The experiences of BYU’s religiously-diverse student-athletes
BYU attracts student-athletes from all over the world to play for its teams, including many who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Whitney Johnson is the associate athletic director for student-athlete development, diversity and inclusion at BYU. One part of her job is to help diverse student-athletes feel welcomed, wanted and included, especically those who are racially and religiously diverse.
“We are on a journey to cultivate a culture of belonging in BYU athletics, and a significant part of that is honoring the intersectionality of identity,” Johnson said. “We never want our student-athletes to feel like we only care about one aspect of their identity when everything they bring to the table is incredibly valuable.”
Fousseyni “Fouss” Traore is a freshman forward on the BYU men’s basketball team from Bamako, Mali.
Traore was featured in a BYUtv Deep Blue video that showed his journey to BYU. In it he discussed his experience being a Muslim at BYU and he is happy with his choice to come to BYU.
“It was one of the best things in my life,” Traore said. “It feels like real family.”
On Jan. 19, Kamaal S. Ahmad, a coach and former football player tweeted, “BYU is the best university for Muslim athletes to attend” in response to the Deep Blue video about Traore.
Several other BYU student-athletes who are not members of the Church shared what it’s like to be in the religious minority on campus.
Haley Pitou is a BYU gymnast studying exercise science. When she arrived at BYU, it was “a little bit uncomfortable” because some religious practices caught her off guard, including having prayers before meets, practices and classes as well as students attending church meetings on the BYU campus.
“That’s kind of interesting,” Pitou said. “When you think about it, you just go to church in your neighborhood.”
Pitou said her experience at BYU started off a little rocky, but has “definitely improved over the last four years.”
Miles Davis is a sophomore running back on the BYU football team studying exercise and wellness. He grew up Christian and felt like BYU was the best fit because “God brought (him) here.”
Davis said he appreciates being at a religious school that allows him to “stay focused,” while being close to his hometown of Las Vegas. The experience at BYU has been a good one for Davis. He appreciates the chance to learn about the Church and “hasn’t had a bad experience yet.”
“It’s so peaceful,” Davis said of BYU. “Everybody just cares for each other. Everybody supports each other.”
Jack Barnett is a junior men’s tennis player studying psychology. He said his experience being a religiously-diverse student-athlete has been great, but much like Pitou, it didn’t start out that way.
“It was difficult to meet a lot of people and make new friends,” Barnett said of his early BYU days.
He was put into a Book of Mormon religion class his first semester at BYU and “had no idea what was going on” in the class because he didn’t know much about the Book of Mormon before coming to Provo.
Although the start of his BYU experience was hard, Barnett said he is grateful for the experience. “It’s really interesting to learn about a different culture, history and religion that’s relatively new in the world,” he said.
Barnett said he wants members of the Church to understand more about why he and other non-members choose to come to BYU.
BYU recruited Barnett and he decided BYU was the best fit because “the team is really good, the school is really amazing and the academics are really good.”
Taryn Lennon is a sophomore pitcher and outfielder for the BYU softball team. Lennon considers herself a non-denominational Christian and attended a religious high school in California, so taking religion classes at school was not a new concept.
As a religiously-diverse student-athlete, Lennon said she never felt like an outcast because of her different religious beliefs and has always felt supported and uplifted at BYU.
When deciding where she should go to college, Lennon determined BYU was the right fit. “It was everything I was looking for in a university,” Lennon said.
For her, it was the academics, the scenery, the softball team and the atmosphere that made BYU the right fit.
While some might be wary to come to a religious university like BYU, “You will not find the same kind of support and kindness for student-athletes like you will at BYU” anywhere else, Lennon said.