Why a BYU volleyball game went viral
In late August, the only Black starting player on Duke University's women’s volleyball team reported that an opposing fan hurled racist taunts, including slurs, during a match at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. According to social-media accounts from the player’s godmother, no one from BYU — neither the coaches, the staff nor the 5,500 fans in attendance — did anything to intervene.
After the episode became public, BYU launched an investigation, which it claimed found no “evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs”.
This was the second alleged incident of racism this year at BYU, the flagship university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church. In February, a high church official who teaches ancient scripture classes at BYU apologised after making insensitive comments about the role of African-Americans in the early church.
While that situation received less publicity, the Duke incident ignited a swift backlash. Dawn Staley, the head coach of the University of South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, responded by cancelling two games with the Cougars — one in Columbia and one in Provo. Numerous commentators have denounced BYU for its passive fans and slow response during the match. It has damaged the university and especially its athletic department.
While both episodes mirror the present racial climate in the United States, they also reflect problems that have dogged BYU for more than a half-century, dating back to protests by opposing players and students against the school’s racist policies and behaviour in the late 1960s. Change has occurred slowly at BYU, and in an age of social media, the school faces increased scrutiny, especially as it prepares to enter the Big 12, a major athletic conference.
In the LDS faith, every “worthy” man or boy can enter the priesthood, which does not signify leadership or clerical training. Initially, this universal opportunity included Black Mormons.
But in 1852, as Utah debated slavery, church president and prophet Brigham Young — who succeeded founder Joseph Smith and frequently espoused proslavery views — decreed that African-Americans could be members of the church, but not priests. He based his decision on the biblical “Curse of Cain” that many groups used to justify slavery and discrimination.
A century later, this discriminatory policy drew attention during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And it wasn’t the only issue that BYU and the Mormon Church had with race. Fewer than 15 Black students attended the university at the end of the 1960s — and a number of those were African students. As late as 1969, a BYU dean, Lester B. Whetten, emphasised: “The Negro of today is not and cannot become compatible with BYU standards.”
While some students and faculty pushed for change, the administration and much of the student body remained either openly hostile or at least ambivalent to greater integration.
This sentiment spilt over into sport. In 1968, for example, BYU students and players hurled racist slurs and cheap shots at opposing Black football players from the University of Wyoming. At the end of the game as the Wyoming players mingled, someone turned a water sprinkler on them.
As campus activism intensified across the country in the late 1960s — primarily spurred by opposition to the Vietnam War, but also by racial discrimination — some opposing players began speaking out against BYU’s racism. Additionally, students at opposing schools pressured their universities to stop playing games against the Cougars.
In 1969, students at Arizona State demanded the cancellation of the school’s football game against BYU. Hundreds of students picketed outside the ASU stadium before the game, despite the university not being known for its activism and having a large LDS population — including its president and most of the senior administration.
Weeks later, 14 of Wyoming’s Black players approached their coach, Lloyd Eaton, and asked to wear black armbands when the Cougars visited Laramie to protest BYU’s racist policies. He lashed out at them, telling them to transfer to historically Black colleges such as Grambling or Morgan State so they “could go back to Coloured relief”. He also suspended them, and they left the programme.
Eaton and other White administrators resisted efforts to isolate BYU, often because of their own racism and anger towards the protest movements engulfing campuses during that academic year.
But there were exceptions. Stanford announced it would no longer schedule games with BYU, something San José State and the University of Washington considered.
Students and activists refused to back off as the basketball season began. One of the first confrontations occurred on January 8, 1970, when the BYU basketball team travelled to Tucson.
The University of Arizona’s president, Richard Harvill, refused calls by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and students to cancel the game, arguing that he did not believe BYU’s policies were discriminatory. The night before the game, someone broke into Arizona’s gym and started a fire at the free-throw line, causing some minor damage. The next day, students — including several African-American basketball players (with their coach’s blessings) — showed up at the gym entrance, some chanting: “Stop the game.”
The Arizona players wore black sweatbands during the nationally televised game. Shortly before half-time, nine protesters stormed the court. Police arrested them and charged them with rioting.
Afterward, more protests arose, designed to pressure Harvill. Ultimately, he accepted a meeting with Black student groups on campus and promised to further study the issue. He selected six students to visit BYU and report back on the issue. Unsurprisingly, the predominantly White group returned saying that BYU had no more discrimination than most universities.
The most confrontational incidents occurred later that month. At a basketball game at Colorado State, students rushed the court and threw raw eggs and other items at BYU players and cheerleaders. Ultimately, someone launched a Molotov cocktail, but people quickly put out the small fire.
While the local press tried to portray it as the handiwork of a Black mob, the students arrested and expelled were all White.
Such acts led to BYU players acknowledging the frustrations of opposing students and players. One of the university's non-LDS basketball players, Larry DeLaittre, admitted: “I really do sympathise with the protesters ... I want to grab hold of somebody and yell, ‘I’m Catholic! I’m Catholic!’ ”
Despite increasing pressure, many BYU supporters and the school’s administration remained defiant and often characterised the protesters as communists. One coach noted: “These people aren’t after us. They’re after America.”
The protests did, however, precipitate some changes. In February 1970, BYU signed its first Black football recruit, Ronald Knight. Yet, reflecting the culture at the university, coach Tommy J. Hudspeth acknowledged: “A lot of people are mad at me right now because they feel we are giving in.” In December 1970, the university also hired its first African-American faculty member, a part-time nursing adjunct to teach about “Negro culture”.
Over time, the protests quietened as the country grew weary of campus demonstrations, especially after the Kent State and Jackson State massacres in May 1970. But student bodies throughout the West continued to press their schools’ administrations to punish BYU’s racism, and athletics remained a central topic.
The calls finally ended in 1978 when the LDS church made significant changes and allowed Black members full access to the priesthood and rites.
Ironically, over the past decade, new protests have arisen over BYU’s draconian policies towards the LGBTQ+ community. Some people have circulated petitions and issued calls for boycotts, but the movement has never approximated the intensity that existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s over race.
The alleged recent volleyball incident has sparked a firestorm on social media, in particular. And BYU is slated to join the Big 12 in 2023, which will only focus a larger spotlight on its policies and culture.
Clearly, the changes regarding race that the school and the Mormon Church have made over the past century have not been enough to protect BYU athletics from scrutiny. Many people have memories of the past that blend with the present, and the most recent episodes have returned the racial issues to the forefront.
• Kyle Longley is the director of the War and Society Program at Chapman University and author of LBJ’s 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America’s Year of Upheaval and Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam
• John D’Anna is a senior news director at The Press Democrat and longtime editor at The Arizona Republic