Why LGBT Rights at BYU Matter in Big 12 Expansion (Whether You Agree or Not)

Virginia v BYU

To be upfront: I’m a 100% unequivocal supporter of LGBT rights, including but not limited to marriage equality and transgender equality along with all measures to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ll leave it at that.

I know that I have many readers and Twitter followers that agree with me and many others that don’t agree with me at all. Ultimately, though, the personal viewpoints of me or you on LGBT rights don’t really matter when it comes to conference realignment… unless you’re the president of a Big 12 university. Remember my mantra from nearly 7 years ago when it comes to conference expansion: “Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.” As the Big 12 has received a letter from Athlete Ally and a coalition of LGBT groups objecting to BYU’s candidacy for the conference, LGBT issues have come to the forefront of conference realignment discussions. Whether people personally believe that these issues should be irrelevant to Big 12 expansion is, well, irrelevant. They are inherently relevant because they are the types of issues that matter to university presidents. There are few institutions in America where LGBT rights are deemed to be as critical as they are in academia. Fans can state all that they want that LGBT issues shouldn’t matter in conference realignment just as they have complained in the past that academic rankings, TV markets and cable households shouldn’t matter, either, but the reality is simply different.

For instance, I know that the Pac-12 would never invite BYU based on LGBT issues in large part. There are significant scars from the LDS financial support of Proposition 8 in California several years ago that the West Coast schools won’t get over at any point soon (if ever). Whenever I have been asked about the prospect of BYU ever being invited by the Pac-12 (and I’ve been asked many times over many years at this point), my instant reaction is “NFW” and it’s largely tied to this issue specifically (more than just a general aversion to religious schools). It doesn’t matter how much money BYU could make for the Pac-12: all of the Pac-12 schools (not just the California-based ones) are in unison here.

As you can see from my own comments from the past couple of weeks, I had been skeptical that the Big 12 would think the same way because of how they had allowed for Baylor to have its own discriminatory practices against the LGBT community up until last year. I just didn’t think the Big 12 schools would necessarily make this into a bright line issue. The more that I think about it, though, I seriously underestimated it (and like I’ve said, I’m as big of a LGBT rights advocate as you’ll find). If people believe that the University of Texas runs (or at least has disproportionate power within) the Big 12, then why wouldn’t UT (a progressive university that is probably more culturally and academically in tune with the Pac-12 than its own fellow Big 12 members) have a very large issue with allowing BYU into the league considering the school’s stances on homosexuality? This was a blind spot for me up to this point because of the presence of Baylor already being in the Big 12.

For your reference, here is the BYU Honor Code. Note that there are many religious schools, such as Baylor, that have a general prohibition on premarital sex regardless of sexual orientation. If BYU only had this type of rule that applied to all students, then the Big 12 probably wouldn’t see this as an issue. However, where BYU differs is that it has a broader exclusion of homosexual behavior that includes “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” So, my interpretation is that all students at BYU must practice chastity. The problem, though, is that heterosexual students can still have public displays of affection, such as holding hands or kissing, but homosexual students and staff are prohibited and could violate the Honor Code (which could result in expulsion). This is where the discrimination charge comes in as the school is holding LGBT students and staff to a different standard than everyone else.

On a pure financial basis, BYU has long been the best choice for the Big 12. It is the most power conference-like school that isn’t already in a Power Five conference and I’ve said this for years. However, I’ve also said in the past that there’s clearly something “personal” between BYU and the Big 12 – maybe it was about their negotiation tactics, maybe it was about Sunday play, maybe it was about how they wanted more for BYUtv, maybe it was about religion itself or maybe some combination of all of the above. Unlike most realignment decisions, there have been issues between BYU and the Big 12 that were clearly not about money or else BYU probably would have been invited already. The real or perceived discrimination against the LGBT community on top of all of that could certainly be a deal-breaker for the schools that already had hesitations about adding BYU. In fact, the Dallas Morning News is reporting today that the LGBT debate could nix BYU’s candidacy for the Big 12 even in an expansion to 14 schools.

To be clear: BYU should be free to practice religion and set its code of conduct however it sees fit in accordance with Mormon principles. That is (and should always be) protected by the First Amendment. At the same time, I know many LDS members and BYU alums and find them to be a loving and caring group with a commitment to community service as a whole.

However, that doesn’t mean the Big 12 has to accept BYU simply because the school is exercising its First Amendment rights, either. The Big 12 is every bit as much as a private association as BYU or the LDS church itself, so the conference can apply whatever criteria it wants in choosing its members. As I wrote in my very first post about conference realignment, there are tons of off-the-field factors that can impact expansion decisions, such as academics, TV markets and brand value. Increased emphasis on the protection of LGBT rights can certainly be a game changer, especially when public support for LGBT causes has gone from a small minority 10 years ago to a clear majority in rapid fashion and is increasing everyday (with near-unanimity among those under the age of 40). It clearly has been a deal-breaker for the Pac-12 with respect to BYU, so none of us should be surprised if it ends up being the case for the Big 12.

(Image from The Comeback)