The fresh air of Brandon Davies' return
Maybe BYU and Davies can clear out some of the stench befouling college sports
Given the long and sordid tradition of college sports scandals and the hypocrisies that keep piling up all the time, the Brandon Davies situation late last season at Brigham Young University wouldn't even rise to many folks' definition of a "scandal."
Davies, then a sophomore for the BYU basketball team, admitted he had premarital sex. He had violated the part of the BYU honor code that requires students to live a "chaste and virtuous life," and he told the truth when school officials confronted him about it in a private meeting.
That was on a Monday. By Tuesday, March 1, BYU made national headlines when it announced that Davies had been dismissed from the team, effective immediately -- even though the basketball team was 27-2, ranked No. 3 in the country and in the full throes of Jimmermania. The NCAA tournament was just two weeks away, and the Cougars, behind Jimmer Fredette and Davies, seemed in line for a possible No. 1 seed and a serious run at the national title.
As it turned out, none of that happened.
We'll never know whether the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Davies' presence in the middle would have taken BYU deeper into the tournament than its Sweet 16 overtime loss to Florida. ("He means everything to them," Colorado State coach Tim Miles has said.) But that's really not even the point right now.
The really, truly remarkable thing about what happened between Davies' dismissal eight months ago and the easy-to-miss news on Friday that BYU has reinstated him is how everything about his case flies smack in the face of the way most discussions about college sports' problems are trending these days.
Haven't we pretty much surrendered to the idea that big-time college sports supposedly are impossible to control? Aren't we constantly fed this idea that trouble or corruption is the inevitable cost of competing at the highest level? Hasn't it become way more fashionable to take a sort of à la carte approach to enforcing institutional standards? Punt, for example, on punishing your star quarterback until your BCS game is over? It's en vogue to mock NCAA rules as stupid or unenforceable and shrug at the condoning that openly goes on when players grab money or gifts under the table.
Nothing Davies did even rose to that level. Yet, you know what the reaction was at BYU when Davies was suspended?
"You know what you get when you sign with BYU," Fredette said of the code.
A CRITICAL FACTOR
ESPN.com senior basketball writer Andy Katz analyzes the importance of Brandon Davies to BYU's 2011-12 season in light of how the Cougars fared without him in a recent tour of Greece. Read his analysis here.
Head coach Dave Rose added, "A lot of people try to judge if this is right or wrong, but it's a commitment they make. It's about commitment."
Davies probably would never presume to say that he has become a walking, talking antidote to the cynics who say that college sports are irredeemably broken.
But he and Brigham Young University have a chance to be.
That's the significance of Davies' story. You don't have to agree with the school's honor code -- which also requires students to be honest, abstain from alcoholic beverages, tobacco, tea, coffee and substance abuse, and attend church regularly -- to be fascinated by the contrarian questions that should be raised by BYU's insistence on hewing to some higher standard. Or Davies' admirable reaction to that.
Davies didn't bolt town when trouble hit the way everyone from Pete Carroll to Reggie Bush to Cam Newton to Terrelle Pryor did at other places. He didn't sneer at playing by the rules the way some former University of Miami football players have since booster Nevin Shapiro started singing from his prison cell about providing them with jewelry, prostitutes and, in one case, an abortion for a player's girlfriend while they were still at The U. Davies didn't say, "Who needs this crap?" and saunter off to the NBA draft, blowing off his education on the way.
Instead, he spent the past six months working with the BYU dean's office and following the undisclosed steps he needed to take to be readmitted to school. (He withdrew last year at the end of the basketball-season semester.) This is the same kid who, before his suspension, responded this way to a question in a Q-and-A interview posted on the BYU website about what he would be if he wasn't playing basketball: "I'd probably be in trouble."
How does that migration happen?
When he finally earned his way back Friday, Davies, 20, issued a statement saying -- are you ready for this? -- "I'm excited to be back at BYU and look forward to the future. I'm grateful for this opportunity."
Grateful? Not feeling exploited, cheated, victimized?
That word choice alone makes Davies my college athlete of the year.
BYU declined ESPN.com's requests to make Davies or Rose available for further comment.
At minimum, what the BYU-Davies story suggests is something the late, great tennis star Arthur Ashe used to argue all the time: If you demand more from people, people will rise to meet the higher standards. You can get what you insist upon. So don't sell people's capacity to do the right thing short. People do summon their best selves when it's required of them.
It's been such a smarmy year across college sports that it's easy to think the whole damn football/basketball-industrial complex needs to be cleaned out and fumigated from top to bottom when you add it up.
But there are other principled programs besides BYU, which is owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Go check the graduation rate for Pat Summitt's women's basketball teams at Tennessee or the number of major NCAA violations that Joe Paterno's Penn State football program has been hit with in his half-century there. No one ever suggested that Dean Smith cheated. Or Bo Schembechler. Or John Thompson. The mere suggestion that Duke's Mike Krzyzewski might've inadvertently committed a minor violation by accepting a phone call from a recruit earlier this summer shook college sports when the news first broke -- not Krzyzewski, too! -- until the details came out.
Davies isn't the only college athlete who has persevered after a fall from grace, either. Yet he deserves praise. There's something rousing about seeing a kid who was raised in Provo, Utah, and stayed home to attend BYU even though he was nationally recruited not giving into the temptation to say the school owed him a break, or the fears that life could be intolerable for him if he stayed.
BYU suffered more losses (three) in its eight games without Davies than it did in the first 29 games it played with him (two). Coincidentally or not, the Cougars' dream season lost steam after he went out, taking his strong post defense and averages of 11 points and six rebounds with him. He could've easily been scapegoated or shunned. Yet he hasn't been.
Which brings us to another terrific part of this story.
It sounds almost cheesy to say that what's often forgotten about people who mete out tough love is the "love" part. But look: Davies wasn't run off or ostracized from BYU, as he might've been in more callous or hypocritical places. His teammates and coaches actually pulled him in a little closer, held on to him a little tighter. He sat on BYU's bench in street clothes and rooted for the team the rest of the season. When the Cougars won the Mountain West tournament title, he climbed the ladder and took his turn cutting down part of the net like everyone else because, as guard Jackson Emery said, "He's as big a part of this team as anyone. He screwed up. We've all screwed up in our own individual ways. It's good to have him here."
"He's a brother to us," added Fredette, who lost his last chance to add a national title to the numerous national player of the year awards he captured.
Now Jimmer is gone to the NBA. Davies is back. BYU is expecting big things from its basketball team again.
But no matter how this season goes, this is a lock: It's going to be damn hard to top that offseason the Cougars just had.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.