Nestled in America’s heartland, the Big 12 is bridging divides greater and more poignant than the continental distances that span its conference members.

Courting Brigham Young University to join the athletic conference seems like the perfectly logical move for one of the country’s Power 5 conferences that suddenly found itself against the ropes after Texas and Oklahoma bolted for the SEC. But considerations run deeper than the success of a football program; the Big 12 is bringing on board an academically strong university that also stands apart from many others in the country for its religious values.

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At a time when academe can sometimes feel less than welcoming toward traditional religious perspectives, the Big 12 Conference should be applauded for truly embracing pluralism and inclusion for all.

Besides securing top-notch athletic talent for years to come, the Big 12’s decision to admit BYU in many ways reflects an antidote to the country’s heightened emotional and cultural clashes: It shows that a more fulsome vision of diversity yields far richer returns than ideological uniformity.

Admittedly, it’s been a journey getting here. Last go around, in 2016, tensions manifested themselves when the Big 12 solicited applications for membership in its conference but ultimately the process resulted in much ado about nothing when the Big 12 demurred, leaving plenty of observers scratching their heads. 

No one quite knew why the Big 12 did not admit new members at the time, but plenty of speculation swirled about why BYU had not been admitted — most of it centered on the fact that BYU is a faith-based institution with an honor code that prohibits any sexual behavior outside of traditional marriage.

That wouldn’t have been a peculiarity to the Big 12 — Baylor is also a private school built on Christian values and has a similar honor code — but it would have raised questions: How would the conference, say, accommodate BYU not playing on Sunday? Football wouldn’t be much of an issue, but it could mean a big lift for scheduling basketball, volleyball or other sports.

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This time around, when the question of Sunday play was raised at the press conference introducing BYU to the Big 12, Commissioner Bob Bowlsby was gracious and unequivocal, “That is something that is baked in when you consider a university like BYU, so we’ll do what’s necessary to respect and honor those requirements.”

The Big 12 is embracing BYU. And that’s what inclusion looks like.

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All this comes amid exciting developments at the school: In the sports realm, the football team had a remarkable 2020 season, finishing 11-1 and receiving the highest ranking in more than two decades at No. 11. On the administrative side, BYU recently created an Office of Belonging to root out racism and “prejudice of any kind, including that based on race, ethnicity, nationality, tribe, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic status, religious belief and sexual orientation.” BYU has also been a participant in an NCAA forum called Common Ground, exploring ways to build bridges between LGBTQ athletes and faith-based academic communities.  

BYU gets to bring all this and more to the Big 12 table where it will learn from other teams and universities as they learn from it.

Thankfully, the storm clouds from 2016 have not gathered in 2021. Instead, like the blending of a rainbow’s colors at their margins, those with differences are finding areas of commonality while remaining loyal to their core colors. This signals productive years ahead for a larger, more inclusive Big 12.

Robert Snyder is an associate attorney in Salt Lake City.

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