Monson: Is religious bias keeping BYU out of a P5 conference?

Former Cougar AD Rondo Fehlberg says it’s anti-Mormon sentiment, but counter arguments blame BYU’s own biases for its current straits<br>

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune LaVell Edwards stadium will be celebrating its 35th anniversary this season since it was renovated in 1982.

You can read the above headline two different ways, with two different meanings.

Fitting, since this is a column with more questions than conclusions.

Please provide your own, at the end.

Former BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg was asked Monday on my radio show why the school and its athletic programs are not currently in a P5 conference. It is the single greatest hardship those programs face, the one that limits BYU’s competitive and economic opportunities as they pertain to sports, presently and looking ahead.

His answer, while suspected by some and whispered in certain corners, when spoken straight out loud for everyone to hear is a swinging tire iron to the forehead.

“There are lots of possible reasons, but … I don’t think it’s very complicated,” he said. “This is no more than good old-fashioned religious discrimination that masquerades as academic snobbery or some sort of enlightened interest that keeps BYU out.”

He continued.

“It’s too bad because BYU needs to be in one of those conferences and deserves to be there. When you get away from the cameras and microphones, everybody agrees. When I was out there trying to get us in the Pac-10 in the mid-90s, you would sit and listen to the athletic directors and the coaches and they could not be more complimentary of BYU. They said BYU puts more people in seats and does more to energize us and our programs than anybody else except our natural rivals, and, in some cases, more than our natural rivals. We hear that all the time.”

OK, let’s back up here.

There are those — you? — who vehemently disagree with Fehlberg, a man who was deep into those talks with the Pac-10 and the Big 12 when he ran BYU sports. On those two counts, he said:

“There is no question, I would have done whatever I could do within the limits of my position to get BYU into the Pac-10. We were very close to being there. I thought it was a done deal. I would love to have us there. And have us part of what is now the Pac-12. That’s water under the bridge. We had one more opportunity that I thought was going to happen when the Big 12 was realigning. It did not happen.”

If the reason it did not happen is, in fact, what Fehlberg said it was, how should fair-minded people — you — react to that? What if it had more to do with other school presidents’ concerns over academic freedom at BYU? Or the university’s stance toward LGBT students?

I’m no constitutional lawyer and cannot speak to the specifics or generalities of the law, and, even if I could, another lawyer might easily find another way to think, a different argument to make, but league affiliations, which schools are included and which are not, which are invited and which are not, are pretty much up to member institutions, right?

Does that mean Pac-12 presidents can blow off schools like BYU, even if their overall athletic programs are comparable to their own, on account of the fact they don’t want to associate with or align themselves with that weird Mormon school, and some of its policies?

Where’s the line between religious freedom and proper societal inclusion?

Could they boldly drop that don’t-want-you-because-of-your-beliefs line if it’s what they really think? Or do they have to couch it in other language about research institutions and academic this and that? Would it be a matter of the law, or just a matter of bad public relations?

If shutting out a Mormon school with a fine competitive tradition, with a national championship, with a Heisman winner, with Outland trophies and a vast list of All-Americans, with great facilities and a large fan base, is OK, would it also be acceptable if it were a Jewish school or a Presbyterian school or a Catholic school that was being stiffed?

Beats me.

That kind of rejection just sort of sounds … complicated. It edges toward exclusion in its own right.

Up until this season, BYU had been playing solid football for the better part of 50 years. It’s not a premier program, but it’s better than more than a few schools already included in P5 leagues. Not sure how many schools could manage a deal with ESPN the way the Cougars have. It’s not massively lucrative, but it is notable, considering the number of P5 members that could not manage a similar stand-alone TV contract.

I do not know if what Rondo Fehlberg said is factual.

He’s a well-connected, intelligent man, obviously a huge BYU fan, who sat in on meetings very few were able to attend. It is not his habit to pull stuff out of his … out of … thin air.

Maybe BYU isn’t in a major conference for other reasons, beyond the religious or the doctrinal or the stigmatized. Maybe there are justifiable ones that have left it in the lurch. Who knows why, in this latest expansion exploration by the Big 12, BYU and every other candidate school was rejected? It is said by those who were there that BYU knocked its presentation to the Big 12 presidents over the fences.

But those fences remained.

Why? Only those on the inside know.

For BYU to ever get in, Fehlberg said, it depends on exterior factors: “The things that have to happen are mostly outside BYU’s control.”

Or are there things BYU could do internally, attitudinally, competitively, without completely reinventing itself to make the school more attractive?

What say you?

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.