BYU and Baylor University have more in common than being part of the future of the Big 12 Conference. They’re also both religious schools — BYU is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Baylor is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas — seeking the right balance between football and faith.
Because of their religious identities, each school has faced criticism over the years for investing in an expensive sport that glorifies violence, according to Hunter Hampton, an assistant professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University. But each has remained committed to football and found ways to tie it to their religious mission.
“When looking at football’s role on campus, there are more similarities (between BYU and Baylor) than differences,” said Hampton, who studies the links between college football, masculinity and faith.
One key similarity is that both football programs endured many difficult years before they found their footing. School administrators and team leaders learned to talk about the value of football without any reference to the win-loss record, Hampton said.
“They said you become a better Christian through your struggles on the football field, and that, in putting yourself through the routines and training, your body, your faith and your life after college are strengthened,” he said.
Players would share this same message in their interviews, Hampton added.
“You’d have BYU athletes in postgame interviews explaining how the game (taught) them lessons about life and overcoming struggle,” he said.
However, bad seasons did make it harder to convince skeptical stakeholders that football was worth the expense.
In recent, more successful seasons, it’s been easier to make the case that football programs lead to higher interest from potential students and more engagement with the broader culture, Hampton said.
“Both schools have used football as a recruiting tool for students, not just student-athletes,” he said.
The main difference between Baylor and BYU is that BYU, like Notre Dame, has a national, if not international, fandom that includes people who share the same faith as school leaders but didn’t attend the institution themselves.
“A lot of my Latter-day Saint friends are BYU fans whether they went there or not,” Hampton said, noting that their fandom and faith are strongly connected.
Baylor, on the other hand, has had to work harder to build its fan base.
“You won’t find Baptists in other parts of the country or world that are like, ‘I’m rooting for Baylor because of my Baptist identity,’” Hampton said, noting that church structure likely explains the difference.
But the fandom is clearly there, and it’s going to get bigger if Baylor football, currently ranked No. 9 in The Associated Press’ Top 25 poll, continues to succeed on the field.
Hampton believes both schools’ interest in supporting the sport is only growing stronger.
“There’s been a constant debate on these campuses about the value of football and questions are constantly being asked,” he said. “But, if there’s been any response, it’s been to invest” even more in these programs.
BYU, ranked No. 21 in the same AP poll, and Baylor face off Saturday night in Provo.