor code, not in spite of it. Several black BYU athletes, including one who is still in school, say that little mention was made of the honor code during their recruitment. BYU was like any other college, they were led to believe. One former athlete recalls going to a party at a football players' house during a recruiting visit — an "orgy," in his words — and coming away thinking that "everything was kept on the hush." Only later, after the athletes had arrived on campus, did they realize the implications of the compact they had signed: that they had entered an environment where official morality is unevenly applied, where snitches and spies abound, and where, above all, an interplay of race and religion affects every decision and allows the school, at least publicly, to take a righteous stand that only advances the missionary aims of the church that owns it. In short, BYU creates the conditions for certain athletes to fail and, when they do, expresses only dismay.

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

In 2004, Ray Hudson arrived at BYU with high hopes. A talented running back from Wharton, Texas, Hudson led his high school team to the state quarterfinals. At BYU, he'd have to prove himself again. He was low on the depth chart but getting on the field for an occasional play, no minor accomplishment for a true freshman. Hudson, however, had an issue beyond football.

"When I first came to BYU and signed the honor code, they knew I had a girlfriend who was pregnant," Hudson says. Administrators, coaches, teammates — everyone knew, according to Hudson. "My son [Raymond Hudson III] was born September 9, 2004. That was the first game that we had. I went to that that game instead of going home to watch him be born. I stayed there. I was on the phone while he was being born. I wanted to show people how dedicated I was to the program."

This was before he had become collateral damage in a sex scandal that brought about some of the biggest honor code investigations in the history of BYU sports — before his dedication would be repaid in ugly fashion and his infant son would be used as a cudgel against him. In SI.com's "America's team" story, Steve Young said of the honor code: "There's no bait and switch. It's very out in the open, very clear. It's compassionately administered. …" Hudson's saga, not to mention the experience of several black athletes, suggests otherwise.

Some athletes, as Hudson found, are misled from the very start. BYU needs good players and competes with other major football programs for recruits, which is why the school often allows them to believe that their stay in Provo will resemble a typical college experience.

"During my recruiting visit and right up till the point when I signed with BYU, the honor code was lightly discussed by coaching staff and BYU officials." says Marcus Whalen, a star running back from Maryland who left the school in 2004 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault stemming from a fight with another student. "I wasn't told that if I violated the honor code I would get kicked out of school and lose my scholarship and eligibility to attend another institution."

If it's not exactly three-card monte, it's at the very least deceptive. Several football players pointed to their recruiting trips as a determining factor in choosing to sign with BYU.

"I went on a couple recruiting trips [in 2002]. That's what you're looking forward to," says Thomas Stancil, a former BYU running back from Bakersfield, Calif. "You go out there. You're getting introduced to college women. … It was partying, girls, completely the opposite of what was supposed to be going on. I was exposed to so many women on my recruiting trip to BYU, I couldn't wait to get back. I was going to go to Fresno State but not after that recruiting trip. … As for the honor code, they did mention it. Yes, they did. No, they didn't go into great detail. If they had, there's no way in hell I would have gone there. Truly, I forgot all about the honor code. It's not like it's being put in your face every day. After my first meeting with the coaches, the honor code was never mentioned. … I was 100 percent deceived. One hundred percent."

James Allen, a cornerback from Inglewood, Calif., chose BYU over schools like USC and Oregon. If anything, his recruiting trip only set the stage for what would happen to him later.

"Girls were there, and sex was going on," Allen says. "It was an orgy going on. School didn't know about it and coaches didn't know about it. Beer and hard liquor were there. It was a players' house. I think it was the very house I was living in when I [got in trouble in 2004.] I didn't know too much about Mormonism. I was told that everything was kept on the hush and that everything would be OK in respect to the honor code."

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

A former BYU player who requested anonymity because he keeps close ties to the football program explained it this way: "We knew it was a Mormon school. We thought if we didn't live on campus, it didn't affect us. They said it was OK, it's just on campus, you don't have to worry about it as long as you guys aren't doing too much."

Although BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told us that basketball coach Dave Rose and football coach Bronco Mendenhall have "worked very hard through the years to make sure athletes understand the honor code," the school's recruiting approach isn't appreciably different today, according to O'Neill Chambers, a top receiver who as a freshman in 2009 was accused of drinking alcohol and subsequently suspended by the honor code office. (Chambers lost his scholarship but hopes to walk on this next season.) "It was your choice to read through all of it [the honor code]," he says. "When I was getting recruited I felt like it was just like any other school with any other rules. You didn't really take it serious. When you get here, it's a whole other level."

In the recent history of BYU sports, no year is more instructive than 2004, when at least 17 athletes were dismissed, suspended, put on probation, or forced to withdraw from the school. Fourteen of them were black. Some were accused of shoplifting and underage drinking. More troubling, around a dozen football players, including Stancil and Allen, were accused of participating in or being present during a gang rape in two separate incidents — one of which was soon determined to be consensual group sex, the other of which went to trial, where the players were acquitted on all charges. In most cases, the university made no secret of these athletes' honor code violations, an uncustomary move in a Mormon culture that teaches that sin is a personal and private matter.

The details of what happened aren't pretty, but they aren't any more sordid than what can occur at other colleges. In the first incident, a woman on the BYU track team attended a party at a house occupied by non-Mormon football players. According to two players who were present, she went upstairs and invited four or five players to have sex with her. One player took photos. No laws were broken, no injuries sustained. But when the photos got out, the woman withdrew from school and claimed she'd been raped. The police investigated and took statements from players. The woman soon admitted the sex was consensual, and the police dropped the investigation. But the honor code office knew sex was involved and cracked down, suspending or sanctioning at least eight players.

"They didn't even let me plead my case," says Stancil, who instead received a letter from the honor code office informing him of the school's decision. "Next thing I know, it says I'm suspended."

The second incident involved a 17-year-old girl who claimed several players had met her in a mall, taken her back to their apartment, played pornography for her, and plied her with liquor until she passed out. When she woke up, she told police, she was being raped. The case eventually went to trial, with two players — B.J. Mathis and Ibrahim Rashada — being acquitted. One of their teammates, Karland Bennett, took a deal to testify against his friends and pleaded guilty to charges of obstruction of justice and dealing harmful material to a minor, a plea he tried to retract after the trial.

The scandals damaged the NFL prospects of several athletes and brought a glut of bad publicity to the school, culminating in the departure of then-head coach of the football team, Gary Crowton. After the purge, life also changed dramatically for the black football players left on campus. "We were in class," says one player. "Kids were staring at us. We couldn't walk around. They made it very uncomfortable for us. … [T]hey automatically put you in that category [of being a predator]."

In the wake of the group-sex cases, the honor code office became even more heavy-handed, according to players. Ray Hudson was caught up in the ensuing sweep. "A lot of people were questioned," he says. "I was interrogated. We didn't know shit. I wasn't around none of that. I was in a totally different apartment. They said: 'Come to the honor code. We need to talk to you. This dean needs to speak to you' — the same dean I first spoke with when we got there and I signed the honor code, one of the same guys who welcomed me to campus. They brought up the incident about my son. They said, 'Well, don't you have a son?' And I said. 'Yes, I had him before I signed the honor code.' The guy looked at me in the face and said, 'You had a baby out of wedlock.' I was respectful but we almost got into it. And I said, ‘Why you tell me that now? You should have told me that would be a problem before I became a part of the program or I would have gone somewhere else.'"

Hudson was suspended for a semester. When he came back to the school in 2005, the honor code office continued to target him, hauling him in for further interrogations on six occasions. Hudson says a campus spy would peep through windows to check on him and other players. Under immense pressure, Hudson sometimes found himself screaming in his room, just to get his emotions out. He knew the honor code office would find a way to get rid of him. So he took the decision out of BYU's hands.

"Instead of getting kicked out, I kicked myself out," Hudson says.

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

What happens to black athletes at BYU is part and parcel of a troubled racial history that remains deeply entwined with Latter-day Saint theology. The LDS church didn't ordain black men to the priesthood until 1978. Since its earliest days, the LDS church, like most white Christian churches, maintained that blacks were not fully human. The idea that black people were cursed by God to be slaves runs through early Mormon history. Brigham Young himself made statements about the status of the "black race" as the "servants of servants" and said that interracial relationships called for "blood atonement," where only spilled blood could counteract sin. The religion's founding story even features a wicked race of dark-skinned people called the Lamanites who wipe out a holy light-skinned group called the Nephites.

The church has made a concerted effort in recent years to address its past. Black men now hold high-level LDS positions, and the views of younger Mormons on race have evolved significantly. But the leaders of the church and BYU today are still influenced by their racist legacy. They come from a generation of Mormons in which Jim Crow-like ideas die hard. Interracial dating remains a taboo subject. As at most colleges, the athletes at BYU have no shortage of women interested in dating them and sleeping with them. And the interested women are almost always white and Mormon. This isn't a problem when you're Jim McMahon. It's very different if you're black.

A loose hierarchy exists at BYU when it comes to honor code sanctions. In the top, most-favored category are white Mormons who have completed a mission, followed by other white Mormons. Beneath them are LDS Polynesians. After that, anything goes. White non-Mormon athletes can come in for harsh treatment. So can black Mormons. The most severe punishment, however, is reserved for non-Mormon black athletes, according to our data and several athletes we interviewed.

"For every one black guy, I can also name you a white guy, another kid who just returned off a mission or didn't go on a mission who did the exact same thing and didn't get in trouble," says Tico Pringle, a black Mormon defensive back who played for BYU in 2006. "The black athletes get called on it. Returned missionaries don't get turned in. It's all hush-hush. It's political. You go to the honor code office and then you go and talk to your coach and your coach pulls strings if he needs to. A lot of the guys I know did things and they got away with it because strings were pulled. There are guys who got their girlfriends pregnant and didn't get in trouble. They pick and choose who they want to punish."

Hudson saw the same discrepancy: "I went to parties up there in the mountains. I saw Mormons drinking alcohol and having sex. Yeah, they were having sex. Everybody who was not married who was a Mormon was having sex. They were being regular college students. … I've seen Polynesian guys get in trouble. They had a brawl at a party and they knocked a couple guys out, and it went to the honor code, and it was dismissed. Polynesian guys, they're similar to us, but they're not like us. I was cool with a lot of them, but they're treated a little bit differently than African-Americans are. I've seen white Mormons doing some things and they made it go away."

According to BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins, 1.5 to 3.5 percent of students have an honor code issue in any given year. Presumably, many of those students are white, and some of them are athletes. But it's impossible to know because BYU is bound both by privacy laws and its own devotion to secrecy. Based on our study, what we can say is that, when a white athlete's honor code transgressions do become public, it's almost always on the heels of an arrest or a court case that leaves the honor code office with little choice but to investigate. In 2008, three white members of the swimming and diving team were suspended or expelled after pleading guilty to burglary, car theft, and witness tampering. In 2004, Aneta Lemiesz, a white track star from Poland, was charged with two counts of felony forgery and suspended from the team. Punishment for white athletes can be lenient. Most notably, in 2001, lineman Teag Whiting was arrested and charged with assault after punching a man unconscious outside a nightclub in Salt Lake City, then fleeing from a police officer, who had to draw his weapon on the 300-pound athlete. BYU investigated and, with barely a whisper, suspended Whiting for a single game and allowed him to return to school and graduate, after which he was signed, almost comically, by the Oakland Raiders. (Compare this outcome with what happened to Tico Pringle.)

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

Meanwhile, some honor code investigations border on the ludicrous. In 2007, a snitch spotted freshman Ryan Kessman, a Jewish wide receiver from California, drinking a vanilla cappuccino at Starbucks and reported him to the honor code office, according to Kessman's father. (The honor code forbids drinking coffee.) Bronco Mendenhall, promoted in part to repair the program's image after the group-sex incidents, questioned Kessman as part of a "little Nazi interrogation" of several players, in Steve Kessman's words. (Mendenhall did not return a call seeking comment.) Ryan Kessman soon received a letter asking him to appear before the honor code office to answer questions. Instead, Kessman high-tailed it out of Provo and didn't look back.

Far more damaging is when an honor code violation undermines an athlete's playing career or ability to complete a degree. Athletes who wish to transfer to another NCAA Division I school after being suspended from BYU must sit out one year of competition. Usually this means a transfer to a Division II school and a less-celebrated athletic program. For James Allen, who was one semester from graduating when he was kicked off the team and suspended from school, it meant trouble transferring at all.

"I was trying to transfer to an all-black D-II school, but they wouldn't let me," Allen says. "I couldn't transfer and play because you have to be on good terms when you leave the school. They wouldn't release my transcripts under good terms. I owed them $500. I paid it off. It didn't matter. Right after BYU, I signed a contract with the Bengals. I signed with Cincinnati two days before training camp started so I was the last rookie in fighting for a job. That messed up my credibility. It messed up a lot of stuff. Then I was playing arena football and in different leagues."

Jenkins insists the university always tries to give suspended students like Allen a second chance. "Our goal and hope is that students will be able to return and graduate," she says. But when Allen petitioned BYU in 2009 to let him back in so he could do just that, the school wasn't so forgiving.

"I was writing them letters and sending emails to see if I could finish up my degree," Allen says. "They set up a meeting with me. I told the dean that that's one of the reasons I've worked since I was 14 — to get my bachelor's. I told them I'd never been in trouble with BYU. That was the first time. I was a 21-year-old kid in college. I said I was deeply sorry but please just let me finish my semester and get my degree. They said no. I feel like they're hypocrites. I told them, 'God will forgive me for everything, for my sin, but you guys can't forgive me? What's going on?' I just wanted to finish my last semester. It felt like a slap in the face."

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

Not long ago, O'Neill Chambers, the walk-on hopeful, answered a knock at his door to find a strange man outside. The man claimed he was trying to move out of his basement apartment and wanted to see the inside of Chambers' house to get a sense for real estate in the neighborhood. The story didn't add up to Chambers – there were no "for rent" signs on his house or his street. The receiver had seen people watching him, taking photographs outside his home. He knew someone had rummaged through his trash. But he gave his visitor the benefit of the doubt and invited him inside. Chambers showed the man around upstairs. When the visitor insisted on seeing the basement, however, Chambers became convinced he was dealing with an honor code snoop.

"You're living in a basement and want to move out, so why do you want to see our basement?" Chambers asked the man. "I basically told him he should get out my house now. It's just ridiculous.

The Truth About Race, Religion, And The Honor Code At BYU

"[BYU] is a tough place and you're going to go through trials and tribulations. My family and friends say I've changed. I worry a lot more. I'm not the same me anymore since I've been here. It's helped me grow in many aspects but I'm afraid sometimes. I can't relax. I have to put on a mask when I come [to campus]. Sometimes I do feel lonely and sometimes I do feel lost and people look at me like, why are you still here?"

That's not surprising. Of the 116 players currently on the football roster, only 10 of them are black. That's less than 9 percent. A few years ago, the team was 15 percent black. Intentionally or not, the program seems to have sidestepped the honor code's racial and religious biases by signing more Polynesians, who tend to be LDS and now make up 23 percent of the roster. Whether these numbers indicate a recruiting shift away from blacks or an increased effort by the school to find LDS players is unclear. (Only eight or nine players on the team are non-Mormon, according to Chambers.) But the effect is the same: fewer black athletes and a difficult experience for many of those who do enroll.

"We want students to come to the university who are very comfortable with the environment," Jenkins says. "We're working very hard to make sure that every student understands the honor code before they get here. We start the day they apply. It's something that defines us. For the last 13 years, we've been The Princeton Review's number one stone-cold sober university. We're proud of it."

This year, Brandon Davies was the latest honor code martyr. Davies took his punishment in stride. He had little choice. How his suspension will affect his career or his outlook remains to be seen. But BYU's treatment of scores of black athletes should give pause to any African-American considering enrolling there. Our research indicates it already has. Almost every black athlete we spoke with had tried to dissuade a black recruit from playing for BYU. "We had some recruit coming to school," Thomas Stancil recalls. "I just told him what it was really like at BYU. I told him that if he was going to come here and think he was going to be having sex with all these women and partying, you got the wrong school. The next day the guy redid his plane ticket and left." Stancil's honesty only got him in trouble with the coaching staff.

The situation should also concern the school, which one day could — some might say ought to — face a discrimination lawsuit. In 2004, several black football players wanted to get the NAACP involved to help their teammates in the wake of the group-sex incidents. That never happened. But it's not hard to imagine a situation where it might.

In an email, Kerry Brown, a black Mormon attorney who has served in high-level church positions in New Orleans, says of the Davies situation: "If Davies violated the honor code by engaging in consensual pre-marital sex with his girlfriend, and if this action is so egregious so as to publicly ridicule him as an undisciplined, uncontrollable African-American athlete, why is he still a student at BYU? Why didn't he lose his status as a student? Why allow him to roam the campus at BYU and stand as a symbol to others that pre-marital sex is bad, but not really that bad? Although BYU is a private institution, I am concerned that their decision to selectively enforce the honor code may open the door to litigation. ... [A]thletes of color may consider litigation if statistics indicate that the university has a pattern of disciplining them in a manner different from their white counterparts. Anytime an institution by its practice engages in actions that creates a separate class of people, i.e. student athletes and non-student athletes, Mormons and non-Mormons, whether public or private, they run the risk of being challenged constitutionally. BYU's actions in the Davies case may open that door."

Maybe that's a door that should be opened. BYU has taken some steps to address the obvious imbalance in how minority athletes are treated. For example, the school hired Vernon L. Heperi, a Polynesian man, as dean of students and honor code enforcer. He is the first man of color to occupy the position. But one can only wonder if such changes are merely cosmetic, especially as BYU trots out Davies in street clothes during the NCAA tournament like a mascot for the school's virtue.

To his credit, Davies is sticking it out for now. So is Chambers. BYU took away his scholarship, but he's still enrolled, finishing up classes so he can graduate. He still plans to play football next year. He'll redshirt and walk on. He says he'll move to defense. This is the guy who was labeled a prima donna and a troublemaker and kicked off the team last year for a prank? But Chambers understands. Living under the honor code has already taught him the most important lesson of all.

"I would like it to be fair," he says. "But life is not fair."

Co-author Darron Smith is a black Mormon who taught courses on race and ethnicity in BYUs sociology department from 1998 to 2005, when he was dismissed from the school after writing a book Black and Mormon (University of Illinois Press, 2004) that explained the history and impact of the priesthood ban on black males in the church. He is now an assistant professor at Wichita State in the College of Health Professions and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah's Department of Education, Culture, and Society. He can be contacted at www.darronsmith.com.

Top image by Jim Cooke. O'Neill Chambers photo by The Salt Lake Tribune's Scott Sommerdorf.