Some wonder what role BYU athletics plays within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Commissioner of Education Elder Clark G. Gilbert addressed that topic when he was interviewed Tuesday by Jarom Jordan and former BYU basketball star Tyler Haws during a televised men’s basketball practice on BYUtv.

Elder Gilbert grew up as a big Cougars fan. He is a BYU graduate who became a Harvard business professor.

“I love BYU basketball,” he said. “I love our sports teams and what they stand for.”

It’s what BYU sports stands for that makes all the difference, Elder Gilbert explained. He offered Haws, the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer, as an example.

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“You look at Tyler. Yes, he had the best mid-range jump shot in BYU history. But he’s a returned missionary. He’s a great guy, a great husband. You look at these teams and we love sports inside the Church Educational System,” Elder Gilbert said. “But there are at least two things that are unique about why we’re invested in them and why we cheer for them so hard. One of them is, cheering for BYU connects you to a community of faith in almost no other way.

“Our values, our church and our people, we can go anywhere and compete at the highest level and not have to compromise who we are. The other part of it is, it’s the values we reflect as a program. Some of that is tied to the honor code, the religious principles of the university — we don’t play on Sunday, we expect our athletes to follow the dress and grooming standards — but some of that is the values that grow out of our faith that show up in sport.”

Elder Clark G. Gilbert, a General Authority Seventy, speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 191st Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Oct. 2, 2021. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Attributes represented in athletics at BYU, Elder Gilbert said, include “hard work, discipline, grit, a determination to learn and become better.”

Added Elder Gilbert: “Anytime we cheer for BYU, we want them to do well but we want them to reflect those values.”

Elder Gilbert is the former president and CEO of the Deseret News, and former president of BYU-Idaho. He was the first president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide. He became a General Authority in April and church commissioner a couple of months ago. The Church Educational System serves 1.2 million students across the church-sponsored universities, BYU-PW and the seminary and institute programs.  

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The current Cougars basketball team features three players from Africa — Gideon George (Nigeria), Fousseyni Traore (Mali) and Atiki Ally Atiki (Tanzania) — on the roster.  

Elder Gilbert said he talked to the African players last week and pointed out the global reach of both BYU and the church.

“It’s not ‘Cougar Nation,’ it’s ‘Cougar World.’ We have BYU Pathway all over Africa, almost 10,000 students in Africa. None of (the players from Africa) knew that,” he said. “Everywhere you go in the world, people love BYU. But it’s not like they just picked a random team. They love how it connects us to a community of faith and they love how it represents our values.”

In 2023, BYU athletics will be joining the Big 12 Conference. That jump to a Power Five league, announced last month, will have crucial ramifications.

“It’s huge,” Elder Gilbert said. “It’s the best basketball conference in the world — and we’re in it.”

Coach Mark Pope, who’s entering his third season at the helm of Cougars basketball, is doing a remarkable job, Elder Gilbert said. 

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“He’s committed to excellence. He wants this team to perform at the highest level but they do it in the right way. At BYU, you have to do both.”

Elder Gilbert invoked the words of former church president Spencer W. Kimball, who shared a message in 1975 titled “The Second Century of Brigham Young University.”

President Kimball taught the importance of being “bilingual” in both a spiritual and secular sense — speaking the language of the world and the language of the gospel.

“To me, in athletics, the language of the world is, we compete at a high level. We’re committed to excellence,” Elder Gilbert said. “We’re always getting better … But we also speak the language of the gospel — that’s our values, and the principles of the university in everything we do.”

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