We are pleased to post this review from Craig Yugawa, a medical student at Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow Craig on Twitter.
Darron T. Smith’s When Race, Religion and Sport Collide: Black Athletes at BYU and Beyond is a skillful recounting of the tenuous status black college athletes face in the larger American context, especially those at “Predominantly White Institutions” (PWIs). While covering athletics in America more broadly, Smith uses BYU’s unique institutional and racial history as a lens to focus on the societal and cultural barriers commonly faced by black athletes who repeatedly face “objectification of their bodies, [while at the same time] leav[ing] the ivy tower battered, bruised, and empty-handed” (148). This timely work is a compelling narrative which weaves together easily understood personal anecdotes; high level social science, medical, and humanities research; and theological summary to flesh out the complicated relationship between the LDS church and the athletes of color at its flagship university.
Smith’s commentary and his narrative structure underscores his unique voice; a blend of intimate understanding of the Mormon experience with strongly argued, dispassionate observation. Race deftly builds to his conclusion that though “BYU is representative of most PWIs nationwide, but when the racism is steeped in religiosity, the patterned behavior is much more difficult to unlearn” (156). He utilizes the personal stories of former BYU athletes as a useful pretext for the growing body of peer reviewed social science research confirming the negative social, medical, and personal effects of systemic inequality.
By providing these personal stories of athletes such as Hassan McCullough (104,107), Ronney Jenkins (106-107), and Ibrahim Rashada (112-113), Smith is able to illustrate the circumstances faced by black athletes, who enter Provo sullied by the outsider trinity of being from a different race, religion, and region of the country than their newly found neighbors. Disciplined at higher rates without established support systems to parachute them to lenient discipline, these athletes are commonly singled out and isolated at the time they need guidance and support the most. Despite the NCAA’s mission to support “student-athletes,” these athletes are rarely seen as students beyond their athletic expediency.
Though the narrative is absorbing and well-articulated, Race sometimes suffers from its attempt to bridge such a significant portion of both American and Mormon history. At times culling depth and nuance in service of his conclusion, Smith’s narrative of unified Mormon opposition to Civil Rights and positive race relations undercuts the power that a more nuanced look could provide. Though Smith’s portrayal represents the large majority of LDS thought and tradition on the subject, he brushes over the well documented battles among LDS leadership and BYU students to moderate the larger Church culture. This paradigm sacrifices the acknowledgement of Mormon self-awareness on the discordance of Church doctrine and policy and minimizes the seep of American cultural ideals into theological practice.
Quickly summarizing the on-campus discussions during the BYU sport’s boycotts, Smith emphasizes the insensitive and ignorant statement by Daily Universe editor Judy Geissler that she was “’thankful for being of the white race in a land where the white is supreme’” (83). Though this incendiary statement serves the greater narrative of Race and does to a degree encapsulate the on-campus discussion around the issue of race, it disregards the growth demonstrated by Geissler in later editions of the DU, and the backlash she faced, including being referred to as “head n****r” and having a cross burned on her lawn. Illustrating the acute cultural and theological consequences of those pushing back on the religion would have emphasized the discordance between the LDS Church’s mission and the discriminatory policies and culture that percolated into its premier institution.
This issue does not detract from the central thesis of Race and does not undermine its role as a hybrid primary source collection, social science review, and timely observational text. Smith’s brilliant writing and all-inclusive source aggregation is an interdisciplinary exploration of the foundations of how “black muscle [became] essential in white-imposed athletic contests […] and laid the future groundwork for a highly profitable and exploitative enterprise” (34). By covering a broad range of disciplines such as, sociology, medicine, physiology, it provides readers from many areas of expertise a comprehensive
Race is a critical investigation into the theological and societal foundations of BYU’s fraught relationship with athletes of color. As a premier case study in the symbolic strip mining of communities of color, BYU puts into focus the challenges faced by athletes of color in many of America’s PWIs. One of the few issues with Race is that it was not written a year or two later in order for Smith to add his powerful voice to the current debate around NFL anthem protests and NCAA recruiting and academic scandals. Race is a critical addition to the sports and religious studies compendium and recommended reading to any interested in the intersection of race, sports, and American culture.
 Geissler, Judy. “Racial Bigotry: An Open Letter,” The Daily Universe. May 7, 1969.