Ben Criddle: Is BYU athletics a missionary tool?


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PROVO — It's a tale as old as time for most BYU fans — an age-old question discussed among many within Cougar Nation: Is BYU athletics a missionary tool?

The question elicits a debate among BYU fans, and has undoubtedly created hostility between certain BYU fans and the most active members of the LDS faith that love nothing more than to see BYU lose week in and week out.

Furthermore, not all BYU fans are in favor of putting BYU athletes on a pedestal as ambassadors of the faith and institution. I've witnessed those within the school and faith ardently state that athletics don't "build up the kingdom" and "athletes aren't always the best representatives of the university."

That being said, what is the actual mission of athletics within BYU with its obvious ties to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Mission statements

The church's website states, "The mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to help all of God's children come to Jesus Christ through learning about his gospel, making and keeping promises with God (covenants), and practicing Christlike love and service.

"Members of the church believe in helping individuals and families fulfill the commandments to love God and to love your neighbor. Members do so by living the gospel of Jesus Christ, caring for those in need, inviting all to receive the gospel, and uniting families through family history and temple work."

In essence, there are four basic tenets:

  • Accept Jesus Christ and live his gospel.
  • Invite others to accept Jesus Christ and follow him.
  • Unite families for eternity.
  • Care for those in need.

The mission statement from the university itself reads as such:

"The Mission of Brigham Young University — founded, supported and guided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — is to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.

"A BYU education should be spiritual strengthening, intellectually enlarging, and character building, leading to lifelong learning and service."

The mission statement from BYU athletics and its own perceived role within the university is stated as such:

"Build a distinctive, exceptional athletic program that is fully aligned with the mission and value of Brigham Young University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Three program pillars

  • Develop student-athletes into leaders.
  • Live faith-based values of morality, charity and honor.
  • Win at the conference and national level, while displaying world-class sportsmanship.

Taking these three mission statements into account, what role can BYU athletics possibly play in the mission of the church and BYU?

New leader brings new vision

Shane Reese, who has been president of BYU for just over a year, recently made an appearance on the "All-in Podcast" to make what I consider some very encouraging and exciting comments regarding the current state and direction of Cougars athletics with regards to carrying BYU's stated missions.

Reese has already made some novel moves within the institution regarding its curriculum during his relatively short time as president. Through that curriculum he learned, or at least had the lesson reinforced to him, that athletics can and do provide a productive means for individuals to meet and overcome challenges.

"I think sports teach some amazing lessons. We have a brand new course required for all freshmen, and I asked them a question in class about what was a moment when you felt stretched in your life and where you felt that stretching made you better," Reese said. "That's how I asked the questions, and I was amazed (that) men, women, athletically inclined people, non-athletically inclined people — almost all of the examples ended up being some kind of sports analogy. … There is this soul-stretching character-building element of sports."

Reese was quick to note on the podcast that athletics certainly don't serve as the only vehicle in people's lives to teach valuable life lessons, but does stand as a prominent one for certain individuals.

Teaching from athletics

When considering the popularity of athletics, and particularly with BYU in its new Big 12 platform, it's important to note the reach athletic programs can have. Reese seems to understand this well and believes the athletics program can prove an effective vehicle to spread the institution's unique message.

"It's also amazing to me to see what athletics can do to increase the visibility and help with some missionary efforts of the church," Reese said. "We don't always do it right, and we certainly have areas where we can improve, but when we do this right it's amazing what a tool it can be to share the light of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with people who may not open their hearts and their minds to the conversation otherwise."

Reese saw this firsthand during the 2023 football season when that particular athletic program made a relatively simple, but widely notable and impactful move.

"One of the traditions of our football team is to not only run out with the American flag and the BYU flag, but we've run out the state flag of the school where we're visiting," Reese said. "I heard from West Virginia fans who were in tears. They usually started booing teams when they ran onto the field. But they couldn't bring themselves to boo BYU because they were so touched by us running out the West Virginia state flag as part of our introduction to the Big 12, and I just think that effort is a great illustration of the wonderful things that athletics can do."

Reese understands the changing dynamic within college athletics better than most, but is also aware of the opportunity BYU athletics has currently to seize the moment and use its inherent strengths to spread its message. Building competitive athletic products only enhances the reach of BYU's Christ-centered message, which Reese appears to realize as well as any person who has served as BYU's president.

"The opportunity to shine the light of the gospel through our athletics and our athletes is remarkable," Reese said. "So I'm bullish, but I also recognize that the landscape of college athletics is dynamic and a fluid thing, and we're going to have to strive toward ways to make ourselves unique. We're going to have to continue to do things that are different than our peers — much like we do with the rest of our university in an era that's dominated by dollars."

What are the unique ways that BYU does things and how do they operate differently than their peers?

Alignment of silos produces positive results

BYU has three administrative silos that are intend to provide the most complete experience for its Christ-centered and faith-based mission to its student body.

  • Academic administration
  • Student life and honor code administration
  • Athletic administration

Alignment of vision within these three silos is imperative if you want to maximize BYU's impact on all that come in contact with the institution, especially as it relates to athletics.

The silos of BYU seem to be aligning in regard to the purpose and role that athletics play within the university, which historically has proved difficult. This has everything to do with the leadership of Reese and the vision he has for BYU, among other positive factors.

Criddle's conclusion:

BYU has always done more with less resources than their power conference counterparts. It can be argued that per dollar spent, BYU has more wins, championships and individual awards than any other football and basketball program combined in the country. But, what does that matter though if you're not taking "the opportunity to shine the light of the gospel through our athletics and our athletes" as Reese has stated.

You can argue that the most visible representation of the church are the BYU football and basketball teams; TV viewership and attendance numbers at football and basketball games would validate that statement. Additionally, the exposure of BYU athletics may be the only interaction many people in the United States and beyond could ever have with the church.

Due to the unique aspects inherent within BYU, the university will always operate differently than other institutions, but that's not to ignore the importance of investing necessary resources to help raise the visibility of Cougar athletics.

The investments in both football and basketball have been raised significantly to unprecedented levels, which I believe will pair well with the inherent strengths BYU holds as an institution.

In order to maximize the athletic potential and impact of BYU, it's imperative to have a leader that is dynamic, personable, loving, kind, empathic, communicative and that ultimately has core competencies and passions in all three of the aforementioned silos.

This creates alignment within the university, thus reducing the bottlenecks and impediments that have hindered athletic progress in the past. The man who is capable of articulating the vision and purpose of athletics within the university is finally at the helm in the modern era. He's aligning the silos, and the Cougar faithful will be reaping the rewards.

The faith-based silos of academia, student life and athletics all play pivotal roles in introducing the rest of the world to the mission of the church, but BYU athletics, it can be argued, can play the biggest role.

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