The Lost Clause

Why is the University of Oregon paying a million bucks to a school that discriminates against gay students?

History hasn’t been kind to Lloyd Eaton.

In nine seasons as head football coach of the University of Wyoming, Eaton led the Cowboys to eight consecutive winning seasons and three conference championships. But when Eaton is recalled, these days — if he’s thought of at all — it’s not for his record as a gridiron innovator who knew how to make teams win.

Rather, he is remembered for his complicity in prejudice.

On Oct. 17, 1969, fourteen of Eaton’s African American players came to his office with a concern. The all-white team they were scheduled to play the next day, Brigham Young University, represented a school that is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which actively and openly discriminated against blacks, barring them from equal participation in church rites and relegating them to second-class status at BYU.

The Black 14, as they came to be known, asked their coach for permission to speak out against BYU’s policies. Eaton didn’t even entertain the conversation. Protests were against team rules. He summarily kicked the players off the team.

News of Eaton’s action ignited a national conversation about whether upstanding universities should engage in sports competitions against discriminatory schools. In the following months, university sports programs across the nation were pushed to boycott BYU. Some did so publicly. Others did so tacitly. Many simply ignored the criticism, reasoning that the football field wasn’t the right place to take a stand against racism.

Oregon State University and the University of Oregon were in the latter group. In the decade following the Black 14 incident, as universities across the nation took a stand against racism, Oregon State athletic officials drew up the paperwork for their football team to play four games against BYU, while Oregon sports heads committed their team to one.

It might have been inconsequential. Oregon’s rival schools were, at the time, some of the worst football programs in the nation. The extent to which they could offer legitimacy to BYU’s program was limited by their insignificance to the wider football world.

Times have changed, particularly for the UO.

Not so much for BYU.

The Latter-day Saints Church — often called the “Mormon” church, although its leaders have recently abandoned that nickname — officially ended its racist policy in 1978, but the church and its flagship university weren’t done with discrimination.

At BYU today, a so-called “honor code” specifically bans from the university students who engage in acts of physical intimacy with people of the same sex, even when those acts are completely non-sexual. Gay students worry they can be kicked out of school for things that heterosexual students don’t have to think twice about, like holding hands in the quad, cuddling in the student center, or sharing a kiss at the campus duck pond.

Although gay marriage has been legal in Utah since 2013, two years before it was federally legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court, even students in legally sanctioned same-sex marriages are banned from studying at BYU. Such marriages, the school argues, are “sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family.” Straight students, meanwhile, can marry at will, and they do so in droves. By some estimates, about 25 percent of BYU students are married, about four times the national average.

Under U.S. law, private institutions that receive federal funding can claim a “religious faith” exemption to Title IX, which provides women with equal access to educational services but has been expanded in recent years to protect LGBTQ students. BYU has a legal right to discriminate.

But some LGBTQ rights advocates believe other universities should be grappling with the same questions that faced their predecessors after the Black 14 story put the Latter-day Saints church’s racial prejudice into the national spotlight 40 years ago.

Instead of answering those questions — or even asking them — universities across the nation, including the UO, are lining up to do business with BYU. A review of dozens of contracts between BYU and the schools it has contracted to compete against on the gridiron shows millions of dollars changing hands between institutions with strict non-discrimination rules and a university that openly and actively discriminates against LGBTQ individuals.

And who will be doing the most to enrich BYU in coming years?

That would be the University of Oregon.


The UO prohibits discrimination “on the basis of race, color, sex, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, marital status, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in all programs, activities and employment practices.”

No school can make rules for other schools, of course. But institutions of higher education can choose the conditions under which they will do business with others. Indeed, Oregon requires both contractors and subcontractors to not only commit to non-discrimination but also “to take affirmative action to employ and advance in employment individuals without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability or veteran status.” The school apparently thinks this is important, as this section of the general “University Standard Terms and Conditions” contract is the only part of the document in boldface.

Under those terms, Oregon could not hire a janitorial company to clean Autzen Stadium if that company refused to employ people who are in gay relationships. It couldn’t hire a concessionaire to sell hotdogs at Duck games if that company fired people for getting married to someone of the same sex. If Oregon tried to staff its athletics contests with a security firm that maintained the same policies as BYU, the contract would likely be turned down.

But the contract the UO signed with BYU in 2015 for a Sept. 10, 2022 game at Autzen Stadium doesn’t include a non-discrimination clause. That would seem to give Oregon room to do business with a school that encourages students, faculty and staff to report on members of the college community who are suspected of homosexual behavior and other honor code violations. (There’s even a convenient web form to make things easy for snitches.)

“I’ve had friends kicked out of BYU for being queer,” says Christa Cannell, a board member at Logan Pride, which advocates for LGBTQ students in northern Utah, where one of BYU’s historic rivals, Utah State University, is located. “That’s a very real and very harmful practice.”

Cannell laments a social environment that allows discriminatory organizations of all sorts to continue doing business as usual without fear of repercussions.

“Unfortunately, being anti-queer in America isn’t a ‘bad enough’ thing yet to, say, justify turning down an organization or turning down money,” she says. “A lot of organizations actively donate to anti-queer causes and other organizations do business with them all the time.”

In the midst of all of the problems faced by queer students at universities across the nation, Cannell says, a football game against BYU probably isn’t on a lot of people’s radars.

“Non-allies don’t likely care. Allies probably don’t see it unless it’s pointed out,” she says. “The priority is football and entertainment. That’s the status quo. I’m not sure what would need to happen to change that.”


Being gay isn’t a choice. Playing football against BYU is.

BYU isn’t in the Pac-12, like the UO. In fact, BYU’s football program isn’t in any athletic conference. It has been independent since the 2011-12 season. And although it has openly sought to join a major conference since then, the university’s record on gay rights is one of the factors that seem to have prevented the major conferences from asking BYU to join.

In 2016, when the Big 12 appeared to be entertaining the idea of inviting BYU into its ranks, 25 LGBTQ advocacy organizations signed onto a joint letter urging the conference to think twice. “As organizations committed to ending homophobia, biphobia and transphobia both on and off the field of play, we are deeply troubled by this possibility,” the letter read. “We feel it would be extremely problematic to include BYU in your conference expansion.”

The invite from the Big 12 never came, and no other major conference has shown any public interest in BYU. That means that BYU can’t rely on a conference to set its schedule. So, when UO officials decided to compete against BYU in football, they did so as the result of a voluntary and independent negotiation for revenue sharing.

That negotiation would seem to be an outlier for a school that has worked hard to be inclusive.

The university ranking organization College Choice has the UO as number 11 on its list of the best LGBTQ schools in the nation. The UO has been out front with coming out support, LGBTQ scholarships, gender-inclusive housing and simplified processes for name and gender changes.

Why would a school that works so hard to be inclusive sign a contract to play football with a school that consistently appears on lists of the most anti-gay campuses in the nation — ranking fourth, for instance, in The Advocate’s 2017 list of the “20 colleges most hostile to LGBT students”?

Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ advocacy organization that helped push the Big 12 to reject BYU, isn’t surprised by the disconnect between the stated principles of individual institutions and their practices.

“There are a lot of schools within the NCAA that are supportive of their LGBTQ athletes and fans, but that isn’t necessarily evident through their actions, such as who they play,” Taylor says. “There is still a culture of looking the other way.”


While Oregon is one of the most prominent universities to sign on to play football against BYU since the Latter-day Saints school went independent, it isn’t the only institution that has roundly ignored BYU’s anti-gay policies. It takes a lot of schools to fill out a football schedule, after all.

It takes a lot of dough to make that happen. For coming to Provo to play football at BYU, other schools usually get a check for $250,000. BYU generally gets a similar part of the take when it goes on the road, according to the contracts.

Such contracts are typical between schools of similar sporting merit. But, like many large sports programs scheduling non-conference opponents, BYU pays larger “body bag” fees to schools that agree to come to Provo for a likely whupping. It has agreed, for instance, to pay Utah’s Dixie State University, another public university, $425,000 for a game scheduled for 2022.

Such arrangements work the other way, too. Oregon will put $1.1 million into a BYU account to get the Cougars to come play football in Eugene in 2022. That’s by far the largest check any school will write to BYU in coming years.

That doesn’t sit well with Liz Sauer, the communication manager at the LGBTQ advocacy organization Basic Rights Oregon.

“It’s really curious and, frankly, disappointing that the University of Oregon, which has generally done quite a good job of supporting LGBT equality, has gone out of its way to support and play BYU when it has such discriminatory policies,” Sauer says. “I would hope the university is open to criticism and open to discussion with the community on its policies.”

Sauer wants Oregon to answer some basic questions about the contract it signed.

“Like, why is this the case? Why is it important? Since BYU is not in the same conference as the University of Oregon, and they’re not required to play them, what is the point? What’s their purpose here?” she asked. “I would hope they listen to students and the community on why BYU’s policy is problematic to students.”

And she hopes Oregon students, faculty and staff will make their voices heard on this issue.

If that were to happen, maybe athletic directors would think twice before signing contracts like the one Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens put his signature on in 2015, committing to a game seven years in the future against a school with a long history of discrimination.

Mullen’s top spokesman, Jimmy Stanton, declined to address the seeming hypocrisy that exists when a school refuses to sign contracts with institutions that aren’t actively committed to non-discrimination, but ignores that policy when it comes to football. He noted that BYU has scheduled games with other Pac-12 opponents, too, “as they are a strong non-conference opponent within the region.”

That’s true. BYU’s historic rival, the University of Utah, is on its schedule this season. So are the University of Southern California and the University of Washington. Arizona State starts a home-and-home against BYU next season, as does Stanford University. The University of Arizona and Washington State University will play BYU in 2021.

All of those schools have publicly committed to battling LGBTQ discrimination.

Oregon, Stanton noted, has “a strong culture of inclusivity and diversity,” including the BEOREGON campaign, which “encourages all Ducks to be their most authentic selves.” He declined, however, to address the fact that his university has agreed to pay more than a million dollars to a school where gay student-athletes can’t be their authentic selves.


The National Collegiate Athletic Association scored a significant public relations victory in 2016, when it threatened to pull its championship events from North Carolina over that state’s infamous anti-trans “bathroom bill.” And yet, as Cyd Zeigler of OutSports pointed out at the time, the NCAA continued to turn a blind eye to the “far more sinister and discriminatory” policies affecting LGBTQ athletes and other students at BYU.

NCAA officials can’t argue, as many athletic directors did, that they simply didn’t know about BYU’s discriminatory policies. In 2017, the director of the NCAA’s inclusion office, Amy Wilson, visited BYU “to discuss ways to create more inclusive and respectful environments and experiences for NCAA student-athletes and staff of all sexual orientations, gender identities and religious beliefs.” Even then, Wilson avoided direct criticism. And since then, the NCAA has remained silent about BYU’s treatment of LGBTQ students and faculty.

But if the NCAA is looking for cover for its habitual turning of blind eyes, it doesn’t have to look far. All it has to do is look over to Nike World Headquarters, in Beaverton.

When Nike’s new corporate code of conduct was released in May, the company’s chief ethics and compliance officer, Ann Miller, wrote that all Nike employees should be “guided by both the letter and the spirit” of a code that expressly prohibits discrimination, not just among Nike employees, but also “colleagues, visitors and partners.” A slide presentation created to publicize the code proclaimed “we choose who we do business with carefully.”

A few months later, Nike won widespread praise for its pro-equality “Be True” campaign, including a commercial with a voiceover from triathlete Chris Mosier. “None of us can truly win,” Mosier says in the video, “until the rules are the same for everyone.”

Yet when Nike signed its latest licensing agreement with BYU, the company was silent about the fact that, at BYU, the rules are absolutely not the same for everyone.

Rather than speaking out against discrimination, the company’s founder, Phil Knight, slathered praise on BYU. “We don’t have a better relationship in the country than the one we have with BYU,” Knight says in a statement. “We are very proud of it. We love the relationship and the program.”

Nike spokesman Josh Benedek repeatedly declined to explain how a company that markets itself as a supporter of LGBTQ athletes could be proud of a relationship with a university that openly and actively discriminates against gay athletes.

But Nike isn’t alone in that sort of duality.

ESPN makes it clear to advertisers that it won’t permit discriminatory messages to be broadcast on its networks. The Walt Disney Company-owned sports network has also taken action to punish discriminatory language on its channels; in 2016, it fired commentator Curt Schilling over transphobic comments. But in 2010, the powerful cable network inked a muti-year contract to broadcast BYU football games — not only putting that school in the national spotlight but giving other teams a powerful incentve to ignore BYU’s discrimination in exchange for a piece of the exposure.

In a statement during his school’s annual football media day, Tom Holmoe, BYU athletic director, credited the ESPN contract for the school’s ability to line up a strong home schedule, according to a report in The Salt Lake Tribune. ESPN has also played a hand in getting BYU into bowl games that the school would otherwise have been passed over for — making arrangements, for instance, for 6-win-and-6-loss BYU to play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2018, even as other teams with similar records were left out of postseason play.

Holmoe says an extension to the school’s contract with the network, originally set to run from 2010 to 2018, is being negotiated. “We plan to be with ESPN for a long time,” he says.

Derek Volner, the manager for communications for ESPN’s college sports division, wouldn’t dispute that. He referred to a quote from the network’s senior director for programming and acquisitions, Kurt Dargis, who affirmed in June that “ESPN has a great relationship with BYU and its athletics department,” and that “we expect that affiliation to continue.”

ESPN officials declined to address their network’s role in providing exposure to a school where a gay football player would risk expulsion for celebrating a win with a kiss from his boyfriend.


Duff Tittle, BYU associate athletic director for communications, says that at his school, “we strive to treat all members of our campus community and those who visit the school with respect, dignity and love.”

That’s all he would offer in response to the notion that his school — which openly and actively discriminates against LGBTQ students — has been signing a lot of contracts with institutions that ordinarily maintain strict non-discrimination policies.

Why would Tittle say anything more? BYU has a right to discriminate, under federal law, and it hasn’t been having trouble finding other schools that are willing to ignore its prejudice toward LGBTQ students.

BYU certainly isn’t the only institution of higher education with discriminatory policies that target LGBTQ students and faculty. LeTourneau University in Texas has banned gay student athletes from dating. Azusa Pacific University in California pushed out its former chair of theology and philosophy after he came out as transgender. And Liberty, which is by far the lowest-profile of any school BYU will play this year, has a long and well-documented history of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, including pushing gay students toward so-called “conversion therapy” and denying equal treatment to the same-sex and trans spouses of military personel, according to the nonprofit advocacy organization Campus Pride.

But BYU is unquestionably the highest profile school in that group when it comes to college sports, and the only one competing in Division 1 athletics.

At least one BYU student athlete believes that makes her school a legitimate target for protest.

Like other LGBTQ students at BYU, Emma Gee, an openly bisexual cross country and track runner, is bound by the school’s honor code to avoid engaging in “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

Gee loves her team. Fellow student athletes, she says, have been nothing but supportive. But she pulls no punches about her school’s anti-gay policy: It is homophobic and contributes to an atmosphere of paranoia for LGBTQ students, and especially student-athletes, she says.

“Many student athletes here are very prominent in BYU’s culture, so there’s a lot of eyes on them,” she notes.

What should other schools do to stand up to such discrimination? “I think any school that recognizes the homophobia that it is, has every right to protest against that,” Gee says. “If schools were to choose to do that, it would make sense to me. Any time there are things that are unfair and not right, people need to speak up.”

That pressure can come from within the school, as it has with Gee. But, she stressed, “in some people’s situations, it’s not safe to come out.”

“As someone who is here and I see a lot of the pain, I wish things would be better,” she says. “If that is what it took — people breaking contracts with BYU, or not signing at all — that would be great.”

Rob Moolman, the executive director of the Utah Pride Center, says all peaceful options should be on the table.

“Maybe we’re on path to look at protests at BYU, or boycotts on games for universities with discriminatory practices,” he says. “I hope we’re beginning to see some of that mentality emerge.” He adds, I hope we’re moving to a time where people will start to reassess why they continue to foster these relationships.”

Could that really make a difference? Not if you take Latter-day Saint leaders at their word. BYU’s policies stem from church dogma, and “central to God’s plan,” the church’s website proclaims, “the doctrine of marriage between a man and woman is an integral teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and will not change.”

Those words might sound familiar to those who were struggling to understand the same church’s doctrine, back in late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Black 14 incident brought its racist policies to national attention.

The priesthood ban is “not my policy or the church’s policy,” church president Spencer Kimball said in 1973. “It is the policy of the Lord who has established it.”

Five years later, Kimball — who, like all Latter-day Saint presidents before and since, was considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” by church members — declared that he had been told by God that the ban on full rights for black members should end.

Regardless of whether BYU and Latter-day Saints officials ever hear from heaven on the issue of equality for LGBTQ individuals, it’s clear to Taylor that they need to hear from their fellow humans.

“It is incredibly frustrating,” he says. “There is still a very reactive state of mind. Institutions will do the right thing when there is enough public pressure, but to actually invest in that proactive solution, I think there are far fewer institutions actually leading the way.”

If Oregon led the way, Sauer of Basic Rights Oregon says, “it could have a similar impact,” to the national response to the Black 14 protest and resulting boycotts in the 1960s and 1970s.

“If students, faculty, and staff have a desired outcome, whatever injustice needs to be faced, and people come together as a community and say, ‘No. No more. Not on my watch,’ it’s one of the most powerful actions you can take,” she says. “If students and faculty came together like that, it would be a really powerful thing.”

Carter Moore and Kat Webb are students at Utah State University, where Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Communication. Versions of this article are scheduled to appear this week in Utah and Florida. 

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