Public stoning, complicity, basketball, and shame-based punishment

Recently, if you don’t follow sports, BYU suspended one of it’s star players from the basketball team for breaking the Honor Code — specifically, according to the news, for having pre-marital sex with his girlfriend. The suspension came during the NCAA playoffs, and BYU, favored to do incredibly well, was severely crippled and lost to an unranked team.

BYU has, as expected, drawn a lot of both praise and ire. Some applaud what they term BYU’s commitment to its principles, giving up a lot of prestige, fame, and money for the basketball program in order to keep its integrity. Others attack the Honor Code itself, calling it prudish, archaic, old fashioned, and draconian.

However, neither of these things — basketball or BYU’s Honor Code* — actually matter in the grand scheme of things. As the news unfolded and exploded (this story has been covered and commented on by various news outlets, as well as the Daily Show, and Brandon Davies had been trending for days on Twitter), I started to worry most about the victims involved — the poor player, for one, and especially his girlfriend. Their lives have been irrevocably changed for the worse.

I was a bit dismayed at how cavalierly people seemed to dismiss the trauma Davies and his girlfriend must be going through. Not only has his sin been broadcast throughout the nation via sattelite broadcast, cable, internet, and Twitter, but many blame him for ruining what could have been arguably the one of the best seasons for BYU basketball in history. People have told me that Davies “knew what he signed” and that “if he chooses to transfer, he will do fine in another school,” but nobody talks about how his membership and role in the Church would  change. Not only will he be known as “that guy” for the rest of his life in the Mormon sports world — no matter where he goes — but he will no longer ever be able to function properly within the Mormon community again as well. Wherever he goes, people will know who he is, and they will probably not like him or trust him. Imagine if every time you went into the bishop’s office to confess a sin, it was broadcast on CNN and Jon Stewart commented on it. Even small sins would be mortifying; serious ones would make it very difficult to show your face at church again.

And, of course, nobody ever talks about the ramifications for his girlfriend, who will perhaps endure worse abuse. She is now the Yoko Ono of BYU basketball. She will now become the object lesson in hundreds of Young Women lessons about how important it is to guard your chastity and the horrible consequences if you fail to do so (how would you like to become the cautionary tale of how dangerous it is to be a slut overnight?). And when looking at the Church’s track record in the past on how they treat women who have sinned (especially sexually), she is in for a world of shame and degredation. It’s inevitable in a culture where chastity and virtue is taught through cakes with dirt in them and used chewing gum (that, by the way, completely ignore the power of the Atonement). What is especially unjust in her case is that she is not a high profile Mormon or an “ambassador” or “representative” of the Church. She was just a good girl who made an unfortunate mistake and now she’s going to pay in disproportionate spades for it. And though the media has (thankfully) not centered too much on her for the news, she will live in constant fear, if she chooses to stay in the Church, that someone will discover “who she is.”

What kills me about this is that it was so avoidable. Could they not have shown a little clemency with this case? Normally, when students break the Honor Code in a serious way, it is taken care of as privately as possible; it certainly isn’t discussed on ESPN. Certainly, BYU did not promote this story nor make it public, but this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Certainly they knew this would become a public scandal, especially with the spotlight so sharply lighting up the BYU basketball team. Could they not have waited until the cameras were off Davies to punish him? Even if a disgruntled student leaked the fact to the press, BYU could have claimed that they simply wanted to protect his privacy until after the season. Instead, by dismissing him from the team during such a high profile moment of the season, they all but signed his warrant to the press.

But of  course, this is no skin off of BYU’s nose. They look like heroes, staunch supporters of traditional, old-fashioned chastity and integrity. Davies knew what he was getting into (ignoring the fact that most of us make serious mistakes all the time but don’t have the news talking about it). Justice, many Mormons would say, has been served. Many probably feel betrayed, hurt, even humiliated a little. How could he betray our principles? He deserves it. And while I cannot speak for the motivations of BYU, I can’t help but feel that we assuaged our hurt at the expense of two precious lives of God’s children. Why should we consider our actions? He’s the one that sinned, right? Was it worth it?

The situation has often been framed as two decisions — either kick Davies off because he did break the Honor Code that he pledged to follow, and we should follow through with punishment; or, we let Davies off the hook, and people will see us corrupt and weak, and the sinner will go unpunished, which is not just. But there’s a third, middle way. Give Davies some clemency until the spotlight is no longer on him, and then, with a little more privacy, work towards repentance. People will say that means we’re rewarding sin, but I’m sure some people saw that when Jesus forgave the adultress who was about to be stoned. People will say the world will interpret it as preferential treatment, not mercy, but don’t we teach that the world often takes good and spins it into evil? Who cares what the world thinks? We certainly didn’t care during Prop 8, right? Why care now?

In the end, why did we really punish Davies? We had options — why did we choose the harshest one? Was it really to administer justice? And seeing how Davies’ and his girlfriend’s membership in the Church has been thoroughly obstructed and demoralized for years, if not for the rest of their lives, was this truly “just”? If not, what motivated this?

People will say I adopt a clemency stance because I am a liberal moral relativist seduced by the world and ashamed of God’s principles. They could not be further from the truth. I adopt this stance because of the example of a merciful man who was my mission president and one of the most faithful, God fearing men I know. Some missionaries complained that he was too lenient with some of the “problem missionaries” who broke the rules. We were sick of them; they dragged everyone else down, never did any work, passed up opportunities to teach people who were yearning for the gospel. Why didn’t he just send them home? In many cases, he would be justified; he admitted that it would probably even “clean up” the mission a lot and possibly boost morale. But, he asked us, after they get home, what then? Their lives in the Church would be crushed forever. If they somehow stay active, it will be despite their mission experience, not because of it. “No,” he taught, “I am concerned about the eternal consequences of these missionaries’ souls, not their short term success on the mission.”

So, we cleaned up the BYU basketball team, and showed sinners and potential sinners what’s up. The Church is serious about this sexual purity thing and they’re here to take prisoners and names. But at what cost? Davies and his girlfriend have just been saddled with an immense burden to their Church membership that will not likely go away. Those who decided to suspend him when they did most likely knew not only the consequences to their team, but also the resultant shark feeding that would descend on Davies via the media. But apparently something was more important. What? BYU’s dignity and integrity? Good old-fashioned justice? The Church’s image? And how do they compare with the potential worth of two souls, especially in the eyes of God?

A lot of people accuse the Church of being more focused on exclusive membership rather than merciful inclusion. They accuse us of using shame-based tactics and heavy-handed punishments to keep the people in line, especially when it comes to sexual matters. I had hoped that this was not true, and we proclaim that this is not true, but perhaps the Davies incident has shown what our true colors really are.

* When I talk about the Honor Code not mattering in the grand scheme of things, I mean the Honor Code in its entirety. Many of the rules of the Honor Code are based off what we teach as true gospel principles (such as honesty). However, considering that Jesus, the Son of God Himself, could not go to BYU because of the Honor Code (he drank wine and had a beard), the Honor Code is a man-made set of rules that will not matter one whit during the Judgment

/puts on fire hazard suit



Filed under life stories, religion

16 responses to “Public stoning, complicity, basketball, and shame-based punishment

  1. Ted, I’m with you here, I want to believe that, at very least, Davies deserved the privacy of his sins to last until a good deal after this had all blown over. Yet– there are three things I don’t see you addressing.

    1- Davies is a public figure. Public figures have less privacy– this is a natural consequence of the public’s interest in them and their position as such. What say you to that?

    2- How much should we cater to people’s judgement and prejudices in our attempts to shelter people from the worst of their decisions. Is it not more morally appropriate to condemn the sin of those that may now judge Davies and smear his name–or his girlfriend’s name– as making unrighteous judgements?

    3- Connected to the last statement… How important is basketball, really? I mean, if he ruined a basketball season what the hell does that matter? And why should the church or BYU as a whole really care about the sports season? Perhaps this generally intense sports scrutiny is a bit ridiculous for members of the church (or anyone for that matter). Maybe we should be less invested in spectatorship in general. (Let’s please not get into a discussion on Jimmer here.)

    • Ted


      1. Certainly, public figures have less privacy — when it involves decisions that affect the wellbeing of others. For example, politicians should have less privacy in terms of where they get money from, because who they get money from can influence their decisions that affect others. In general, however, Davies’ transgression affects only him and his girlfriend personally — it does not affect the team, nor the coaches, nor the BYU admin, nor the students. Thus, I would say he deserves his privacy in this particular case.

      And yes, I think that sex scandals are silly for politicians as well and that it’s their business (unless laws are being broken).

      2. Certainly we should condemn people’s judgment and prejudices, but — and this will be strange for me — I’m going to play the practicality card here. I am appealing towards idealism, but also, what’s more practical? (a) Shielding one’s privacy when it comes to personal sin, or (b) try to stem the tide of judgment and tongue wagging from the general public?

      While I understand that sexual sin is a Big Deal in our Church, we should still attempt to protect the sinner from unnecessary harm. Studies have shown that not only does ostracization cause the brain to perceive physical harm, this pain effect occurs even when we are ostracized by groups we hate (like the KKK). If we have a choice to (a) protect the sinner’s privacy and still condemn the sin, and (b) void the sinner’s privacy and condemn the sin and then have to condemn all the other people judging, I would go with the quieter choice.

      3. Agreed. Spectator sports < Honor Code < Jesus' Example, though I don't really hear a lot of "Oh man, I hate Davies because he ruined our chances in March Madness" (though I'm sure it occurs. I just wonder at what scale it's occurring).

      Also, I'm going to sound ignorant, but who the heck is Jimmer? I've heard his name but never bothered to investigate any further. Does anyone have a 30 second explanation?

      • 1- Good points and fair enough. Davies’s decisions affect only him (unless of course there’s a child in the future).
        2- Ted– you’re just messing with my head aren’t you? I thought I was the pragmatist here. Good points all, though.
        3- Don’t even bother– Jimmer isn’t worth it

  2. Beth

    I disagree. The Honor Code applies equally to everyone. Davies deserves to be treated like any other student. No exceptions should be made just because Davies was also a student athlete. It’s ALWAYS the rule: if you are on probation, you are not eligible to participate in competitive extra-curricular activities. It doesn’t matter if it’s MUN, Gymnastics, or NCAA basketball. Period. I would ever expect BYU to make an exception just because basketball is on TV, which seems to be what you’re suggesting.

    I think it would have been far more disingenuous to wait until after March Madness to punish Davies. “Thanks for winning the championship for us, now you’re outa here.”

    I mean, yeah, it is probably going to be a long, hard road for Davies and his girlfriend, but sometimes that is just how it goes.

    I think on the whole you have a pretty grim picture of “Mormon Culture” as full of ultra-conservative, judgmental fanatics, especially when Davies’ girlfriend is concerned. I still live in Provo what I see is not what you see. I think everyone acknowledges that this is going to be hard for them and we leave it at that.

    • Ted

      My argument is actually that he has not been treated equally to other BYU students. Most of the time, if a student breaks the Honor Code, his or her sin is not broadcast on TV. And while BYU did not actively pursue publicizing his mistake, they did bring attention to it in a public way at a time when all of the cameras were trained on the basketball team.

      In the end, same mistake, but much more different consequences. While it’s impossible to try to achieve equal punishment for every sin, we can at least try to be sensitive to each case’s situation in order to minimize the damage. It’s bad enough the person made a mistake; I feel that we should do our best not to compound the mistake.

      In the end, what’s done is done, and I think we could all agree that this situation is neither pleasant or easy. It all depends on which angle you view it; I can certainly see why you would feel that it is preferential treatment and subverting justice in favor of the more privileged if BYU had dealt with the situation more quietly, but to me, the more public route looks like throwing someone’s potential salvation under the bus so that people won’t get the wrong idea about our sports programs and know that we have integrity. Tomato, tomahto.

      I’ll be the first to admit that I have a pretty grim view of Intermountain West Mormon culture, mostly formulated by my own personal experiences (and my wife has had mostly the same personal experiences growing up in Utah). Apparently, living in Utah can be a total crapshoot — my sister often looks at me in disbelief whenever I tell her my side of the story of attending BYU to the point where she questions if we even went to the same school. I must really know how to pick the right wards to live in, I guess? :p

      In general, though, I try to base predictions on just human nature, augmented with what I’ve encountered before. I have the highest optimism for the redemptive potential of humanity; I also have the lowest pessimism about the mob mentality and folly of humanity.

      • Beth

        You may have had a bad experience living in Utah, but some pretty decent people live here, too. Your blanket condemnation of “Mormon Culture” meaning of course, “People who live in Utah” is beginning to cross the border from “snarky” to “unkind and insulting.” I don’t particularly appreciate it, especially since I do not necessarily espouse the views you accuse Utah Mormons of having.

        I have had both good and bad experiences in terms of choosing wards. You win some, you loose some. It’s that way everywhere I’ve lived, whether it’s New York or Texas or Kuwait.

        I’m interested to hear your opinion on the BYU student who was featured on the Big Brother reality TV show back in 2000. She was filmed talking in bed with a male, and was put on probation for her public violation of the honor code. She was not dismissed – she left of her own volition. The fact that she was also on TV did not have any bearing on BYU’s decision, nor, I believe, should it have.

  3. Beth

    Additional thoughts:

    God is no respecter of persons. Laws and eternal principles apply to all of God’s children equally. Therefore, why should BYU be a respecter of persons, treating a student athlete differently than anyone else who signed the honor code?

    Because you know what? He DID sign the honor code. Adherence to the honor code may not get you into heaven, but it is a prerequisite for attending BYU, and for participating in BYU sports. Attending BYU is a privilege; acceptance is becoming more and more competitive all the time. He broke the rules and was punished. What is so wrong about that?

    Just because BYU is owned by the church does not mean that BYU is the church. BYU is an institution, which has to be governed by rules. There cannot be exceptions because someone is on TV. That defeats the purpose of having rules in the first place.

    Jesus probably wouldn’t have much trouble getting a beard card.

    • Ted

      I think that the very fact you need to carry around an identification card to have a beard is slightly absurd (as in, you could probably write a pretty good post-modern absurdist play about it).

  4. shematwater

    Point: I doubt Christ would wear a beard in the modern day, nor do I think he would drink wine. These are really silly points that should have been left out of the post.

    I noticed a reference to Christ forgiving the adulteress that was brought before him. On this account I would point out two things: He never forgave her, he simply suspended judgement for a future time, allow her time to repent; and in this particular case where was the man? Both should have been brought and only one was.
    (I suppose he was a public figure and they wanted to protect his privacy.)
    So, my only question is this: Was his girlfriend a student and did she receive the same sentence. If she did I think justice has been served. As to mercy, that is easily given by allowing him to remain in the school, as well as many other ways. I do not believe that what is described is any more merciful than anything else, and it does lessen the justice of the punishment.

    • Ted

      I pointed out the more cultural parts of the Honor Code in passing to show that neither the Honor Code nor basketball is what concerns me in the situation. I’m not concerned with what people think about basketball, nor do I care if he signed an Honor Code or not. My main concern is to discuss whether the actions of BYU maximized mercy and future opportunities to repentance.

      Per the Christ forgiving the adulteress, it’s true that he never “officially” forgave her, but “merely” suspended punishment. I think all the same, she was grateful. As for us, we are charged specifically to forgive everything; that is our specific prerogative. Justice specifically is God’s prerogative, and like all God’s other prerogatives (such as creation), He invites us first to do so under specific rules. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. That’s an area which very few people have a right to dispense, and if done, justice will be dispensed judiciously with restraint.

      To answer your only question, I would answer that no, the girlfriend did not receive the same “sentence.” Like the adulteress’ partner, Brandon Davies’ girlfriend is curiously absent in all of the news stories. While this is certainly a Good Thing (and I will emphasize again; I think this is a Very Good Thing Indeed), it’s also strange. The press is notorious for caring little of personal privacy if it’ll make a good story. Yet her name is mysteriously absent in every news article I’ve ever read. Curious; why is that?

      If BYU, as well as her friends and family, are that loyal towards her privacy and well-being and protection, that they truly deserve a medal of some sort (I mean this sincerely). Why couldn’t they be that loyal to Brandon Davies? The only rationalization I can come up with is because he is a public figure and he’s embarrassed us/betrayed our values and he needs to learn a lesson. If you have any other reasons, please elucidate. I’d be interested to hear them (and again, I mean this sincerely).

      Also, I’m curious as to why you think the proposal in the OP lessens the justice of the punishment. Is it because it would “let him off the hook,” so to speak? The public shaming certainly isn’t part of the repentance process (otherwise, we would have dragged the girlfriend out into it, too).

      • shematwater

        The problem with maximizing mercy is that it so easily leads to the diminishing of justice.

        God’s prerogative is final justice, and we should leave that to him in all respects. However, we still must follow the law of justice to best of our ability if we are going to become like him.

        You say that because he is a public figure we should show a little mercy in delaying the penalty. The problem is that this makes justice almost non-existent. This does not communicate “we are merciful.” What it communicates is “if you are a public figure we are not going to give a lesser penalty than we would if you weren’t.” It shows a bias in favor of celebrities that can only lead to further damage to the school and society.
        Yeah, the Davies may not suffer quite as much, but he is not the only one that should be considered, and neither is his girl friend. By giving the decreed penalty for the violation when it occurs the message is not “we have no mercy.” It is “we do not tolerate violations to the rules.” In this way no bias is shown and the risk of further damage to the school and society is eliminated.

        This is why they had public stoning under the Law of Moses. This is why there were such public displays as forcing people to drink liquid gold and the burning of the families that rebelled against Moses. Because to let anyone go without the decreed penalty is to weaken the system and endanger society.

        Now, you mention forgiving others, and I agree that we are to forgive everyone. However, that does not mean that we are to turn the other way when they violate the rules. We should forgive the thief, but he should still be required to repay that which he took. We should forgive the murderer, but we should turn them over to face the penalty of the law. We should forgive the actions of Davies, but we should still require him to face the penalty of his actions.

        As to the girlfriend receiving the same punishment, I wasn’t asking for your opinion. What I wanted to know was this: Was she also a student, and if so was she also put on probation until an investigation has been conducted? If she was than justice has been served.

        Now, I hear you on the points of the medias violation of privacy. I am truly just as appalled as you are. However, to say that the school was at fault and that they should have been merciful because of the media’s reputation is not the right way to go. The media is the one that is being unjust in this story, not the school. The school is being just, and is showing all the mercy they can. It is the media that has no mercy and no justice. They are the ones that the complaint should be against, not the school.
        Your comments seem to be seeking the easiest way and not the best way.

  5. shematwater

    Sorry for the typo

    I wrote “if you are a public figure we are not going to give a lesser penalty than we would if you weren’t.”

    It should be “if you are a public figure we are going to give a lesser penalty than we would if you weren’t.”

  6. At Beth: I’m with Ted here.

    I’ve lived in Utah my whole life. I often disagree with those that criticize ‘Mormon Culture’, including Ted. And while I love Utah and can get along with most people here, I, like Ted, have had far too many less than stellar experiences with this infamous ‘mormon culture’ (to be honest, there are pieces of it that I like).

    I think this term comes off as offensive because it is ill-defined (I think it is by it’s nature, a fuzzy thing). I don’t think that Ted is trying to condemn all Mormons in Utah– far from it (correct me if I’m wrong, Ted– actually, it might in your best interest not to, no matter the truth of the statement). Ted seems to me to unafraid to critique behavior that is acceptable in a certain segment of the Utah community, mostly because it doesn’t occur to some Mormons (myself included, sometimes) that some things we say are not only offensive to certain groups, but actually not in keeping with a Gospel principle (or several Gospel principles).

    In general:

    I’m not sure what other’s experiences have been, but I myself, as well as friends and relatives, have had experiences where their repentance process was made horrendously difficult, or far more uncomfortable than it needed to be. Sometimes this was because things that should have been between them and the Bishop became public– such is a breach of confidence that carries serious weight. Other times it was simply because others noticed them not taking the sacrament, and therefore treated them differently. While these are, in my experience, a very small minority of experiences, that doesn’t make it okay.

    I expect that BYU should have contingency plans and ideas about how to address these kinds of situations long before they happen (I’d be really surprised if they don’t). But I am surprised that this kind of public shame as a complication in Davies’s repentance process wasn’t given greater weight when making a decision.

    I think that Ted and I would agree that the issue isn’t Davies’s privilege of playing on the basketball team– we couldn’t care less how BYU decided to discipline Davies in the area. Our beef is with his personal opportunities for repentance and what seems to us as the careless public shame about a poor decision that was very private, and in most cases is treated as private very deliberately by church policy.

    • shematwater

      I understand the argument, and it is not without merit. I also do not think that Beth was implying you care about the Basketball aspect.

      I think, and Beth can correct me if I am wrong, that she was saying, as I said, that by doing what you are suggesting they can’t apply the proscribed penalty in basketball and thus the image, or perception of their actions would be that of favoritism and special exception for star athletes.

      I really don’t think Beth or I are complaining about the actual merit of your argument, but about the perception it would generate, which is a perception that needs to be avoided at all cost.

      I would also again make the argument that it is the Media who is at fault here, not the school. Why should the school alter their regulations to accommodate the error of others?
      Basically, the argument you have presented could be just as logically applied to the taking of the sacrament. As this is a public action, and one that many will notice (as you point out) why are not Bishops more merciful in restricting this privilege to avoid the public shame and thus greater difficulty to repentance?

      I know the argument that this is a school and not the church, but seems a little hypocritical to not demand the same basic standards in both.

      • Shem, I follow your reasoning, but think that you’ve overlooked a couple of things here.
        Brandon Davies mistakes were not only made public in a general sense– they were televised, reported in the news, and spread all over the internet. If my neighbor upstairs didn’t take the sacrament one week, at most, in some ludicrous situation– there would be a couple hundred people who might know about it, let alone discuss it and talk about it.
        Secondly, there is something of a cultural taboo, that I’ve perceived, in discussing whether or not someone is taking the sacrament and why– not that there aren’t those who ignore or break this taboo, but it certainly exists. In contrast, there exists little of anything like this in media circles of any kind, that I’m aware of.

        While the principle might remain the same, it seems to me that the circumstances have many differences, in nature and circumstance. This is a very interesting discussion, although it seems to have wound down at this point.

  7. shematwater


    It has wound down.

    As to circumstances, can we really know the exact circumstances?

    Speaking from personal experience, I was not allowed to take the sacrament for a number of years. In that time I moved half a dozen times. I was even asked to pass or bless the sacrament at times, and always had to refuse. There were a lot more than a few hundred people who knew that I could not take the sacrament. It was a few thousand. Yet, even in this instance, no Bishop ever “showed mercy” by allowing me to take the sacrament to avoid public knowledge.

    Circumstances will always be different, but the law and regulations must be the same and must be treated the same. If they are not then they cease to be laws and become simply guidelines that can be followed based on individual discretion which leads to chaos.

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