BYU is stuck in a hard spot, a hard spot of its own making.
And Margin Hooks knows it.
The former Cougar wide receiver, who ranks fifth — with 189 catches, 2,841 yards — on BYU’s all-time receptions and receiving-yards list, loves the school for which he played from 1996 to 2000, loves it so much he’s called for it to change the way it approaches and treats some of its athletes, athletes of different backgrounds and ethnicities, particularly African-Americans not steeped in the Mormon tradition.
Many of those athletes, such as Hooks himself, arrive in Provo in culture-shock mode, having to rapidly adapt to the LDS Church-owned university’s overall environment, its idiosyncrasies, its behavioral code.
“I didn’t even know what BYU was,” he says.
Officials and coaches at the school have repeatedly said they want their teams to be inclusive, to be diverse, to benefit from the presence of all kinds of athletes.
Which is to say, they want to win.
The advantages gained by inclusion of an array of players, from a variety of races, cultures, religions and backgrounds, goes far beyond the win-loss record. Anyone or any group who doesn’t grasp that obvious truth should pry open their minds enough to let a little light shine in.
If BYU went on fielding teams — and filling out a student population — with a kind of monolithic mass, all of which had the frame of reference of the Orem 16th Ward and the freshly scrubbed look of a 1970’s Osmond family reunion, the school would miss out on so many of the deeply rich benefits that come via sharing proximity and learning possibilities with people from myriad ethnicities and attitudes.
Hooks, who is a black Baptist from Texas who now spends a good deal of his time coaching and teaching young athletes, and who recently participated in a football camp here in Utah, is a great example of a man from whom the BYU experience can be expanded.
He wasn’t perfect in Provo. He didn’t earn any LDS Duty to God awards and had no desire to do so. His definition of religion was different than the version espoused at BYU. He once met Mormon prophet Gordon Hinckley, who approached him and shook his hand, all while Hooks had no clue who the older gentleman was. But he was a conscientious student, was God-fearing, was a great athlete, and, over time, he bumped and skidded his way through.
He says when he was in class, he didn’t talk all that much, but whenever he did, everyone listened. Why?
“Because what I said came from a different perspective. It came from outside those mountains, from something totally different.”
It was obvious to all present, he says, that “the battles I had to fight were different.”
In that way, whatever enlightenment Hooks was taking from BYU, he likely was giving just as much of it back. Enlightenment that needs to be shared at the school.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d go to BYU,” he says. But he wouldn’t suggest it for some athletes.
Even back when Hooks was racking up all those catches and yards for the school’s team, he spoke out about issues concerning student-athletes such as himself — from a different place, from a different religion, from a different race.
He dialed in specifically on the school’s honor code, and the way it was administered, at times, at least in his estimation too harshly.
“Teach, help, and forgive,” he said when he was a senior. “Don’t punish people by kicking them out.”
His opinion hasn’t changed.
Now, he says he, as a black non-Mormon, was recruited by BYU “to play football and to get an education. But the type of environment was something I had to adjust to. … In Provo, everyone wanted to know what you were doing, why you were doing it. Sometimes, I wanted to go someplace where I could hide.”
He says he applauds BYU’s attempt to connect with players from diverse backgrounds, an ongoing process that has made some inroads. But patience and tolerance need to be extended:
“You have to have the right pieces there for the guys who aren’t Mormon and you’ve got to help them out. You can’t bring them in and hold them to the same standard as a kid that’s been in the Mormon religion his whole life. … You have to have some people there to help those kids flourish. We don’t understand how it works. You know there are rules, an honor code, but in the regular world [those things are] not even a misdemeanor. At BYU, you might have a mugshot for something that isn’t even a crime … for a mistake that really only God can judge you for.”
Hooks makes a strong point, although maneuvering the school’s standard or the application of its consequences would create sticky complications. That already happens in some cases. A better alternative would be to have the honor code be for everyone exactly what its name implies — a code based on honor. Do not eliminate the desired standard — champion the adherence to it all the day long — just leave reporting of the falling short of it up to the individual, according to his own conscience.
That’s the way religion should work, especially among adults. Religion should treat BYU students like the adults they are.
Listen to the man from outside the mountains: “Teach, help, forgive. Don’t punish.”
He adds: “Sometimes your misdeeds are punishment enough.”
Even if that were the way the honor code was consistently handled, Hooks says he would be — and is — selective about advising high school athletes to go to Provo to play: “I handpick the kids I push toward BYU who can handle the environment. Everyone can’t. It’s not for everyone.”
While his BYU experience wasn’t perfect, Hooks says that “alien environment” was good enough for him. He wants BYU, for its own good, to reach out to diverse kinds of kids, to work with them: “You look at the top players and what do you see? A lot of them look like me.”
As Hooks reflects on his time at BYU fondly, remembering the friendships, the games, the camaraderie, the learning, from his home base in Texas, he enjoys telling people around him exactly where he prospered on the field and in the classroom.
“I love that I can say I graduated from BYU,” he says. “Especially being an African-American.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.