The closest thing I can say is that the mission of our athletic department is aligned with the mission of our school, and that makes it easy to keep what matters in focus. – BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on sports and the Sabbath.
PROVO — For decades, BYU has fought to compete at the highest levels of college athletics while upholding its longstanding commitment to keep the Sabbath Day holy by not competing on Sundays.
Is the Sunday play issue a major factor that’s keeping the Cougars out of a Power 5 conference?
While the answer to that question isn’t clear right now, there’s no doubt that BYU’s unbending refusal to compromise on Sunday play has stirred up controversy in the past and has prevented its athletes from competing in certain cases.
BYU, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will not back down from its stance that it will not play on Sundays, even if that means forfeiting a chance at a championship. It’s non-negotiable.
“People might look at BYU and say, why do they send kids on missions, why do they have an Honor Code, why do they not play on Sunday?” athletic director Tom Holmoe said last fall. “But that’s who we are, that’s what we thrive on, that’s why people come here. The closest thing I can say is that the mission of our athletic department is aligned with the mission of our school, and that makes it easy to keep what matters in focus.”
Meanwhile, the Sunday-play issue reared its head in May, when the BYU women’s golf team qualified for the NCAA Tournament. That included a day of competition scheduled for Sunday. The NCAA made an adjustment to the schedule to prevent the Cougars from having to play on a Sunday during the tournament, a move that created frustration among other teams that feared the scheduling alteration could give BYU a competitive advantage or could compromise the integrity of the competition.
One of the most high-profile Sunday-play issues involved BYU offensive lineman Eli Herring, who, in 1995, wrote a letter informing every NFL team not to draft him because of his desire to keep the Sabbath Day holy.
That didn’t stop the Oakland Raiders from selecting him in the sixth round and offering him a three-year, $1.5 million contract. Herring turned it down.
“It wasn’t really tempting,” Herring recalled. “I did get an Oakland Raiders T-shirt out it.”
Not only do the Cougars not play on Sunday, they don’t practice on Sunday, either. Coaching staffs at BYU do all they can to avoid working on Sundays and make other arrangements, such as arriving earlier than usual on Monday mornings, to do their jobs.
While the Sunday play policy doesn’t directly impact BYU’s football team, the NCAA basketball tournament committee places the Cougar men’s basketball team in a Thursday-Saturday bracket instead of a Friday-Sunday bracket. A similar accommodation is made for other BYU teams.
BYU is the only major athletic department in the nation that doesn’t compete on Sundays, which has left it standing alone at times.
According to current NCAA rules, if a university competing in an NCAA championship has a written policy against competition on a particular day for religious reasons, the championship schedule must be adjusted to accommodate that institution.
But that hasn’t always been the case.
THE BYU RULE
In 1958 and 1961, the Cougar baseball team failed to advance to the College World Series, though they had qualified, because games were scheduled on Sunday.
“Team members voted unanimously to uphold the university in its stand against Sunday competition,” according to a Deseret News article in 1958.
“Your schedule of games has been arranged so that we would be required to play on Sunday,” BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson wrote to the NCAA. “This is a violation of Christian principles which motivate us as a Christian institution of higher learning.”
In 1963, the NCAA included a provision, known as “The BYU Rule” to accommodate the Cougars’ position on Sunday play.
Still, that didn’t solve all potential conflicts.
The BYU football team made it clear that it would turn down an opportunity to play in the 1977 Fiesta Bowl — then held on Christmas Day — if it were to win the Western Athletic Conference championship, because that year Christmas fell on a Sunday. The Cougars ended up winning the WAC title that year to earn a bid to the Fiesta Bowl, but instead traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to play a pair of exhibition games in Japan.
In 1998, the NCAA voted to eliminate the 35-year-old BYU Rule because accommodating BYU would "unduly disrupt the conduct of the championship."
That ruling was aimed primarily at the women’s soccer and women’s basketball tournaments, which had scheduled their championships on Sunday.
As a result, BYU, and Campbell University, a Baptist school from North Carolina that has a similar policy, battled fiercely behind the scenes to reinstate the rule.
"We have no idea where this is coming from," then-BYU athletic director Val Hale said at the time. "It sounds pretty discriminatory. We're saying you can't preclude us from playing. You can't deny us a chance to play. It's our decision to forfeit or play. We won't change our religious beliefs.”
Not long after the BYU Rule was done away with, then-BYU President Merrill J. Bateman rallied support among other NCAA institutions. Within two months, 99 schools petitioned the NCAA to hold an override vote by the entire 300-plus NCAA Division I membership. That list of schools that supported BYU includes at least one from every major conference and institutions from coast to coast.
During this time of turmoil for BYU, the father of one of BYU’s soccer players, an attorney, threatened to sue the NCAA to allow the Cougars access to the championship game.
Rejecting BYU from postseason play before it begins "imposes a death penalty on our soccer program," women’s soccer coach Jennifer Rockwood said.
Fortunately for BYU, 18 months after the BYU Rule was eliminated, it was reinstated by the NCAA Board of Directors.
During meetings in Indianapolis in 1999, the NCAA rescinded waivers previously granted by committees from women's soccer and women's basketball, which voted not to invite schools like BYU that refuse to participate on Sundays entrance into their tournaments.
"This is a great day for both BYU and the NCAA," Bateman said then. "We're pleased that the NCAA would step back, seriously review the issue and reverse the decision."
Though the championship was still scheduled for Sunday, if the Cougars had advanced to the title game, the contest would be staged on another day.
BYU benefited from the reinstatement of the BYU Rule in at least another sport. In 2002, when the baseball team won its first two games in the NCAA regionals, a rematch with USC was rescheduled for Monday, instead of Sunday, to accommodate the Cougars.
The BYU Rule has made women’s college basketball world more than a little nervous over the years, knowing if the Cougars were to advance to the championship game, it would have to move that contest from Sunday to the following Tuesday.
During BYU’s 2002 tournament run, Cougar freshman center Danielle Cheesman was asked about the disadvantage of not practicing on Sunday for a second-round matchup with favored Iowa State — on the Cyclones’ home floor — for a Monday game.
"I think it's completely to our advantage," Cheesman said. "We get to focus on other things. The No. 1 priority is our church. Sunday is our day for reflection on our church.”
A reporter asked women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins what would happen if the Cougars reached the NCAA championship game, scheduled for a Sunday.
“We will not be playing in that game,” Judkins said matter-of-factly. “It would have to be moved to a Monday or Tuesday or else we would forfeit.”
The Cougars upset Iowa State to reach the Sweet 16, but they lost in their next game to Florida. In 2014, BYU also advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to perennial powerhouse Connecticut, once again allowing the NCAA to breathe a sigh of relief because it could preserve a Sunday championship.
While the BYU men’s rugby team is only a club sport, not sponsored by the school’s athletic department, it still upholds the school’s policy regarding Sunday play.
For years, the Cougars fielded one of the nation’s top rugby teams. But despite its overwhelming success, BYU was not able to participate in the annual tournament for 20 years, beginning in 1984, because the championship match was scheduled for Sunday.
In 2004, USA Rugby agreed to move the championship match to Saturday. At the time, Jay Jorgensen, a BYU alum and an attorney working in Washington, D.C., compared BYU's return to the national tournament after a 20-year hiatus with an Old Testament account.
"It's like Moses' return after years of wandering in the wilderness," said Jorgensen. "Fortunately, the spirit of the 'Chariots of Fire' still exists. Now, wouldn't it be sweet if BYU won the national championship? It would be a great Cinderella story."
The Cougars won four consecutive rugby national titles from 2012-2015.
“The boys that never got the chance are the ones sending the texts and the calls offering congratulations because they’re so happy for these boys who are getting the opportunities," said coach David Smyth. “In today’s society, any opportunity that presents itself where you can stand up for something you believe in without being controversial or being offensive but that’s personal to yourself and something that our institute represents. Absolutely. It’s good, especially in this stage in their lives. They’re going to be fathers and husbands and successful businessmen. What a great lesson they learn that they can use as a foundation moving forward.”
The BYU women’s rugby team has faced that dilemma as well, forfeiting its second-round game when USA Rugby mistakenly scheduled the next game for Sunday. While the players were heartbroken, they were happy to stand up for their religious convictions.
THE WEST COAST CONFERENCE
When BYU’s football program decided to go independent in 2010, the Cougars needed a home for the rest of their teams.
BYU joined the West Coast Conference, and its membership of faith-based institutions, for almost all of its other programs without having to worry about competing on Sundays.
Before the Cougars joined the WCC, the league played its annual basketball tournament on Sundays. That stopped with the addition of BYU. Now, all the teams participating in the tournament take a day off on Sunday for religious observance and then resume games on Monday.
“The West Coast Conference is a really good fit for most of our teams,” Holmoe said. “It’s very competitive and the athletic departments are aligned with the missions of their schools. We do belong there, outside of football.”
BYU AND THE POWER 5
BYU fans have long expressed the desire for the Cougars to compete in a Power 5 conference. Even Holmoe has stated publicly that is his aim, too.
Holmoe has said that the only demand the school has when it comes to joining a Power 5 conference is that it will not play on Sundays.
The most likely Power 5 league to add BYU is the Big 12, which currently only has 10 teams.
If the Big 12 opts to expand, among the many factors regarding whether or not to extend an invitation to BYU is its Sunday play policy.
There are differing opinions on how big of a factor that could be.
A few months ago, Mike DeCourcy, of the Sporting News, reported that, according to a source that “BYU might stand as the most attractive potential partner because of its large following, excellent facilities and considerable wealth, but the challenges of adding a partner that declines to participate in Sunday competition is among the obstacles that appear to be too considerable."
Meanwhile, Berry Tramel, columnist with The Oklahoman, and a supporter of the Big 12 extending an invitation to BYU, reported that scheduling for several sports would have to change if the Cougars were to join the league — softball, women’s soccer, women’s basketball, baseball, golf, tennis and track and field (outdoor).
“Could the Big 12 adjust away from Sunday championships for BYU? Yes. Would it be a hassle? Yes,” Tramel wrote. “Would it be worth it? Well, I’d say yes, but that’s a conference decision that includes all kinds of things I don’t think about. … Bringing BYU into the Big 12 would be a scheduling problem. But the problem is not insurmountable.”
A group of fans from the University of Memphis, which is lobbying for an invitation to the Big 12, created a presentation that took a shot at BYU's perceived shortcoming as a potential Big 12 member.
As part of a Power Point presentation from Memphis fans, one point of emphasis was “All Sports 7 Days of Play.”
"The University of Memphis competes seven days a week for ultimate flexibility in scheduling across all sports," according to the presentation. "A variety of schools are routinely mentioned as natural fits with BYU often at the top of the list, but the school’s own BYU Network and lack of Sunday play in all sports complicate what some consider a sure bet scenario."
ESPN, which agreed to an eight-year broadcasting deal with BYU in 2010, respects the school’s Sunday play policy. However, other television networks that are involved with the Big 12 that are seeking to fill Sunday programming slots might not be so accommodating.
It remains to be seen how much the Sunday play issue impacts BYU athletics in the future, but one thing is certain — the school won’t compromise its standards. As history has shown, BYU is determined to keep the Sabbath Day holy, regardless of the consequences.