SALT LAKE CITY, UT - SEPTEMBER 15: Officials talk over a penalty that gave the BYU Cougars a second chance at a field goal against the University of Utah Utes during the second half of an college football game September 15, 2012 at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah beat BYU 24-21. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images) *** Local Caption
We saw two stories juxtaposed this week: that of a Utah fan, Josh Bennett, who harassed Bronco Mendenhall, and that of a BYU player, JD Falslev, who used an expletive (which is an honor code violation) in cursing a Utah fan. The discussion surrounding these two stories invoked a trope that is in desperate need of clarity.
We have heard the idea many times: because of the honor code, BYU representatives should be held to a higher standard. When a BYU student or player does something inappropriate, we criticize him specifically for the honor code violation, and when an opposing representative does something wrong, we give him more leniency on the grounds that the individual has not made the same kind of commitment. This is not only true of opposing fans and media. Those associated with BYU invoke the same double standard.
The problem with this practice is it is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the honor code. Contrary to what most people believe, the honor code is not moral law. It is an agreement to abide by moral law, which antedates the honor code and applies to all human beings - those who have signed a formal "honor code" and those who have not.
Put in the concrete terms of this week's events, cursing another human being was not wrong because JD Falslev signed an honor code. It was wrong because violent language causes harm. The idea that we should apply unique moral standards to BYU representatives is not justified, because, in fact, all human beings should meet high standards for moral behavior. The difference is that if BYU players and students misbehave, they get kicked out of school.
One problem with basing our criticism of Falslev on the fact that he violated the honor code is that, by doing so, we tacitly suggest the behavior would be acceptable if the honor code were not involved. In fact, that was the implicit argument behind some Utah fans' criticism of Falslev: the inappropriate behavior of one of their own is at least partially justified because, unlike Falslev, Josh Bennett never promised to behave himself. This is a deeply flawed argument.
Of course, there is something to be said for honoring a personal commitment. We can condemn the person who violates an agreement with someone else as dishonest, but if that is the primary justification for our criticism (or lack thereof), we fail to address the moral issues on which the honor code is founded to begin with. The violation of one's word becomes the only punishable offense, and we then have no reliable standard. We criticize too much in one case and excuse too much in another, and we criticize and excuse the wrong things.
Don't think that I am suggesting Josh Bennett deserved more criticism than he received. Also, don't think I consider JD Falslev above reproach. Those are topics for another day. What I do believe is that if the honor code is the at the heart of our judgment, we are missing the point.