For The Love Of Football: Why Do Public Institutions Still Play BYU In Football?
A half century after Lloyd Eaton coached the Wyoming Cowboys football team, he isn’t remembered for his gridiron prowess or ability to win.
Instead, Eaton has become the face of complicity to prejudice.
In October of 1969, Eaton kicked 14 of his African American players off his team after they proposed a silent protest against the next day’s opponent — Brigham Young University — over concerns about the treatment of black members by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates the Utah-based school.
In the wake of the Black 14 incident, university sports programs across the nation were pushed to boycott BYU. Some did so. Others simply ignored the criticism, reasoning that the football field wasn’t the right place to take a stand against racism.
As the 2019 football season begins, the opportunity to stand up to discrimination looms large again, and universities from Oregon to Massachusetts are questioning whether or not the Brigham Young University Cougars need to be on their schedules.
At BYU today, students sign an “honor code,” specifically banning them from acts of physical intimacy with people of the same sex. As a result, LBGTQ students, like Emma Gee, could be kicked out of school for things that heterosexual students don’t have to think twice about, like holding hands in the Quad or sharing a kiss at the campus duck pond.
“It’s just really confusing and obviously creates a lot of fear," said Gee, an openly bisexual cross country and track runner. "Many student athletes here are very prominent in BYU’s culture, so there’s a lot of eyes on them. That is not something they want to worry about, their sexuality being interpreted by different people.”
Although gay marriage has been legal in Utah since 2013, two years before it was federally legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, even students in legally sanctioned same-sex marriages are banned from studying at BYU. Such marriages, the school argues, are “sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family.” Straight students, meanwhile, can marry at will, and they do so in droves. By some estimates, about 25 percent of BYU students are married, about four times the national average.
Given such discriminatory policies, some LGBTQ rights advocates believe other universities should be grappling with the same questions that faced their predecessors after the Black 14 story put the Latter-day Saints Church’s racial prejudice into the national spotlight, 50 years ago.
“It is frankly a tragedy that more institutions aren’t being as proactive as they can or should be on LGBTQ issues,” said Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, an advocacy group for LGBTQ athletes.
Instead, universities across the nation are lining up to do business with BYU. Indeed, a review of dozens of contracts between BYU and the schools it competes against in football shows millions of dollars changing hands between institutions with strict non-discrimination rules and a university that openly and actively discriminates against LGBTQ individuals.
BYU has been an independent football program since 2011, meaning unlike the University of Utah or Utah State University, it is not a part of a conference and has to individually contract with each and every opponent.
Under its standard contracting policies, the University of Utah likely could not hire a janitorial company to clean Rice-Eccles Stadium if that company refused to employ people who are in gay relationships. Schools with similar rules, across the country, couldn’t hire a concessionaire or security firm to staff a football game if that company fired people for getting married to someone of the same sex.
But Utah’s two most prominent universities aren’t the only schools that have looked the other way when it comes to BYU’s treatment of gay students.
For Tom Kleinlein, the athletic director at Georgia Southern University, it’s about the name.
“When we compete against BYU, it’s not an everyday matchup so I think it’s going to help with our brand," he said. "People are going to pay attention to us.”
Kleinlein signed a contract for two games with BYU, in 2021 and 2024, both with $100,000 price tags.
As for BYU’s anti-LGBTQ policies, Kleinlein said: “I never really had an issue with it, I don’t live in a world where I am very judgmental of other people’s policies. There may be policies on both campuses that differ. At the end of the day, that is not to be decided in athletics.”
Mike O’Brien, the athletic director at the University of Toledo, called BYU a “great name.” When asked about BYU’s discrimination, he said: “I am not going down that route. Our relationship with BYU has been one football game and another game this fall.”
O’Brien said the agreements were made a “many, many years ago.” But he is the one who signed the contract, in 2015. When pressed about that decision, O’Brien hung up the phone.
Taylor, the Athlete Ally executive director, said “football, not politics” is a recurrent excuse for not standing up to prejudice.
“I think one of the first things you hear is ‘stick to sports,’" he said. "There is a common response to diminish or ignore how culpable an individual or institution is when it comes to LGBTQ bias, bullying and discrimination.”
Other universities — including Utah and Utah State — refused to answer questions or provide comment on how they balance anti-discrimination rules with their decisions to contract with BYU. Repeated emails and phone calls were ignored or denied.
Not every university official was resistant to introspection, however.
Ryan Bamford, the athletic director at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which has a four-year, $250,000-per-game contract with BYU, said deals like that are “about trying to fill a schedule. We try to get two what we call ‘power five’ teams, so those are usually on the road, one for ones, basically to make money.”
Bamford says he is open to exploring the future of his school’s athletic relationship with BYU.
“It is certainly food for thought, that’s something we have not yet considered, but something we should consider in the future," he said.
That may be easy for UMass; its contract with BYU ends this season. For other schools, getting out of a game could be more complicated, and more costly.
The University of Missouri entered into a “home and home” contract with BYU in 2014. Brigham Young University has already made its trip to Kansas City. Nicholas Joos, Missouri’s deputy athletics director for communications, wouldn’t comment on BYU’s discrimination, but said: “We owe them a game. It would cost us a lot to get out of that game.”
How much is a lot? The cost of breaking up with BYU, as dictated in the terms of most of the contracts, is a million bucks.
Some advocates say that amount may be worth it to stand up to BYU.
“I think any school that recognizes the homophobia that it is, has every right to protest against that. If schools were to choose to do that, it would make sense to me," said Gee, the BYU track athlete. "Any time there are things that are unfair and not right, people need to speak up.”
After the Black 14 protest and subsequent boycotts, Latter-day Saint church president Spencer Kimball said in 1973 that the policy against African Americans holding the priesthood would not change.
Five years later, after reporting that he had received a revelation from God on the matter, Kimball said it was time for the ban to end.
Regardless of whether BYU and Latter-day Saints officials ever hear from heaven on the issue of equality for LGBTQ individuals, it’s clear to Taylor that they need to hear from their fellow humans.
“I think the athletes that we remember the most,” he said, “are the ones that are silent the least.”
This story was written by Carter Moore, Matthew LaPlante and Kat Webb. It was also published in Salt Lake City Weekly, Creative Loafing in Tampa, FL, and Eugene Weekly in Oregon.