Is BYU “The Place” for Basketball Phenom Jabari Parker?

By Dr. Darron Smith

This has been a banner year for Mormons and the LDS Church. From Mitt Romney’s emblematic ascent to capture the GOP nomination to Manti Te’o and his Heisman Trophy run with the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, now Jabari Parker, who has emerged as one of the nation’s top basketball prospect, took his latest recruiting trip to Brigham Young University. The students and community around BYU, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormons), are absolutely hype over the Chicago native and high school basketball phenom. What makes this young man special to these students is that Jabari Ali Parker is not only a remarkable basketball prodigy, but also a devout Mormon.

Jabari belongs to the LDS faith, whose black membership is somewhere between 1-3% worldwide, according to survey data. Though the Mormon Church does not keep records based on race and ethnicity, it is estimated that out of 6.2 million Latter-day Saints in the U.S., only 186,000 are of African descent. Jabari is what you would call a “unicorn,” because his circumstances of being African American, Mormon and his emergence as a top college basketball prospect are indeed rare.

If Jabari elects to attend BYU on an athletic scholarship, he should be made aware of a few important realities. Let’s ignore the fact that he would be competing against mostly Division II and weak Division I schools, which would not necessarily grant him the preparation that a strong Division I school could give him through the highest level of competitive and exposure. But were Jabari to attend BYU, he would instantly find himself removed from the rich cultural diversity of the South Side of Chicago in which he is familiar. The LDS Church looks very different within the predominantly white and Mormon culture of Utah compared to other areas of the country that are more racially balanced, and particularly compared to the largely (and atypically) black LDS congregation that Jabari attends in the community of Hyde Park. This will become particularly evident when and if he attempts to date any local girls. Though one BYU student attempted to sway the basketball star with a sign that read “BYU — 15,994 Mormon girls, Duke — 13 Mormon girls,” young Parker must understand that those Mormon girls are the same girls with White Mormon daddies who may root for him on the basketball court, but typically not when he is standing in their living room.

More importantly, BYU has had limited success among Black recruits in recent years, starting with a suspiciously high rate of dismissals and disciplinary career-ending actions against black student athletes (compared to their white counterparts). The reasons are multifactorial, but could be a result of the degree of racial isolation in the overwhelmingly white and conservative space of Provo, Utah. Not to assume that Jabari will get into trouble in Provo any more than any normal 18-year-old boy, but his highly visible presence as an outstanding recruit and black Latter-day Saint of his stature makes him a target on a predominately white campus where he will be one of only a handful of black students (less than 1%) out of more than 30,000 undergraduates. This is, understandably, a tough adjustment for any young man coming from a predominately black or more diverse environment.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that the residents of Utah County, including faculty, staff and students of BYU, who have little exposure to people of color (save a few Polynesians), get most of their knowledge regarding Blacks from the media and, thus, make unwarranted assumptions and conclusions about them. The commonality of this evidence makes BYU, as a whole, ill-prepared to guide young black men on a path toward success through their college career. Currently, Brigham Young University has only 2 black coaches in the entire athletic department (both of which are in non-revenue sports) and only 2 black faculty members and 1 black staff member school wide. Consequently, they have no people of color to help mentor black students and student athletes, especially ones recruited from other areas of the country that are unfamiliar with Mormon culture. The concern is that BYU does not understand the importance of having protective systems in place at the university to ensure success for these young men any more than these young men understand the BYU campus climate. How can University stakeholders guide these students to be successful young adults when the LDS leadership has no knowledge or understanding of the students’ particular upbringing and experience outside an occasional Mormon mission to the inner city?

Many white Mormons, and cougar fans in particular, politely ignore the fact that Jabari’s racial identity as a black man is firmly intact and a potential cultural mismatch at Brigham Young. As a black man in American and a black Mormon who lived in Provo, I argue that being in an environment that is conducive to one’s racial identity development takes priority for young black men such as Jabari Parker, especially when Manti Te’o has proven that one’s religious growth can be obtained and often nurtured in any setting. Jabari has stated that he will make his final decision this upcoming month on which college he will attend. Will Jabari’s Mormon-ness win out over his blackness?

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