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.
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.
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.
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.
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