A coalition of national LGBT advocacy groups is urging the Big 12 not to admit BYU as a new member, FOX Sports has learned.
On Monday, Athlete Ally, a non-profit that conducts LGBT awareness campaigns for sports leagues, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, sent a letter to Big 12 administrators detailing what they believe are discriminatory policies by BYU, a religious institution owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the letter addressed to commissioner Bob Bowlsby, the authors write in part: “BYU … actively and openly discriminates against its LGBT students and staff. It provides no protections for LGBT students … Given BYU’s homophobic, biphobic and transphobic policies and practices, BYU should not be rewarded with Big 12 membership.”
The letter is co-signed by 23 other national and regional advocacy groups, including GLAAD and National Organization for Women (NOW). In addition to Bowlsby, the conference’s 10 university presidents, athletic directors and other administrators were expected to be copied.
BYU students and faculty are expected to follow the school’s Honor Code, which includes a section addressing “Homosexual Behavior.” While “same-gender attraction” is not itself an Honor Code violation, taking part in a same-sex relationship is.
“Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code,” it reads. “Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”
Under that definition, an openly gay individual cannot be a BYU coach or athlete unless that person practices chastity. BYU students found to be in violation of the Honor Code can be suspended or dismissed.
“BYU’s policies go against everything the Big 12 stands for,” said Ashland Johnson, director of policy and campaigns for Athlete’s Ally. “Their member schools are very progressive. If they allow BYU into their conference, all of the LGBT student-athletes, coaches and fans who travel to BYU will not have any [discrimination] protections.”
In a statement to FOX Sports Monday, school spokesperson Carri Jenkins said, "BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards. We are very clear and open about our honor code, which all students understand and commit to when they apply for admission. One’s stated sexual orientation is not an issue."
The Big 12 announced last month it had authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to begin contacting interested schools as the league explores possible expansion to 12 or 14 teams. Speculation immediately turned to BYU as one of the leading candidates, though possibly as a football-only member due to concerns over the school’s policy of not participating in athletic contests on Sundays.
Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, UCF and USF are also considered possibilities for the Big 12. Candidates need yes votes from eight of the 10 conference presidents to be invited.
“I am not prepared to make any comments on our process at this time,” Bowlsby said when reached late Monday afternoon.
The Big 12’s handbook includes a Policy on Diversity that reads in part: “It is the obligation of each Member Institution to refrain from discrimination prohibited by federal and state law, and to demonstrate a commitment to fair and equitable treatment of all student-athletes and athletics department personnel.”
A Big 12 spokesperson said Monday the policy applies to LGBT members. He could not confirm whether conference officials had received the letter.
The letter to the Big 12 comes at a time when the issue of LGBT rights is gaining increased awareness across the sports world.
Most notably, the NBA last month pulled its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte due to a recent North Carolina bill that requires transgender individuals to use school and government bathrooms corresponding to their birth certificates. The NCAA, meanwhile, announced in April it would add an LGBT anti-discrimination requirement for its championship events. It recently sent questionnaires to current and potential hosts cities inquiring about county, city and state anti-discrimination laws.
“The Big 12 would be moving backwards in a way from what we’ve seen other leagues and conferences recently do” by inviting BYU, said Johnson. “There’s really no right to be part of these conferences, it’s a privilege, and with that privilege comes responsibility to the fans, athletes and coaches.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby
Last year, the Utah legislature passed an LGBT anti-discrimination act that prohibits housing and employment decisions based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the law exempts religious institutions like BYU, where same-sex married couples are not eligible for university housing.
“The Constitution of the United States guarantees the free exercise of religion. It is a fundamental right and one of America’s first freedoms," Jenkins said in a statement last year responding to the Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage. "In addition, Utah state law recognizes the religious liberty of faith-based institutions, such as BYU, in providing housing and employment.”
During his time at BYU, Samy Galvez, a 2015 graduate, served as president of Understanding Same-Gender Attraction, an unsanctioned student group.
“Of course [BYU] is discriminatory,” said Galvez. “The fact that you’re legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. The policy itself creates a culture where students are afraid to come out. Because if there’s a homophobic student in your class and he misinterprets something you say, he can turn you in, and he has the Honor Code on his side.”
Several openly gay athletes have competed in the Big 12, including Oklahoma pole-vaulter Tanner Williams, who in 2015 became the first Division I athlete to publicly announce his same-sex marriage. Williams, who finished his career this spring, said were he still competing he would refuse to travel to BYU for a conference meet.
“These [LGBT] policies apply to the students there, would they apply to me?” said Williams. “What if I want to hold my husband’s hand? Would they kick me out for that? Would they not let me compete for that? That’s how I would look at it, and I know other athletes would feel the same way, whether they’re gay or allies.”
BYU, formerly a member of the WAC and Mountain West, has been an independent in football since 2011. Most of its other sports compete in the West Coast Conference.
The school has been pushing for several years to join a Power 5 conference and last month formally notified the Big 12 of its interest. Its case for membership includes the fact it enjoys a large national following due in part to allegiance from the Mormon community; a football history includes a national championship (1984) and Heisman Trophy winner (Ty Detmer in 1990); and a 63,470-seat stadium, which would be third largest in the Big 12.
“BYU is known for its academic excellence, and I believe we have an exceptional athletic program,” AD Tom Holmoe said in a statement at the time. “As I’ve stated before, I would like to see our student-athletes compete at the highest level.”
The Big 12 already has two religious universities, Baylor and TCU.
Baylor, a Baptist university, previously had language similar to BYU’s in its sexual misconduct policy. Last year the school removed a specific reference to “homosexual acts” from a list of “Missuses of God’s gift” that could result in disciplinary action. The revised policy does not reference any specific acts, rather that “physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity.”
A Baylor spokesperson said a the time, “These changes were made because we didn’t believe the language reflected Baylor’s caring community.”
However, other language in Baylor’s policy indicates that same-sex marriage could still be construed a violation. The school says its policy “will be interpreted by the University in a manner consistent with the Baptist Faith and Message of 1963,” which defines marriage as the “uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.”
The Big 12 has not announced a timeline for its expansion decisions, though commissioner Bowlsby indicated on a July 19 conference call that the board could hold a vote prior to its next scheduled meeting in October. SportsBusinessJournal reported last week that the league’s TV partners, ESPN and FOX, are “pushing back” against possible expansion. Their contracts include language requiring the networks to pay a pro rata increase for each new member.