May 20, 2010
From the rarely visited "Winning Isn't Everything" department, Brigham Young administrators and Church of Latter Day Saints leaders rejected a bid by Harvey Unga, the school's career rushing leader after three straight 1,000-yard seasons, to return to school in time for his senior campaign this fall. The earliest Unga can return to school will be in January, after the conclusion of football season; more likely, with no eligibility remaining, he's bound for the NFL's supplemental draft in July.
Unga wanted to return to the team "in the most desperate way" after briefly withdrawing last month to avoid punishment for breaking BYU's strict honor code, which prohibits, among other things, alcohol, tobacco tea, coffee, obscenity, "homosexual behavior or advocacy" and, as part of the Dress and Grooming Standards, beards, sleeveless shirts and dresses or skirts with hemlines or slits above the knees. (Though one may be granted a beard exception.) It also prohibits premarital sex. And because Unga's withdrawal from the university came at the same time – indeed, was even announced in the same press release – as his longtime girlfriend and one-time fiancée, women's basketball player Keilani Moeaki (also denied reinstatement), the obvious assumption is that the couple has wavered from the path of "a chaste and virtuous life."
That is only an assumption, and one even the local columnists in Utah seem unwilling to broach. For all we know, Unga and Moeaki may have been caught in a bar, or a Starbucks, or wearing tank tops. Either way, it's a startling window into the culture at BYU, which has somehow managed to recruit and sustain tremendous success on the field despite imposing a moral filter even most religious schools would consider too sanctimonious.
In fact, if there's anything surprising about Unga's official exit from the team, it's not so much that a school would send a record-breaking star packing for an infraction literally no other major program in the country would bat an eyelash over as it is that many more players aren't on their way out behind him – or maybe that it can recruit record-breaking guys with NFL ambitions in the first place. The attrition rate, though (aside from the occasional interlude for a church mission), is remarkably low. Eighteen-year-olds do sign up for this in the 21st Century, and apparently stick to it (I won't speculate on the rate of covert lapses). So yes, at any other school in America, Unga would almost certainly still be eligible, and likely surrounded by quite a few blue-chips. But if you decide to play at BYU, obviously you really want to play for BYU.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.