Sunday, March 06, 2011

Integrity of the Game

It has become painfully obvious that amateur collegiate athletics are as much about money as their pro counterparts. Although it took years to conclude, the NCAA finally did strip USC of one of their championships and Reggie Bush gave up his Heisman Trophy because his family moved into a house paid for by a prospective agent. The mother of LeBron James, perhaps knowing he wouldn't play a bounce of college ball, drove away from his high school championship in a brand new tricked-out Hummer. Cam Newton's dad shopped his son around to the school that would pay the most, yet somehow Cam came out scot free with a Heisman Trophy of his own. (Funny that character is supposed to be one of the requirements for the trophy) Even if the NCAA determined he was clear (they didn't, the case is still open) I'm not sure how he explains away the stolen computer found during the FBI's investigation. Also during the last football season several players from the Ohio State University were busted selling championship rings and other memorabilia on eBay. They were going to be suspended for their Sugar Bowl game, but a prominent booster and the school president were able to convince the NCAA to wait until next season to implement the suspensions.

In this cesspool, Brigham Young University, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (you know, the Mormons), broke away from its affiliated conference to play football as an independent. The rationale given at the time (and the story has since changed) was that they better serve an evangelistic purpose as an independent, able to reach out to a national (and international with BYU-TV) audience.

For basketball they will align themselves with other private religious schools in the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga, St Mary's, et al). But this season they continue to play in the Mountain West. In fact they played themselves to a #3 national ranking, boasting potential Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette, and controlled their own destiny to secure a number-one seed in the NCAA Tournament.

They controlled their own destiny. And they also control their message. They showed this week that the message is more important than the money. A team earns "credits" for each game they play in the tournament that pays out over five years. It is also distributed amongst their conference-mates. There's also the free publicity of being a "Cinderella". A study commissioned by George Mason after their improbable Final Four run concluded that they earned 650 million dollars worth of free pub. In this economic backdrop, BYU did the unthinkable. They suspended their third leading scorer, and number one big-man, for the remainder of the season. His transgression? Not for possession of drugs or some other high crime, but rather for having consensual pre-marital sex. As some have put it, he was suspended from the team for being a typical 19 year old.

But BYU is anything but typical. They are a religious school with a strict honor code. Pre-marital sex is a violation of said code. It is cut and dry and everyone knows what the expectations are when they sign on the dotted line. It would have been easy to sweep this under the rug, win a couple of more games, go into March Madness as a #1 seed and National Championship contender, raking in millions of dollars in the process. Any other school likely would've done just that. But sometimes, morality is more important than money. And examples are more important than fan expectations.

Whatever you think about the Mormon religion, or even the culture at BYU, as Christians we have to respect this decision. As one fan put it, "As a basketball fan I think this is the dumbest move ever. But I just found the college for my daughter."

Respect the decision or think it's a sin?

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