The Mission Effect: Advantage BYU?

BYU QB Taysom Hill
Matt Gade, Deseret News

Does an LDS Mission give BYU Athletes an advantage?

A few days ago ESPN’s Desmond Howard outraged BYU fans when he called for a cutoff age for college football to avoid the “hustle” of Mormon athletes serving missions before playing. During “College Football Live,” he said:

“BYU has been getting away with this hustle for years. You have grown men playing against boys, 17, 18, 19 and sometimes 20-year-old. I think this is as foul as it gets, and I think there needs to be a cutoff age for playing collegiate football.”

First, strong words from someone who played at the University of Michigan, where the Fab 5 was inappropriately paid to play basketball (including $280,000 to Chris Webber alone), the football program sponsored systematic cheating under Rich Rodriguez and, more recently, the Wolverines admitted to 4 NCAA violations under Jim Harbaugh…just to name a few of Michigan’s nefarious acts.

Still, much of the local response debated whether leaving on a mission for two years, then returning to play, gives any advantage at all and, if so, what to do about it.

Yes, it is an advantage.

Some BYU fans argued it is not an advantage.  One Tweeted, “robbed 4 times at gun point…mission legs/body ruined JC basketball career or walk on at BYU after.” First, every guy in the NBA from Chicago, L.A., or D.C. is like, “What does getting robbed have to do with playin’ ball?” Second, WTF are “mission legs”?! Plenty of guys serve missions and return to play college athletics. If you can’t walk or ride a bike for two years then you weren’t cut out for college sports. Reality: this Cougar Tweep wasn’t good at basketball.

Science says being older is an advantage. One study states that for sprints, jumps, and throws (i.e. football), men hit their peak around age 25. Another article reports “male ballplayers in almost all sports peak somewhere between 26 and 29.” Yet another article studying Olympic athletes holds “the peak age or ‘best’ age of performance…is 26.1,” or 25.4 years old for running the 100-meter sprint. Bottom line: more returned missionaries = more players close to or at their peak age for athletic performance.

Those arguing that missions cause a young man to get out of shape and forget the sport are too nearsighted. It’s not what happens on the mission, it’s what happens when that young man returns, trains, practices and plays for 4 to 6 years at an age closer to the peak age than the competition. A 21-year-old who returns a little flabby from too much rice and beans can quickly lose that weight in a few months of training with the best strength and conditioning coaches around. And that flabby 21-year-old freshman will soon be a 26-year-old senior performing at the peak age. Exhibit A: 26-year-old Taysom Hill, BYU’s starting QB.

From personal experience, being two years older gives an advantage to college athletes. I served a Mormon mission in Los Angeles straight out of high school and returned to play 4 years of lacrosse at Utah, including being voted a team captain my senior year. Lacrosse is not football, but certain athletic and mental requirements overlap between the two sports and between all college sports in general. I built strength and speed at levels I could never achieve when I was playing as an 18-year-old. These increases notably continued as I aged and eventually played as a 25-year-old senior. Why? Because I was nearing my peak (and yes, on my mission I was the target of 2 robberies and 1 prostitute solicitation and somehow I still managed to return to play).

I felt a different respect from my coaches and fellow teammates when I came in as a 21-year-old freshman compared to the other incoming 18 or 19-year-old freshmen. I felt my ability to lead my teammates increased from my experiences as a missionary and from me just being older. Now, I’m not at all saying or implying I was better than anyone else because of my mission. Rather, my older self was a better lacrosse player and team leader than my younger self would have been, which in turn benefited my team.

Other potential advantages for being older include increased maturity and confidence, well-developed work and study habits, a respect for authority and an ability to stay out of legal or Honor Code trouble (though not always ). After all, as Washington’s Chris Petersen stated: young men straight out of high school are “the dumbest age group in America.”  The advantages of working with older college athletes are undeniable.

So what?

Now, just because something gives you an advantage does not mean it is wrong. There is nothing about taking two years off before college sports that is against NCAA rules or inherently wrong. Other schools are just as free to defer scholarships until their signed athletes are older. Indeed, many other schools are now holding scholarships for Mormon athletes who choose to go on missions.

As for the proposed age cap, what about those who play another sport, say professional baseball, before returning to play college football (Chris Weinke won the Heisman Trophy at age 28 while at Florida State)? What about a young man who takes two years off to support his impoverished family before playing college sports? What about a young man who serves in the military for 4 years before returning to college with his G.I. Bill benefits and playing? I’d like to hear Desmond Howard explain to them how what they are doing is “as foul as it gets” and that an age cap should prevent their “hustle.” By playing older athletes, BYU is doing nothing wrong, but something that every other school is free to do and sports pundits like Howard should stop the tired crying.

About the author

Steve Glauser

Born and raised in SLC and I've been attending Ute football and basketball games since I had my umbilical snipped. Lived a couple years in Los Angeles and a few in Washington DC where I did the whole law school thing and embarrassingly tried to be a Redskins fan. I graduated from the U and my wife graduated from the Y but we make it work.

4 Comments

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  • I agree with some of your conclusions (Howard should stop crying and an age cap is absurd) but your analysis is off target on some points. Missions are a net disadvantage for BYU. Yes, two more years can provide a physical advantage (in some position groups – like the OL – more than others). But parachuting kids into developing countries for two years not only removes them from the rigor of non stop training and preparation, but it gives them a deadly disease…. perspective.

    College football coaches motivate kids by selling them on Saturday’s game being the be-all end-all of their existence. LDS athletes returning from missions have seen families trying to get by and walked the barrios of Latin America – and they come home knowing that they will need to be earning a living and possibly supporting a family in the near future. Football coaches don’t have the same sway over kids like that – and BYU football history is full of examples of guys who came off of missions and never regained the form that they showed before their missions, because the motivation had changed.

    If it was a net advantage, coaches recruiting LDS guys would not, almost uniformly, discourage them from going on missions.

    • Interesting points. Don’t most PAC12 schools hold scholarships for missionaries? I’ve heard its an increasing trend that’s moving east. Obviously Navy and VA are on board. Off the top of my head OSU, UofA, ASU, TCU, Stanford and UCLA have all done it in the last few years. I didn’t hear that they discouraged it.

  • For every story of it being an advantage, there is one the other way. My brother was the starting goalkeeper for the BYU men’s soccer team in 1982 (his freshman year), and then served a mission to Germany. He never played for BYU again because it took him literally years to get back in the same shape where he was before his mission. He would argue that it is a huge disadvantage.

  • Ran this on an Excel spreadsheet last week using age mean formula. Assumptions: 1) 150 players/team. 2) All schools have a) redshirt b) medical redshirt, c) 17yo at same rate, including BYU so that is equivalent. 3) 30% of BYU players serve 2 year missions. 4) Assume for simplicity 100% matriculation of RMs. Average age of a team: 21years old. Average age of BYU players: 21years, 3months.
    THREE MONTH DIFFERENCE.