NCAA Final-Four hopefuls Brigham Young University (BYU) last week caused sensation by suspending their most effective basketball forward Brandon Davies for failing to comply with the school's honour code. The code, which is based on Mormon beliefs and signed by every student attending the private school, states the student will be honest; chaste; law abiding; use clean language; a regular churchgoer; comply to dress standards; abstain from alcohol, nicotine, coffee and tea; and encourage others in maintaining their commitment to the code. By enforcing their rules, BYU may have derailed their team's chances of holding aloft the NCAA Championship this year. Agree with their decision or not, it's a high price to pay for principle.
But a fair one? Since their decision a week ago, the Cougars have slumped to an 18-point defeat to New Mexico but remain adamant their decision was correct. Under star guard Jimmer Fredette, the Cougars are playing out probably the best basketball season in their history - they're 27-3 - and had won seventeen of their last eighteen encounters before their slip at New Mexico. Davies was a key component of that as he provided interior defence, rebounding and inside scoring to complement Fredette's outside mojo.
The university, owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints, is a big college programme both in football and basketball, with alumni such as quarterback Steve Young, basketballers Shawn Bradley and Danny Ainge, politician Mitt Romney, author Stephanie Meyer and actor Aaron Eckhart. By effectively dismissing their second best player, the college's powers-that-be have decided that the infraction committed by Davies - appparently consensual sex with his girlfriend - was too great to be punished only with probation or a reprimand. A suspension - potentially a long one, given BYU's title chances - was considered the most appropriate penalty; a penalty which also affects the entire team.
Outcry has come from many and varied sources. New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire raged on his Twitter feed, later retracting his statements, while Tim Tebow suggested punishment was justifiable under the terms of the code, but probably harsh. Brandon Davies has understandably remained silent. Media sources seem to acknowledge BYU were well within their rights to take the actions they did and also that, in some ways, it speaks positively, rather than negatively, of the college given their insistence on the importance of character.
That's not to say that Brandon Davies has no, or weak, character but the bare truth is he knew the risks inherent in his actions. On signing the code, he accepted that should he not fulfill his side of the contract he would be penalised no matter how large or small his infraction. His "crime", it seems, is regarded as serious by university bigwigs; it should be thought of as unfortunate and understandable. However, that an act is deemed understandable and unfortunate doesn't mean punishment is undeserved.
Little has been said about the effect on the player under scrutiny. He's obviously a very talented basketballer and his error has been punished, probably severely. Hopefully he will rebound (no pun intended) and be allowed to complete his education at the Utah-based school when his case goes to a tribunal at a later date. In all likelihood, he will come back a wiser man: in life - especially in business - there are consequences for a breach of contract. He understands this now more than ever. And more than most.
As ESPN's Chris Broussard has said, it's refreshing to see a big college program value its principles more highly than it does wins. It's something very rare in college sport these days as evidenced by the number of colleges sanctioned for recruiting infractions. As in amateur sport, college athletes aren't paid but there are creative ways of roaming the grey area between legal and illegal which are exploited by schools. BYU have voluntarily sanctioned their own man for his transgression, allowing us to read their priorities as paramount. This was an in-house matter, not leaked to the press. No-one needed know about it: jeopardising their title chances could wait or be conveniently ignored. Because they chose to address it deftly, BYU should be congratulated even as many alumni begin to cry into their beverages - alcoholic, caffeinated or not - at the prospect of a lost title.