The BYU women’s basketball team garnered national attention two weeks ago during its improbable run into the NCAA championship tournament. The success once again cast light on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) and the influence of Church standards on the team’s conduct during the tournament.
The Lady Cougars earned a berth in the finals tournament, often called the “Sweet 16,” with upsets over North Carolina State and Nebraska, and were the third 12-seed in NCAA history to reach the round of 16, prompting the New York Times to run a profile piece on the team. ESPN.com featured a picture of the team on its front page for several days following the win over Nebraska.
A main talking point in most of the news surrounding the team was what would happen if BYU made it to the semifinals (“Final Four”). The game was to be played on a Sunday, and as an ESPN article aptly noted shortly after the girls booked their trip to the Sweet 16, the NCAA would have been obligated to change their schedule if the team advanced.
Several journalists in contact with the team were reminded of the 2002 women’s squad’s similar trip to and success in the same NCAA tournament. That team was singled out by the media after choosing not to practice the day before a big game against a heavily-favored Iowa State—they were “focused on other things,” said then-BYU forward Danielle Cheeseman, because it was Sunday.
When BYU head coach Jeff Judkins was asked about the possibility of having to compete on Sunday in the NCAA championship game, he responded matter-of-factly.
“We will not be playing in that game,” Judkins said. “It would have to be moved to a Monday or Tuesday or else we would forfeit.”
Luckily for Judkins, the Lady Cougars and every BYU athlete since 1998, that wouldn’t have been an issue. According to an NCAA rule (dubbed the “BYU rule,” as a matter of fact), the tournament’s schedule must be altered for religious reasons.
At the same time, Judkins’ conviction was unusual enough to draw the attention of sports fans and media everywhere. Being willing to forfeit a national championship game because of religious convictions isn’t only widely unheard of. Many fans—particularly those caught up in the hype of “March Madness,” the fitting nickname of the NCAA basketball tournament—may think such an idea is downright crazy.
For BYU’s athletics programs, ideas like that are exactly what makes them special—they’re what make sports journalists like Billy Witz at the New York Times look at a team like the Lady Cougars, blink, and ask, “Seriously?”
As The Church of Jesus Christ and its affiliates—namely BYU—are given more media exposure, attention like this is bound to keep increasing—and the people giving that attention will probably keep asking, in essence, “No sports on Sunday? That’s weird. Why not?”
If they ask a member of the Church, they probably won’t complain—they’ll just offer them a copy of the Book of Mormon.