Every season, BYU enters the Kennel for the highly anticipated West Coast Conference match-up and is welcomed by by a sold-out McCarthey Athletic Center which features an overpacked student section that bleeds into the aisles, a slew of punny signs and an array of costumes. 

Of those costumes, there are a handful of students dressed up as Mormon missionaries. This year, Gonzaga University is trying to change that.

On Friday, Jan. 26, a meeting was held that included members of the Athletic Department, University Ministry and Mission, Student Development, Advancement and Alumni and the General Counselor’s Office to discuss ways to eliminate the mockery and mimicking of Mormons. 

“[Those costumes don’t] really represent who we are as a university and it shines bad on us and doesn’t show a welcoming community that supports everybody,” Colleen Vandenboom, assistant dean of Student Involvement and Leadership said. “So every year it has come up and we have been talking a lot with Kennel Club and they agree — it’s not cool.”

The Kennel Club Board discussed this topic during its retreat this summer, and while the board was not present during the meeting last Friday, a letter from Kennel Club Board president Claire Murphy was read to those in attendance. 

“The missionary costumes and posters that degrade the Mormon faith that show up in The Kennel every time we face the Cougars makes my stomach twist into knots,” Murphy said in her letter. "We are a Jesuit institution that stands to ‘foster a mature commitment to dignity of the human person, social justice, diversity’ and ‘cultivates in its students the capacities and dispositions for... ethical discernment, creativity, and innovation.’ How are we living up to this mission if we are tearing down the spiritual identity of others?"

Conversations about the inappropriateness of the costumes has been going on since 2011, when BYU joined the WCC. In 2016, the Bulletin’s most popular story was a column criticizing the students in the Kennel dressed up in such attire. 

While talks of change have been happening for seven years, Vandenboom admits that having Jesse Wade, a member of the LDS church who went on a mission last year, joining the men’s basketball team was a catalyst for action. 

“When we learned that [Wade] had been recruited to come here, we had to be legit,” Vandenboom said. “Like OK, we have been talking about it enough and now, not only is it embarrassing, but it’s like, really? He’s one of our community members.”

Wade isn’t the only relationship GU shares with the LDS church. 

Brigham Young, one of the founders of BYU, had a grandson attend GU and the Rev. Peter John Desmet, a Jesuit missionary for whom GU’s Desmet Hall is named, worked with local LDS members in Spokane. 

The history GU and the LDS church have isn’t the only thing motivating the university to change its standards. 

“Thinking about religion persecution and allowing people to celebrate their faith in a honorable way is critical,” Vandenboom said. “As Catholics, and we're not all Catholic, but how do we persecute or make fun of another religion when we are sitting here at our university because of that. It just is not right.”

To implement the changes the administration wants to see, the Kennel Board will be sending out an email to the GU community encouraging those who plan on attending the BYU game to dress appropriately. 

“We can’t stop anyone from doing it but we need to put it on people’s radars,” Murphy said. “A lot of times, people just need a little reminder or have a morality check of ‘What do I actually stand for? Why am I wearing this?’ ”

On gameday, members of the Ministry and Mission, Student Development, Athletic Department, including athletic director Mike Roth, and the Rev. Frank Case, who sits on the men’s basketball team’s bench, will be monitoring the line of students waiting to enter the McCarthey Center looking for Mormon Missionary costumes. 

If spotted, there will be “conversations” with those dressed up.

Those conversations will also include Murphy.

“I would really like to hear why do you dress up like that? What’s the point,” Murphy said. “I definitely want to be involved in those conversations. I think having a student there, instead of just two or three people you may not have daily contact with, can help facilitate those conversations and make them a little easier." 

The Kennel Club Board will also have extra Zag shirts as an option for those dressed as missionaries to change into.

“What [the students] are trying to accomplish can still be accomplished by other means,” Chris Standiford, deputy director of Athletics and chief operating officer said. “They are trying to create an awesome environment where there is a sense for our student athletes and hostility towards the opponents so they are uncomfortable in their environment. But we can accomplish that through means that are more appropriate. 

While those involved cannot force students to wear or not wear certain attire, one thing is for sure: it will not go unnoticed. 

“This has to be the year we don’t see that anymore,” Vandenboom said. 

The game against BYU will take place on Saturday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m.

Kendra Andrews is a sports editor. Follow her on Twitter @kendra__andrews. 

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(17) comments

CougInThe801

Classy move. As a BYU alum, I generally see the missionary costume schtick as good-natured, but a little over done. I love being in a conference with an organization that at least considers how others might feel about the costume. Much love from Utah.

cpark

As a member of the LDS Church, BYU grad, former missionary, and respector of Gonzaga University I appreciate the thought of the Kennel Club and everyone else highlighted in this article. I am not particularly offended by folks dressing up like missionaries. Let’s be real, as missionaries we are a bit awkward in our dress. What 19 year old young man wears a suit, tie, and biking helmet?!

That being said, I absolutely appreciate the desire to be united as religious universities and your willingness to respect our religious beliefs and differences. BYU and our fans can certainly learn from you and improve the way that we act and treat your and other fan bases.

But steps like this are the right way for us to go. Good luck later this week, we’d like to make it 4 in a row! Go Cougs! 🤙

CougFan

I greatly appreciate the fair-minded sentiment from Gonzaga. This is a classy move; however, I don't find students dressing up as Mormon missionaries disrespectful or offensive. As long as it is done without mockery of our belief system, I'm good with it. Lets let students to students

Obroni

Count me as another BYU fan and former missionary for the LDS Church who is not offended by opposing students dressing up as missionaries. I actually think it is a little funny. I am thankful to Gonzaga University wanting to be respectful to their opponents, however I think they should just let their students have their harmless fun. Go Cougars!

ThinkingClearly

I agree with the other comments made here, as a Mormon I take these things with a grain of salt and am not offended by anything that i have ever seen at Gonzaga. I have only had great interactions with Gonzaga fans and would love to attend a game in the Kennel someday. Having said that it is certainly a breathe of fresh air to read this article and see the efforts that are being made to be respectful, something the world in general lacks a lot of right now.

As a young and naive Mormon missionary in Ohio a few years ago I learned pretty quickly that people were not fond of us. Within the first week I was there I had a half filled can thrown at me from a passing car, was spit on twice and was laughed at just about every place I went. As a 19 year old kid who grew up in California and was away from home for the first time this was a wake up call. As with politics you can't go around talking religion and expect to endear yourself to whole lot of people, something I understand much better now than I did then.

I for one appreciate the chance that BYU has had to associate with the fans, alumni and athletes at Gonzaga and the positive experiences that I always seem to have within your community. From this Mormon, thank you. Oh, and please give us hell whenever we come into the Kennel, it wouldn't be right not to!

Dr Neeley

Add me to the list of Mormons and BYU alum who wouldn't be offended by people dressing up as LDS missionaries. Its not ritual garb nor sacred in any way. Just be friendly to visiting BYU fans and enjoy the game.

BayAreaDude

Bravo, Bravo and Bravo Gonzaga administration, and the Kennel! Thank you for standing for something. Thank you for doing what is right. Imagine if our team were playing ANY other religious school, and we dressed up as their devotees dress. Whether it is a Jewish school, Hare Chrishna school, Sikh school or otherwise ... we would be absolutely excoriated by people of all faiths if our student section had a bunch of people with Jewish prayer shawls, Hare Chrishna robes or Turbins and fake beards. Students can still be students, but I applaud you for this decision. Just compete hard ... and leave it all on the floor. No need to tear down the good that other faiths are doing.

banndor

I am a long-time member of the LDS Church and am not offended in any way by opposing students dressing up like missionaries. Please don't make it a rule not to do that. I see it as a freedom of speech/expression issue and am all for it.
Let's not further the hyper-sensitivity that is going on at college campuses nowadays. Let students have a little fun. Allow them to judge for themselves whether they are going too far or not. Life is too short for us to be offended!

VA-Zag

I can share my perspective as a Gonzaga alum who happened to serve an LDS mission.

The Mormon side of me takes zero offense from those dressing up a missionaries at the games. I have seen and heard much worse over the years and have grown accustomed to being the brunt of jokes. If anything I’ll roll my eyes at these students since it’s quite unoriginal and doesn’t exactly accomplish anything.

However, the GU grad side of me is quite embarrassed that some students from my Alma Mater would feel inclined to dig at an opponent’s faith, albeit in a seemingly innocent and funny way. These students reflect poorly on themselves and the University, itself a faith-based organization. I applaud GU and the Kennel Club for addressing this issue and teaching its students that their choices can be viewed by some as a form of intolerance.

The article mentions the new GU player who happens to be Mormon. Hopefully his presence will make these students think twice about their choice of apparel at the BYU game. If not, perhaps they will think of the hundreds of their fellow GU students who are also Mormon (and not necessarily BYU fans).

Xoltar

As another BYU grad and former missionary, let me add my thanks to the university and the Kennel Club. First of all, I want to let you know that there is no "great offense" taken by Mormons over the missionary dress. We can take it and, as others have talked about, have seen/heard much worse. (Think "Book of Mormon, The Musical") At worst I think it is slightly annoying, but we appreciate your efforts to be respectful. I think BYU fans are trying to make Gonzaga into our basketball rival, but a rivalry usually requires some level of hate or anger. So far, everybody I've talked to and heard from is finding it difficult to muster up even a mild dislike of Gonzaga or their fans. We have too much respect for your school and the great program you have built up. Keep up the great work there. We aspire to have a basketball team as successful as yours!

Xoltar

In thinking about it some more, you know what both Mormons and Jesse Wade would actually like? If you *encouraged* people to come dressed up in the same missionary costumes, and then handed out "Elder Wade" name tags for them to wear at the door so they could show their support for Jesse Wade. That would be cool!

RealCatholicMan

I feel the real mockery is toward all the grown-ups who have to witness this insipid virtue signaling GU feels they need to do. I've never really run into a saint who would melt as nearly as spectacularly as these GU "folk". From the comments I've read you probably should have talked to a few more LDS before the histrionics ensued. Love the Mormons, they know our Catholic home by reputation. I would love to see many more helmets lovingly in our crowd. Moran Prairie Ward throws the best BBQs.
Luke Fridenmaker

Life Is Good

As a Mormon, I don't think I've ever seen a student dress up as a missionary during these games and even preferred they didn't. I think it's important to ask yourself why you dress up as someone, make sure that it isn't meant to harm them, sure.
But at the end of the day, We can't always be so concerned about what others might think! My school district forbade students and teachers from decorating for Halloween because we might offend the witches. Forbade us from celebrating Christmas, Hannukah, or Kwanzaa, because we might offend someone by celebrating a Jewish, Christian, or the African American holiday.
I'll let you dress up as a missionary, if you let me dress up as the pope, or a rabbi.

jawright1965

Hallelujah! I can only imagine how the world would react if they dressed up like Arabs to play the Saudi national team. It's about time people started waking up that mocking any religion is wrong. Respect is not reserved for just Judaism and Islam. Now if we can just get that message to people writing and supporting Broadway musicals. Thanks for the classy move... and Go Zags!

JT4

This is why I have mad respect for Gonzaga. Although I, like most other BYU fans, take very little offense from it, as a fellow Christian faith-based university, it's good to see the directive to love your neighbor being taken seriously. We know that none of us are perfect; individual BYU fans will do stupid things too. But at an institutional level, it behooves all WCC schools to suggest a minimum standard of behavior.

eth123

I am a BYU graduate and a returned missionary. I have great respect for Gonzaga's basketball program. And I have deep respect for those in GU's administration that are trying to set standards of respect. I will confess that I am not the least bit offended by Gonzaga students making fun of our religion. On the flip side, if our BYU students did that to another religion, I would be extremely embarrassed for them and our university. As a person who is not offended, my preference is that they keep doing it because the overly-superstitious side of me wonders if any of this is connected to the Gonzaga curse of losing to BYU at the Kennel. BYU doesn't win very many of the really big games--especially on the road, and Gonzaga doesn't lose very many home games. But both seem to be happening a lot over the last few years--at least disproportionately so in light of who we know to be the superior basketball program (Gonzaga). Not a big deal in the overall scheme of things, but without those BYU wins and Gonzaga losses, GU would have been undefeated in the regular season last year, and BYU would have at least one less NCAA tournament appearance over the last few years. I am sure it is only coincidence, but, as long as the Zags are mocking the our church, I like our chances better when the Cougs go into the Kennel.

Blue Rampage

I'm a Mormon and a BYU fan. We tend to have pretty thick skin from many years of abuse. We have thick skin and I don't mind the missionary costumes at all. Nothing Gonzaga fans can come up with is going to match what they do to us at University of Utah. On the other hand, a BYU student dressed as a Priest or Nun would never be allowed into a game versus a Catholic school. Either way, I'm fine with the way your kids act in the pound. Not a big problem at all.

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