BYU: Beyond Your Understanding

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Brigham Young University officials have opined, and Duke University administrators beg to differ. Some clamor for action; others consider it another “Jussie Smollett,” warranting no more than a shrug. Some will consider it a stalemate, while others will call it checkmate. Regardless of the faction chosen, BYU has been here before. 

TONE DEAF 

Somewhere amid my daily endeavors, despite a few decades of existence, I missed the memo by Brigham Young University Athletic Director Tom Holmoe. In short, he implied that if one knows or deems you acceptable, that should shield you from racial epithets from that individual or their ilk. 

I’ll be sure to commit that one into my psyche.

The fact of the matter is that this incident with Rachel Richardson could have occurred on a multitude of collegiate campuses. For the moment, the spotlight is on Provo, Utah. Although it will seemingly oscillate over time, that light has the potential to sear. Yes, BYU, one or a swath of your fans–allegedly–expressed their authentic selves. In short: they showed their a***s in front of “company”! Unfortunately, you have trekked this thoroughfare before; thus, history is merely replicating itself. The emotional injury heaped upon young Ms. Richardson, a visiting Duke volleyball player, was heinous. Nevertheless, it is by no means astonishing. 

What’s more infuriating is that no one–coaches included–decided to intervene at the time when “the rubber was meeting the road.” No aggregate of post-game press conferences, t-shirts, slogans referencing “Togetherness” or “Love One Another”, or company-line speeches (with cue cards) can counterbalance what has materialized. According to Rachel’s Godmother, Lesa Pamplin (via Twitter), “My Goddaughter is the only Black starter for [the Duke] volleyball team. While playing, she allegedly was called a n***er every time she served.” 

Racism in America is often analogous to speeding on the interstate. There are multiple gentries: 

Category A. Those who almost always follow the law (Tantamount to the anti-racist). 

Category B. Those who exceed the speed limit at every opportunity, not by much, and slow down when a trooper is within sight. (Analogous to those convinced that they are not racist but do not socialize with any group not sharing their skin tone, harbor insensitive views, expressing them only among confidants at the “dinner table”–Implicit Prejudice). 

Category C. Those with a willful, blatant, and wanton disregard for the rules because “I’ve gotta be somewhere“ or “I’m entitled to do so.” (One who is intolerant of anything or anyone that isn’t lily-white, itching to express their sentiments, especially when in good numbers–Explicit/Hostile Prejudice).

The fan (or fans) fell into category C. Those within the vicinity–devoid of auditory deficits–were equally indictable for not bringing the behavior to a halt (Category B). 

Silence is acquiescence

Despite studies and petitions at the institution, which have yielded little to no results, the actions taken by South Carolina Women’s Basketball Head Coach Dawn Staley (liquidating previously scheduled home-and-home matchups with BYU) are the tip of the iceberg. Fiscal deductions garner attention. The world is watching this one. There was no social media decades ago. Today, video cameras, ever-present, uncloak much. The righteous students on your campus, these near-homogeneous premises, won’t perjure either. Brigham Young University, you’re on the clock. What you’ve failed to ascertain is that you always have been. 

WYOMING’S ‘BLACK 14’ 

During the late 1960s, BYU was not depicted in a commendatory light. Western Athletic Conference foes loathed the idea of contending with them. 

“In 1969, BYU sports teams and the university faced protests within the old Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Students at opposing conference schools protested BYU whenever the Cougars rolled into a league foe’s home turf. The protests centered around a religious policy with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [LDS]. The church had a rule in place that prevented Black men from entering the temple and receiving the priesthood. [Conversely] the church never had rules against BYU having Black athletes on their athletic teams. From Wyoming’s “Black 14” to Arizona fans dousing their basketball court in gasoline and setting it aflame before a conference game, BYU’s trips within the WAC were suddenly mired in controversy.” [1] 

The Wyoming football team dominated Brigham Young regularly. However, the African-American football players soon wanted nothing to do with their counterparts from Utah. Five days before their scheduled contest in 1969, the Wyoming Black Student Alliance called what would become a landmark caucus. The football players were encouraged to take a stand after being informed of the LDS policy of Brigham Young. Fourteen (14) African-American players wanted to wear black armbands in that game—the purpose: was to protest the priesthood ban on Black Latter-day Saints. As a result of hearing their proposal, head coach Lloyd Eaton kicked all fourteen players off the team. 

The coach voiced his disapproval via a vernacular of slurs. 

“Eaton did not want to hear it. Instead, he criticized and insulted the Black players, saying that they were troublemakers, [and] half of them did not know their [own] fathers.” Then he kicked them off the team. Standout defensive end Tony McGee recalls him saying that [African-American] players “could go back home to live off of ‘colored relief,’ or if they were lucky, maybe they could go play for Morgan [State], Grambling, or some other historically Black college or university.” [2] 

The Wyoming team suffered as a result, losing the final four games of the 1969 season and falling far out of the national rankings. The following season was even worse: a 1-9 record. Many African-American prep athletes began to shun the university. Coach Eaton, however, doubled down. “His stance was publicly supported by the coaching staff, most of the players, most students at Wyoming, and nearly the entire fan base, which spanned the entire state. In a 1982 interview with the Denver Post, Eaton said he had no regrets. ‘Hell no! they were biting the hand that feeds them.’” [2] This form of activism was a concept that Eaton did not understand! 

McGee would indeed transfer to an HBCU, Bishop College. There, he continued to excel. Subsequently, he went on to have a stellar 14-year NFL career, winning a ring in Super Bowl XVII with Washington. 

In hindsight, that national attention to Wyoming’s planned protest forced BYU (slowly) to consider a change. One year later (1970), BYU recruited its first Black player (defensive back Ron Knight). In 1978, the LDS church announced that a complete “’divine revelation’ opened the Mormon priesthood to African-Americans.” [2] 

THE MAN HIMSELF 

But beyond the state of Utah and outside Latter Day Saints circles, questions remain to this day. Who was Brigham Young? 

This man barred those of darker-skinned hues from the LDS priesthood. Young once wrote: “‘They have not the wisdom to act like white men.’ Young adopted an idea from Christianity of the Curse of Ham, a racist interpretation of Genesis 9, which white proponents of slavery in antebellum America used to justify enslaved Black people of African dissent—and applied it liberally and literally. Young also predicted a future in which Chinese and Japanese people immigrated to America. In his opinion, Chinese and Japanese immigrants [should] be governed by white men as they would have no understanding of government.” [3] 

Young declared to “prohibit Blacks from the priesthood” in February of 1852. He discussed it privately as early as 1849. Regarding interracial marriage: he expressed “concern” that it would lead to “widespread sterility.” By most accounts, he was considered a staunch supporter to both white supremacy and chattel slavery! At the time he claimed to speak as a “prophet” and “[therefore] the authority of God.” [4] According to Young, it was a “mark or fault” to possess a “flat nose and Black skin.” In his estimation, any mixing of the races should be punishable by death. 

In 2012, one of the university’s most popular and respected professors (Randy Bott) made some controversial comments to the Washington Post. “Bott, then a BYU professor of religion and among the most popular of the institution’s professors, kicked up a firestorm when he told a Washington Post reporter that it was a ‘blessing’ for Blacks that God had restricted them from full church membership until 1978. Before then, Blacks weren’t ready for the responsibility of the priesthood, Bott said. It’s like a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car. As a result of Bott’s controversial statements, which led to protests at BYU and national media coverage, the church issued an official statement condemning racism in general, but not specifically Bott’s comments.

As for the ‘origins’ of the ban on full Black membership, the church said it was a mystery of faith how it came about. This, despite more than a century of its own prophets declaring as prophecy the church’s official views on the subject. The problem is that the church then, and today, cannot say that the past prophets were wrong to claim authority to speak on God’s behalf without jeopardizing the authority of today’s prophets to do so.” [5] 

More than a handful of individuals still subscribe to those same tenets. Concerning change, Young himself would not understand. 

LITMUS TEST 

Brigham Young University still has a stark problem with diversity. A recent study (February 2021) showed that “students of color at Brigham Young University often feel isolated and unsafe [due to] their experiences with racism at BYU. As the campus is predominantly white, there’s a critical need for leaders to make changes, urges a new report from a faculty committee [at BYU].” [6] 

The 64-page report notes that “there’s no place where students can file a [discrimination complaint], even as some experience racist comments daily. There are [very little staff] of color, including just one ‘minority’ faculty member in all of the school’s administration. And a few of the most prominent buildings feature the names of slaveholders. Several students also said that the lack of representation spurred racism, with white students exhibiting ignorance. After all, they are rarely exposed to other cultures. Also, [the consensus is that] some white students act hostile because they feel emboldened. One student in the Black Student Union said a white classmate repeated the N-word several times during a discussion, and no one stopped him. ‘I don’t feel safe,’ she told the committee.” [6] 

Another student quipped: “I got baptized in racism when I came to BYU.” [6]

The study emerged from a petition by students from the global majority and contained over 18,000 signatures. BYU’s student population is over 81% white. 

Admittedly, until I was in middle school, I knew of Brigham Young University only because of Danny Ainge (NBA/MLB), Craig Raymond (ABA), and Ken Patera (Olympics/WWE). As a member of the Armed Forces stationed primarily in Hawaii, I became more familiar with BYU’s branch on the island of Oahu. The more I ascertained, the greater my desire waxed to stay as far away as possible from the institution. 

In the days after the incident occurred, many conspiracy theorists took to the offensive. A few pundits and journalists either implied–or stated directly–that the entire thing was a hoax. Writer Mike Freeman pulled no punches with his rebuttal in USA Today. “My email inbox has been overwhelmed with this conspiracy theory. It’s grown across social media. The right-wing has spent extensive time promoting it.” [7] 

Freeman continued, “In many ways, this story is about race and how Black people have to constantly prove we’re not criminals or liars. That we don’t commit mass voter fraud. Or that we get jobs only because of affirmative action. We have to prove, as Richardson does, that we heard what we heard. That we saw what we saw. My guess is that BYU will clear BYU of wrongdoing. They will bury this story because they have a vested interest in it not being true.” [7] 

While pleading for patience during their investigation, BYU officials released a statement shortly after the event. “From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event,” BYU said. “As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe. That is the reason for our immediate response and our thorough investigation. As a result of our investigation, we have lifted the ban on the fan who was identified as having uttered racial slurs during the match. We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity. BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.” [8]

Duke University stands behind its student-athletes, who have faced an avalanche of criticism in the aftermath. Duke athletic director Nina King responded adamantly in an official statement. “The 18 members of the Duke University volleyball team are exceptionally strong women who represent themselves, their families, and Duke University with the utmost integrity. We unequivocally stand with and champion them, especially when their character is called into question. Duke Athletics believes in respect, equality, and inclusiveness, and we do not tolerate hate and bias,” King stated [8] 

“The Black Menaces,” a group of five Black BYU students ain’t havin’ it! They expose many of the day-to-day issues regarding race at the university via TikTok. Launched earlier this year, their objective is to “highlight the reality here for people like us.” The quintet has garnered over 700,000 followers and nearly 30 million likes on its videos, during which they ask fellow BYU students pointed questions. Furthermore, they intend to “make their fellow students confront their biases [and perhaps] learn from them.” [9] They strive to confront marginalization and create change! 

There will also be capitalistic consequences. Concerns of students from the global majority who have entered this inhospitable territory for higher education have often been dismayed and dismissed. Top student-athletes will ultimately drop institutions like this from consideration. Allies with a conscience are present, however. Brigham Young University is not alone; like one who constantly speeds, they inevitably get exposed. The stances stemming from their beliefs at their core may never change. The on-campus dilemmas are genuine, whether one believes Ms. Richardson or not. Unfortunately, so is the denial. 

If one is disinclined to concede that, then perhaps it’s all just beyond your understanding

Words by Dr. Eric Hawkins (“Dr. Hawk”) 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

(1) Harper, Mitch. “Looking Back At The Career of BYU’s First Black Football Player.” KSL Sports. June 19, 2021

(2) Fletcher, Michael. “Tony McGee Got Kicked Out of Wyoming With the Black 14, But Still Made It To The Super Bowl.” The Undefeated. February 25, 2018 

(3) Bringhurst, Newell. “An Ambiguous Decision: The Implementation of Priesthood Denial For the Black Man.” Personalities, Problems, & Perspectives. (WINTER 1978). Pp. 45-64. University of Illinois Press. 

(4) B.H. Roberts Foundation. “Black Saints & The Priesthood.” Mormonr. (mormonr.org). 

(5) Horowitz, Jason. “The Genesis of a Church’s Stand On Race.” The Washington Post. February 28, 2012 

(6) Tanner, Courtney. “BYU Released A Report Saying Students of Color Feel ‘Isolated And Unsafe’ Due To Racism On Campus.” The Salt Lake Tribune. February 27, 2021 

(7) Freeman, Mike. “Right-Wing ConspiracyTheory Involving Duke Volleyball Player Is Absurd.” The USA Today. September 7, 2022 

(8) Rittenberg, Adam. “BYU Says It Found No Corroborating Evidence Of Racial Heckling Toward Duke Women’s Volleyball Player.” ESPN. September 9, 2022 

(9) Grossman, Carolina. “The Black Menaces Are Starting A Revolution On College Campuses.” Elite Daily. September 9, 2022

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