So far the basketball season at Brigham Young University has hardly been anything to climb the nearby Wasatch Mountains and shout about. Ending a 10-game ordeal on the road, the Cougars last week limped home to Provo, Utah with a 4-10 record, one of the worst starts in Stan Watts' lengthy coaching career. That was depressing enough, of course, but the boys from "The Y"—which is what everybody in Utah calls Brigham Young—also were bedeviled by a special problem: a gathering wave of protest against a recently reaffirmed doctrine of the Mormon Church that Negroes be denied admission to priesthood. As much as the Cougars would like to ignore them, the protests have grown in intensity to the point where they have almost transcended all else.
"You try not to think about it," said one of the Cougars, "but it does affect your play. Sometimes there are phone calls—'Look out, we're going to get you'—and other threats. And there's always tension in the stands."
"The thing that worries me and the boys," said Watts, a balding, plump man of 58 who seems sadly puzzled by the times, "is how far will it go?" Then, leaning over and lowering his voice, he added, "One of these days, you know, somebody might pull a gun or something."
The protests are not rooted in basketball, or in any sport, but in the attitude toward Negroes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which runs The Y and claims 96% of its students as members. The doctrine that men with black skin are not qualified to enter the church's priesthood was incorporated in the writings of Prophet-Founder Joseph Smith, which Mormons believe were direct revelations from God. Since membership in the priesthood and advancement through its ranks is the essence of being a male Mormon, the church has been condemned as racist by various civil rights groups, which see in athletics a quick, effective way to dramatize the issue and attract widespread attention.
The basketball team's problems began last season at New Mexico, where several blacks charged on the floor and gave the Black Power salute during the national anthem. This season's protests have included the wearing of black wristbands by some San Jose State players, the booing of The Y's dancing Cougarettes during the Quaker City Tournament in Philadelphia and the throwing of eggs on the floor at Arizona State. By far the most serious trouble, however, came on January 8, when the Cougars went to Tucson to play in Arizona's old Bear Down Gymnasium.
Disorder developed after the Arizona president, in a strongly worded statement, refused to cancel the game on the grounds that the issue was irrelevant to an athletic contest. Vandals poured lighter fluid on the gym floor and set it afire, causing $100 damage. About 50 protesters, yelling, "Stop the game," tried to ram down the gym's main entrance, only to be stopped by a solid line of police and security guards. All five Arizona starters—three of them black—wore black wristbands. With 1:40 left in the first half, nine blacks walked on the floor, temporarily stopping play. Arizona eventually won 90-77.
Going virtually unnoticed in all the uproar was the most intriguing fact of all: the Arizona coach, Bruce Larson, is a bishop in the Mormon Church, so, in effect, the Wildcat players and fans were protesting against their own coach. This is only one of the ambiguities involved in a highly confusing situation that is getting fuzzier all the time. On the individual level, nobody knows for sure who sympathizes with what. Even on the Brigham Young team, five of the 12 varsity members not only do not belong to the Mormon Church but have some surprising ideas about the church's policy and the protests.
There is Jim Miller, for instance. He is a 6'5" junior, a starting guard, with the slouchy insolence of a Steve McQueen. At Las Vegas, where he was All-State three years, Miller was the only white player on his team's starting five. A non-Mormon, he came to Brigham Young because of its national schedule and because there seemed to be a good chance he would play.
"I don't know that much about church doctrine, but as far as calling the institution racist, well, I think most whites are racist," Miller said. "I went to school and played ball with blacks. When I go home now, I feel a little uneasy about saying where I go to school. Sometimes I just don't tell.
"I think the protesters have a lot of legitimate gripes. I'm just wondering what they can achieve, what their motives really are. I think they have a legitimate argument in many ways. If some good comes out of it, then I would say it's all right."