BYU’s Imaginary Unfair Advantage

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Departing from religion and politics, I would like to talk briefly about something truly controversial: College football. Specifically, BYU football.

It’s happening again. With BYU’s second-in-a-row trouncing of the Texas Longhorns – this time in Texas – folks are bringing up the old accusation that BYU has an unfair advantage given the fact that its players are older than other college football players, mostly due to their tendency to take two years off to go serve full-time missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s not fair!” the haters say. “Their bellies are bigger! They are more mature! They have less of a tendency to get arrested! They have wives and children rooting for them instead of just girlfriends!” And so, the haters allege that this is some sort of grand scheme by the Church to squeeze a little better performance out of a team that would not be so good otherwise. But for those who make this argument, I have a few points that I would like for you to consider:

  1. It’s not that much of an advantage. Going on a mission is not like being redshirted. These guys are not going to Brazil, Ecuador, Taiwan, and Zimbabwe to secretly hold two-a-days for two years. Most of them actually will not even touch a pigskin during that time, as LDS missionaries are not allowed to play contact sports like football, rugby, and hockey. (They aren’t even allowed to play full-court basketball. I think it’s mostly an insurance thing.) While missionaries are now expected to exercise each morning, we are not talking about what they are accustomed to doing in multi-million-dollar athletic complexes. We are talking about something more along the lines of some push-ups and sit-ups before morning study. Half an hour, max. (That’s actually a rule too.) Some missionaries come back in satisfactory physical condition because they walked or rode bikes during their ten hours of proselyting each day over their two-year stint, but that varies from place to place. In short, the idea that these guys get back from their missions in the same competitive physical condition they were in when they left is absolutely ludicrous.
  2. If it were such an advantage, other schools would do it. What is stopping the University of Texas from requiring its players to go volunteer for the Red Cross or the Peace Corps for two years? Nothing. Why don’t they do it? See Point #1. Then there is also the fact that their players simply may not be willing to do it. In that case, why are we going to punish one school for having more dedicated athletes than all the rest? Even if that were the issue – even if it brings an unfair advantage but only LDS athletes are willing to do it – one would think that schools would be eager to recruit all of these Mormon super-athletes who plan on being missionaries, as not all of them go to BYU. In reality, though, other schools have more of a tendency to just cancel their scholarships and forget about them. Why? Again, see Point #1.
  3. Asking BYU to stop this would be the same as asking BYU to not have an athletics program. You know how much you love your team? Yeah, that’s how BYU players feel about their actual religion. Most of them are not going to choose a game over God. The only alternatives to making BYU cancel its athletics program would be to request that the school do away with its strict Honor Code to attract more non-LDS talent, make an exception such that athletes are not required to abide by the Honor Code (again, to attract more non-LDS talent), or tell its players that God has commanded them to play football instead of being missionaries. None of these are reasonable options.

The truth is that BYU football players are older because they are willing to give up two years of their lives (and a lot of their money and opportunities) to do something they believe in and to make the world a better place. They do not do it to be better football players, and the idea that it gives them an unfair advantage on the field is just plain silly. (As any Ute will tell you, it’s not like BYU consistently has the best team in the nation or anything.) So, in response to the haters’ unreasonable requests that BYU players stop being so old, I have a very reasonable request:

Perhaps you should just try losing gracefully.

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