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Few stories are more irresistible than a tale of redemption. It extends an open hand, invites us in, stirs our emotions, makes us believe there is hope for everybody, including … our own sorry selves.
That’s the saga Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Benedict wrote recently about BYU linebacker Spencer Hadley, infamously suspended for partying in Las Vegas and breaking the school’s honor code. Invited by Bronco Mendenhall to ride along on the bus a week ago Friday from the team’s hotel to a local prison, where coaches and players spoke to inmates, Benedict chronicled how Hadley, though hesitant to do so, was encouraged to make the appearance with his teammates. And that when Mendenhall was speaking to the prisoners, someone in the crowd shouted, "Put Hadley in."
Hadley was then given an opportunity to stand and talk about mistakes made and lessons learned, about forgiveness and second chances, about the lost being found and no one being beyond redemption’s reach. The prisoners rose up and applauded, tears were shed, and Mendenhall hugged Hadley when he finished speaking. One bystander told the linebacker he had given the inmates a tender gift.
Yeah. That’s good stuff. We all can relate to that, at some level.
Benedict wrote the story shining a positive light on all involved — the school, the honor code, and the penitent player.
But there’s a serious snag here.
The story isn’t the problem. It’s the story behind the story.
Let’s back up to the way BYU handled Hadley’s punishment in the first place, shaped coverage in the aftermath, and then take it step by step from there.
School spokesperson Carri Jenkins announced the five-game suspension last week and that Hadley had, in fact, broken the honor code. Question: Why would a school that claims to have the best interests of its students in mind make such an announcement? Why wouldn’t it simply say the student-athlete broke team rules and leave it at that? Issuing a statement that Hadley had run afoul of the honor code makes his personal transgression public in too specific a manner.
It takes no brain surgeon to whittle down the possibilities when a player, a suspension and the honor code are officially linked by a university spokesperson. Doing so makes the penalty much more punitive than it should be. It etches an erstwhile scarlet letter onto the offender’s forehead. When a regular student is disciplined, it stays relatively quiet. When a high-profile athlete is reprimanded, people coast to coast and beyond know about it. People who shouldn’t know about it know about it. Everybody knows a moral misdeed was perpetrated.
Applying a concrete, letter-of-the-law consequence for spiritual imperfection, and then issuing a public confirmation, sounds more like the antiquated Law of Moses than a modern Christian law of love and understanding, regardless of whether the punished has lived and learned or not.
Hard-liners argue that all students at BYU sign — and commit to — a contract to follow the code, so it’s their own deal, their own fault when they break it. They get what they deserve. But we’re talking about human beings who, like even those in supposed good standing, make mistakes, especially as it relates to a strict religious standard many Mormons find difficult to adhere to with exactness.
Ironic — isn’t it? — that the honor code isn’t enforced via the honor system. Shouldn’t it be applied and administered the same way boundaries/strictures/rules in the greater LDS Church are applied and administered? Nobody gets suspended from attending Sunday services for five weeks for partying in Vegas.
Next, BYU, a notoriously uncooperative outfit when it comes to the media, gives one writer access to Hadley and the team bus and the prison visit that no other writer is given. That writer subsequently admits he promised some of those involved that he would not "embarrass" them, which is a bad promise for any journalist to make. He might promise he would treat them fairly, but to promise not to embarrass anybody, even if he runs across something embarrassing, is irresponsible.
The whole setup smacks of a public-relations bonanza.
BYU champions its behavioral standard, announcing to the world it has suspended a star linebacker for falling short, then stiffs beat writers, guys who report and write the facts about the football program day-to-day, who ask direct questions and want straight answers about the who, what, why, when, where and how of the story. They seek the truth. And BYU grants exclusive access to a writer who makes promises, a writer who authors a story for Sports Illustrated and wraps the feature and the code that created the issue in pretty packaging, with a bow atop it.
That stretches good public relations for the school out of exploitation of a student-athlete who never should have been outed by the school in the first place, happy ending or no. Doesn’t anyone wonder why Hadley couldn’t have handled his mistakes privately with his ecclesiastical leader, just the way millions of Mormons around the world handle their indiscretions, without the school jumping into the fray? Doesn’t anyone wonder why Hadley isn’t allowed to represent the school on the football field but he is encouraged to represent the school at an engagement that a national writer happens to be witnessing and, as it turns out, chronicling? Doesn’t anyone see any of that as self-serving and hypocritical?
Using a student-athlete to glorify a school’s standards, to make those standards look grander and loftier in public this way, is shrewd, manipulative and wrong. What happens to the student-athletes who are publicly punished for not meeting the standard and then, shamed and compromised, fall by the wayside? Do we hear about those cases?
BYU is a great school that does a whole lot of good. It’s a first-rate institution that’s better than this. It will do its business its own way. It’s a private school. It can do whatever it wants. It can bang the drum and make the monkey dance for national attention, if it is so inclined.
But that doesn’t make this the ideal way, or a better way. It just makes it BYU’s way — at present. Dissenters can go ahead and quite faithfully believe it’s preferable for a religious institution and its football team to allow transgressors and church leaders to handle private matters of an intensely personal nature in private, between the sinner, his bishop and his God.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.
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