Is Brigham Young University's Football Team Ethical?

Brighm Young University wins the Armed Forces Bowl with an unethical trick.

Here is the set-up: Brigham Young University's Cougars, the football team of America's biggest religious university, won a football game against Tulsa (as described by the Associated Press) by "[hurrying] to the line with a call to spike the ball and stop the clock. Instead, [quarterback Riley] Nelson faked the spike and then threw his third touchdown pass...with 11 seconds left to give the Cougars a 24-21 victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl..."

The coach, Bronco Mendenhall, was proud and "smiling," saying "that's the kind of magic of the guys that I get to coach."

Let's stipulate some points, and if you don't agree with these premises, you might not wish to read any further:

1. This cheap trickery is not analogous to a fake anything. Fake punts, fake passes, and feints and reverses are all part of sports combat wherein your ability to deal with multiple athletic strategies is open and above board.

2. Football combat is a measure of physical prowess and mental alertness on the field, not the ability to make the other team think that play is over.

3. This treacherous play was legal and the responsibility and blame for losing the game is Tulsa's, who must be aware of the universal sports admonition, "Be on guard at all times." Praise for winning the game, it says here, does not go to Brigham Young. Certainly not without any qualms.

I have been a tennis athlete all of my life. Somewhat analogous here is the quick serve.

I have never seen it called; maybe it is the same thing.

Wonder if Brigham Young could have won on a last-second play? We'll never know. They'll never know. What a great memory -- they won by tricking Tulsa into believing there was not a play being played.

I'd be interested in hearing whether readers would be proud of their university if they won a bowl game this way, or if they at least would wonder if this is consistent with the sportsmanship one expects, especially, I would have thought, from Brigham Young University.

Maybe one would expect this from a professional team, but colleges should play to a higher moral level.


Red Maryland: The Premier blog of conservative and Republican politics and ideas in the Free State, named one of Maryland's best political blogs by the Washington Post.

Prof. Vatz, professor at Towson University, is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

rob January 01, 2012 at 04:56 PM
I believe Herm Edwards said it best "You play to win the game". I've seen Peyton Manning run the exact same play before. There is nothing wrong with catching your opponent off guard. You play every down as if it were the last. I blame the defense for not being prepared. What if the quaterback was planning to spike the ball but there was a bad snap and he fumbled the ball? A defense that is prepared for anything could have jumped on the ball and game over. I believe it falls under the mental alertness part of the game you mentioned in your second point. It clearly was a designed play and most likely ran in practice leading up to the game. Maybe Mendenhall saw something in Tulsa's game film that made him think they take a play off when the qb spikes the ball.
Richard E. Vatz January 01, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Reader Rob...not an uninteresting perspective, but let me ask you this: my final question was if "readers would be proud of their university if they won a bowl game this way, or if they at least would wonder if this is consistent with the sportsmanship one expects...." After a hard-fought, successful season and a tough college bowl game by your team, would you not have wanted to see who would win if both teams knew a play was in process? This changes the expression "Dare to be great" to "Dare to try to make your opponent think the play is over." Vatz
Rus Vanwestervelt January 02, 2012 at 11:21 PM
There is a fine line dividing how much trickery is permissible in sports (and no, I would not be proud if such a breach in ethics were made at Towson, Goucher, or in any professional sport, for that matter). In September, 2010, Derek Jeter faked getting hit by a pitch. The dramatics were outrageous, where he even paused outside of the batter's box, with hands on knees, to deal with the "pain" from the hit. Later, he said, "It's part of the game. My job is to get on base." I understand the gifts that teams might get on the field due to blown calls. If given it, they'll take it. Who wouldn't. But to resort to trickery? Unwritten rules, once respected unquestionably by both sides of the ball, are now challenged and even ignored by sports teams throughout the country. I remember playing street football in Parkville when I was a kid, and we made some rules that kept the game fair for both sides. You just didn't break those rules. It wasn't fair. But fairness no longer seems to be a part of the game for some players, coaches, and even entire sports programs. I'd like to think that this is a hiccup in the world of athletics and competitive play; common sense tells me otherwise. Similar to the way other organizations and professional communities have created a different set of unwritten rules for the possibility of success, I fear that our children growing up will see this unethical play of the game as just another acceptable strategy to "get the job done" and win the game.
reader January 03, 2012 at 03:15 AM
The game of football, like most games, have rules which must be followed. If they are not, a flag will be thrown and the penalties for the infractions will be enforced. There is no rule in football for faking a spike, just like there is no penalty for a fake field goal or a fake punt or a statue of liberty play, etc. It is the responsibility of the defense to be ready for whatever may come at them. Of course I would be proud of my team if they were to win under these circumstances, I would feel sorry for the losing team because they were not properly prepared.
paul January 03, 2012 at 08:00 PM
If a team is mentally alert, they will not be fooled by a trick play. Every play in football involves some amount of deception. That is why those big guys get into a circle (huddle) and whisper to each other what the play will be. Your suggestion, that somehow the cleverness and/or success of the deception crosses some ethical line is laughable. At least to those of us who actually played football. Stick to tennis and rhetoric.


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