Former BYU athletes call for change in how the school enforces its Honor Code

(Lynn R. Johnson | Tribune file photo) BYU football player Derik Stevenson is shown in his apartment complex gym in August 1997. Stevenson played for the Cougars from 1995-98.

Derik Stevenson knew he needed help. The pain pills he began taking after a football injury at Brigham Young University had become an addiction.

But he was scared, stopped by the embarrassment he’d feel as an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and as the starting linebacker at the church-owned university.

And he was scared of the school’s Honor Code Office, he now says, one of several former BYU athletes taking to social media in recent weeks to call for changes in how the office treats students. They generally support BYU having the Honor Code, several said, but they want the university to focus on helping rather than punishing students.

Stevenson, who played football at the university in the late 1990s, had already been forced out of BYU for firing a gun into the air during a fight. He had felt then that the university and its Honor Code Office were more concerned about the school’s reputation than his side of the story, he said in an interview.

So once he was back at BYU, Stevenson tried to fight his addiction alone — keeping his secret as he finished his football career there and for years after.

“I started getting paranoid about trying to get help,” he said, “to open up to somebody to get well and still be able to maintain my starting position as a linebacker at BYU. I didn’t want to throw away everything I had worked my entire life for up to that point.”

The Honor Code is a set of administrative rules that forbids alcohol, drugs and coffee, restricts contact between male and female students, imposes a strict dress code and a curfew, and bans expression of romantic affection between people of the same gender.

BYU officials on Monday declined to comment for this story, but have defended the Honor Code as upholding the school’s and the faith’s values.

Stevenson noted the irony that he could not attend BYU for much of 1997 because his arrest had violated the code, but he was still allowed to go to church and to a Latter-day Saint temple — a place where only church members in good standing can enter.

“Even that week that I was kicked out of BYU, I went with my bishop and worshipped in the temple and did all those things,” he recalled. “For me to be allowed to do that for eight months but not be a BYU student at the same time is weird.”

Stevenson shared his struggles with drug addiction on Twitter over the weekend as he called for the university to change how it enforces the code, suggesting amnesty from discipline for those who self-report violations and seek help.

In 2016, BYU announced it would start giving amnesty to students and witnesses who report sexual assaults, for violations that occurred at the time of the assault. The change was made after students began coming forward saying they had been punished by the Honor Code Office after reporting being sexually assaulted.

Other former student athletes also have expressed frustration with the way the school has handled investigations into student misconduct. They have been responding for nearly two weeks to a Feb. 28 article in The Salt Lake Tribune that detailed how state investigators found that a former BYU police lieutenant looked at private reports created by other Utah County law enforcement agencies and passed information to university officials — including those working in the Honor Code Office.

Former BYU running back and linebacker Michael Alisa retweeted the Tribune article and posted, “All in favor of BYU’s honor code office giving it a rest” with an emoji of a man raising his right arm. When church members sustain church action, they raise their right arms to show support.

“I’m amazed by how many former BYU students (including those from BYU Idaho & BYU Hawaii) are reaching out to me to tell me about their experiences with the Honor Code Office),” Alisa wrote online. “… I’ve witnessed similar scenarios.”

In an interview, he said he supports BYU having an Honor Code — but wants to see it enforced differently.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Mike Alisa is shown in 2012 at BYU's indoor practice facility.

“I love BYU, what it represents, the idea of what it could be. That includes the Honor Code," he said. “For BYU to be that kind of special place, where students and athletes can live and grow, the Honor Code should be that — a code of honor that allows people to make mistakes, learn and progress without the fear of getting kicked out.

“When the Honor Code is too punitive, it’s not Christian,” Alisa added. "... If a mistake is made, let students work with their ecclesiastical leader — a Mormon bishop, a pastor, a priest — to get through it. The idea shouldn’t be guilt and fear. It should be love and progression.”

Other athletes retweeted the article and added their own commentary.

Most notably, former BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a star on the New England Patriots’ recent Super Bowl championship team, singled out BYU administrator Vernon L. Heperi, who was associate student life vice president and dean of students when Van Noy attended BYU from 2010-13. Heperi is now assistant to the president for student success and inclusion.

“Vern!! Hope you see this and get fired!!” Van Noy tweeted with a link to the Tribune story. “You['re] a fraud on so many levels.”

He did not elaborate online and declined to comment Monday.

Van Noy has remained close friends with former BYU basketball star Brandon Davies, whose Honor Code case made national headlines in March 2011. Davies was kicked off the school’s basketball team, which also featured national player of the year Jimmer Fredette, a week before the team entered the NCAA Tournament as one of the favorites.

Davies, who is playing professional basketball overseas, had not responded to the Twitter statements as of midday Monday. Davies’ wife recently gave birth to the couple’s second daughter.

BYU defended its Honor Code after suspending Davies, saying it “aligns with the core principles and mission of the university" and the church.

Most recently, former rugby and football player Jonny Linehan weighed in, saying the “Honor Code is good in theory,” but he relayed how he was “getting told off” for posting a picture of himself with facial hair while on vacation in New Zealand over Christmas break.

Former BYU receiver Cody Hoffman (2010-13), the school’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, added this comment in a tweet: “Can’t really say anything other than this is a damn shame. ... something needs to change.”

Stevenson told The Tribune on Monday that he hopes sharing his story about his struggles with hiding an addiction can help start a dialogue about whether the Honor Code needs to be updated or changed.

It took a divorce and losing custody of his children six years ago, Stevenson said, to push him to get the help he knew he’d needed since his days on the BYU football field.

He still loves BYU, he said, and doesn’t think the Honor Code should be abandoned. As a Latter-day Saint growing up in Southern California, he said, the Honor Code was what drew him to BYU in the first place.

But he wants the Honor Code Office to move away from punishing students to helping them overcome their struggles — especially for students who self-report and are seeking help.

“They should be given immunity,” he said of those students. “Like when we go to God, he forgives us the moment we do that. For a school that preaches that’s what they want us to do in our lives, they need to be more like that instead of being punitive.”

Gordon Monson contributed to this report.