God Is a Football Fan | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

God Is a Football Fan 

BYU owes its success to diversity.

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The years of 1968-1971 were defining years for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its academies of higher learning. They certainly launched a new age for the BYU Cougars.

During that period of both great unrest and bounding civil rights progress, Brigham Young University was coming under regular attack—particularly from other universities' sports teams who felt there was a moral issue in playing a school that had a highly visible racist policy.

Mormonism's discrimination was certainly no secret, teaching from its ward houses and world-wide general conferences that Black individuals had been cursed with their dark skin because of their failure to be valiant in the pre-mortal war in heaven.

Since Mormonism's 1830 debut into the world of religions, the priesthood—available to all worthy whites—was not available to men of African descent. During its pre-enlightenment period, BYU was strictly segregated, with the exception that then-President David O. McKay, in the 1950s, did allow scholarships to two Nigerians, in conjunction with an experimental pilot-program in their country.

McKay's counselor, Harold B. Lee, protested the move in a BYU trustee's meeting, and the program was immediately nixed.

Keep in mind, the old Hotel Utah, owned by the church, didn't allow Blacks to enter until the 1950s—and then, only through the service entrance—and LDS Hospital, also Mormon-owned, once found it necessary to state that its blood bank was stocked strictly with white blood (the American Red Cross maintained a practice of segregating blood until 1950).

While church leaders would eventually try to bury the doctrine as an aberrant personal prejudice of its second president and prophet, Brigham Young, evidence is clear that Mormons believed—and some continue to believe—that people of African descent were cursed by God. Despite more modern pronouncements, there's plenty of evidence that it was, indeed, a matter of doctrine.

In the meantime, the church held fast to its racial views, withholding full matriculation for Black students. But the winds of change were already in motion. Preparatory to a 1969 football game with BYU, 14 Black University of Wyoming football players decided to wear armbands to protest BYU's policies.

It could have been an effective statement. Instead, their coach suspended the players because protest was forbidden under their university's rules. All 14 were stripped of their scholarships and banned from UW sports. Really sad, but resistance to BYU segregation was just beginning.

Teams like Stanford and San Jose State refused to play BYU, and during those tense racial years, there were regular protests, demonstrations, picketers and even some violent confrontations at games—things BYU could not ignore, and something that the Mormon church was forced to address.

And, of course it did. Mormon historians and authorities may try to duck the impact of an ever-challenged, all-white sports program, but it was largely BYU sports that moved the church toward a more inclusive policy.

BYU football was on the road to greatness. The rest is history. In 1978, then-church President Spencer W. Kimball made the announcement that Black Latter-day Saint men were to be allowed to receive the priesthood.

Here's my own version of that history: Apparently in 1975, God finally got his first peek at satellite TV and became a rabid BYU sports fan. He simply wanted to see BYU on the winning side of things, but that was virtually impossible. Presto! The Black-exclusion doctrine was eliminated.

Now that you understand God is a football aficionado, you'll know why your Saturday-night prayers are going directly to voicemail. Sitting there with his bowl of popcorn, he simply can't be bothered on game days by the trifles of mankind.

While I did my undergraduate and graduate studies at the U, it gives me satisfaction to know that yet another Utah team is headed for a great football season. Today, BYU Football has about 43 players of color, an equally integrated coaching staff, and BYU has been named to the Big 12 Conference.

It seems that the 1978 revelation has been a great success. Going Technicolor made all the difference.

Private Eye is off this week. Michael S. Robinson is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net.

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