BYU in the Big 12

During my early years as a journalist at the State Capitol, legislators proposed a constitutional amendment recognizing marriage as a union of only one man and one woman.

As our elected officials (in their infinite wisdom) rushed to pass judgment upon those who have lifestyles different than their own, one moment stood out to me. Former Sen. Bernest Cain, a Democrat representing midtown Oklahoma City, attempted to filibuster a vote in the Senate, and one of his statements stood out among all of the other rhetoric.

Cain compared the action of preventing same-sex marriages to the other discriminatory acts of America’s past. He said history would reflect on these types of proposals the same way we look back on those who supported slavery and segregation throughout our nation’s existence: with disdain, disbelief and disgust.

Oklahoma embarrassingly went on to adopt the ban against same-sex marriages, partly on a misinterpreted Christian-based premise that God would somehow encourage his people to single out individuals and treat them as less than others. Fortunately, America as a whole had a less short-sighted viewpoint on how to treat others, and these types of marriage inequality laws have been getting overturned in every state.

Which leads us to Brigham Young University, the Mormon institution of higher learning located in Utah.

Earlier this month, a group of 25 organizations encouraged the Big 12 conference to remove BYU from a list of schools being considered for membership. The groups sent a letter to the Big 12 that focused on BYU’s policy of discrimination against the homosexual community.

With the Big 12 looking to add as many as four teams to the 10-team conference, BYU has consistently been at the top of the list of those schools owing to its high profile and football prowess. While the Big 12 has remained silent on the issue, BYU responded to the letter condemning its homophobia the way you would expect them to — denying that anything was wrong.

In a statement through spokeswoman Carri Jenkins, the school said:

BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards. We are very clear and open about our honor code, which all students understand and commit to when they apply for admission. One’s stated sexual orientation is not an issue.

Unfortunately for BYU, the words issued through its spokesman don’t quite match up with the words printed in its honor code. Somehow, dishonorably, the university adopted a policy that actually promotes discrimination against a specific group of people. The honor code prevents homosexual behavior, defining it as “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” In other words, if someone exhibits even a hint of homosexuality, BYU reserves the right to expel that student.

Ironically, it is BYU’s policy of exclusion that may prevent inclusion into the Big 12 conference. While the conference itself has been mum on the issue, the request from groups that included Athlete Ally, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Organization of Women is something Big 12 officials will have to consider as they review teams for expansion.

‘The Big 12 has to get this one right’

The realities of what has happened and where the nation’s mindset currently sits should make this a relatively easy decision for the Big 12. Especially after what took place at Baylor, the Big 12 has to get this one right. Yes, BYU’s athletics are probably the most attractive among the teams being considered, but that should be secondary when it comes to knowing what the conference would potentially bring on board.

The obvious problem is that, since the letter was sent, BYU has doubled down on its defiance. The university is studying Title IX regulations, which forbid sex discrimination in every “education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Reports are also coming out that sexual assault victims at BYU were not only failing to get help from administrators but were instead being treated as criminals.

Compared to what is taking place at BYU, the actions at Baylor don’t seem quite as bad. And while Baylor’s honor code is similar to the one at BYU, the language directed at sexual orientation was removed last year. Yes, you read that right. Even the university that has gained a reputation for being a haven for criminal behavior knew it was wrong to have policies in place that encouraged discrimination against members of the same-sex community.

A hard lesson

It’s going to be an interesting process as Big 12 officials look at teams like Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati and Colorado State as possible additions to the conference. BYU, however, is going to have to learn a hard lesson. If they want to be included as a member of the conference, they should have to abide by society’s rules that don’t put up with sexual-orientation discrimination.

And if BYU isn’t willing to catch up with the times, the Big 12 should just look elsewhere and give a share of its growing revenue to schools that don’t turn their backs on students.

Everyone deserves better than what BYU is doing, and the Big 12 shouldn’t endorse behaviors that go against everything we are taught about loving one another as equals.

(Update: This piece was updated at 12:40 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24, to clarify a link to BYU’s ongoing actions regarding Title IX.)