When BYU retired Luke Staley’s No. 6 in September 2017, the greatest running back the school has ever seen, a first-team All-American and Doak Walker Award winner, was thrilled.
“This is something that I never imagined,” he said back then. “It’s a total honor for me.”
It is a total honor for him no more.
It is an abridged honor, an honor with an asterisk.
It’s an honor he’s considering turning away from.
Staley has had his fill of the way BYU enforces its Honor Code, the way it takes religion and hammers students over the head with it, creating an environment of fear for those who are less-than perfect in following the code.
“That’s not what religion should be,” he says. “It’s not what it should do.”
Staley has no issue with the Honor Code itself. He understands BYU is a private religious school with its own standards.
But he is troubled by the sometimes harsh enforcement and he’s disturbed by the school’s encouragement for students to rat one another out and for ecclesiastical leaders to report student confessions to the Honor Code Office for further review. He’s bothered, so much that, in his quiet moments, he wonders whether it’s more important, more useful, for him to have his name and his retired number taken off the stadium where he rushed for so many yards, where he caught so many passes, where he won so many games.
He’s firing off no threats, declarations or demands, just looking for an earnest way to draw attention to a significant cause.
“When I grew up, all I wanted to do was play on that field in college,” he says. “I still get goose bumps when I see my name and number up at the stadium. I want to make it clear that I love BYU. But now I wonder if there’s more value for me to take down my name to raise awareness for how BYU is handling these issues. I feel that strongly about it.”
BYU’s Honor Code is a set of strictures that prohibits, among other things, premarital sex, all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings, the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs, the drinking of coffee and tea, and includes a grooming standard that disallows long hair and beards for men and certain styling and fashion choices for women.
Staley says he never had a problem complying with the Honor Code himself, never had any run-ins with the Honor Code Office, when he was playing at BYU. The only thing he broke was records on the field from 1999 to 2001. During his junior season, Staley rushed for 1,582 yards and scored a total of 28 touchdowns on one of the Cougars’ best-ever offenses. He was named the nation’s top running back, having led BYU to a 12-0 record before fracturing an ankle, and missing the final two games, both of which the Cougars lost. He subsequently entered the NFL draft.
But in the years since he left the school, especially in the most recent ones, upon reflection, he does have a significant problem with the effect the way the Honor Code is enforced has on students there.
“I don’t think it’s right,” he says. “Religion should be there to help people, not to punish them. These are young people who are trying to find their way in life, and sometimes they make mistakes, they don’t always follow the code. There should be some consequences, I get it, a means to help those students, but that doesn’t mean it’s in their best interests to suspend them or kick them out. They should be allowed to learn from their mistakes, according to their beliefs, maybe with a bishop or somebody else in private. The means the Honor Code Office uses to uncover those mistakes is over the top. To have an administrative arm step in and add an extra layer of penalty is, in my mind, not acceptable.”
Staley is concerned with the short- and long-term adverse effects the code’s harsh enforcement has on students who are believers, but who are also human.
“Some of them postpone correcting the mistakes they believe they’ve made with church leaders until after they graduate because they’re afraid, if the Honor Code Office finds out, they’ll face severe consequences by coming forward before,” he says. “Any system that does that should be reformed.”
Staley has taken notice of public comments made by former BYU athletes and students seeking change, as well as recent protests at the school by those who disagree with the methods used in the Honor Code’s enforcement. He has cheered them on, with the hope they will be heard and will affect that change.
But he’s uncertain and skeptical that anyone in power at BYU will listen.
Former BYU coach LaVell Edwards "was a caring, religious person, a confident mentor who did it the right way. He gave second- and third-chances for [players] to make their situations right. He helped so many players, without sending them to the Honor Code Office to face punishment. I would argue that they are better off now as complete people than they would have been had they been suspended or thrown out.”
— BYU football great Luke Staley
The former running back suspects the Honor Code, as presently enforced, has more to do with control over students than it does extending authentic assistance to them.
“Outside of extreme cases, it should be a guideline for good living, not an iron-fisted policy,” he says.
Staley was inducted into BYU’s Hall of Fame in 2015. He had his number retired, along with Robbie Bosco’s and Marc Wilson’s, each of whom wore the number 6. His name is scripted out with the other honorees on the interior of LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Edwards was Staley’s coach, a man who he says knew how to handle his players and his players’ troubles with love and compassion and wisdom and encouragement.
“When his guys had some kind of problems, LaVell guided them along,” Staley says. “He met in his office with them, closing the door, and privately counseling them. He was a caring, religious person, a confident mentor who did it the right way. He gave second- and third-chances for them to make their situations right. He helped so many players, without sending them to the Honor Code Office to face punishment. I would argue that they are better off now as complete people than they would have been had they been suspended or thrown out.”
As much satisfaction as Staley feels at seeing his name on LaVell’s Stadium — he went there the other day to look around and search the breadth and depth of his commitment to his call for change, as much as he roots for the football program’s success, given the methods and measures by which BYU chooses to enforce its behavioral code, he now thinks it might be better, it might have more impact, if his name were removed.
“I loved my years there, accomplishing childhood dreams,” he says. “But I get sick hearing all these stories of students, employees and others afflicted by the way the Honor Code Office punishes and hurts them. BYU should be a place of love, of faith, of personal growth, not fear.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.