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Ironies and echoes

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Irony is an overused word and an oft-misunderstood concept. Still, what better term describes the juxtaposition found in local daily newspapers last week?

Front pages touted the release of a report by Duke University's Campus Culture Initiative steering committee, more fallout from the lacrosse fiasco of last year. Among 28 recommendations from a group of faculty, students and administrators were five on athletics, including a plea to "ensure full participation of student-athletes in campus academic and social life by decreasing practice and travel time demands on student-athletes." The same day, a piece in The News & Observer sports section reported Duke men's basketball team going in the opposite direction, staying in hotel rooms off campus prior to some home games, emulating the excessive isolation and ridiculously wasteful spending of football programs seeking to reduce distractions.

The juxtaposition was especially ironic in its echo of a 1969 Duke faculty report on athletics that recommended, among other things, terminating "the current custom of coaches closely supervising the activities and lives of student-athletes." The idea, quaint as it may sound, was that excessive control "may well impede the normal progress of student athletes to maturation."

Academicians then, and now, fight against a rising tide. Sports is an ever more central focus of American social, economic and college life. Few believe the fiction any more that intercollegiate athletics is an amateur pursuit, or that recruited athletes in highly visible sports can lead normal lives on campus. They may graduate in percentages comparable to their peers, thanks to elite tutoring facilities and carefully selected classes and majors, but let us not confuse statistical truth with reality. Most athletes simply don't have time to be unfettered scholars, and in their current milieu probably should not be expected to.

This situation is far from unique to Duke, presently constructing the $15.2 million Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence, named after its men's basketball coach. According to a press release, the facility adjacent to Cameron Indoor Stadium will, among other things, "triple the existing space to expand tutoring, computer resources, one-on-one counseling and team study space for Duke's 600-plus student-athletes." So much for integration into the remainder of the student body.

The tension between winning and education is not peculiar to our times. Back in 1969, the Academic Council Ad Hoc Committee on Duke Athletics recommended withdrawal from the Atlantic Coast Conference to seek affiliation with more academically compatible institutions. Of course Duke stayed put, and now belongs to a mismatched 12-member, revenue-hungry conglomeration embracing the entire East Coast of the United States.

One telling area in which Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill do not compare favorably with their ACC peers is in hiring African-American head coaches in the major revenue sports, basketball and football. Duke's Campus Culture Initiative found lingering racial prejudice on campus, no surprise in a region where the silence was deafening among media and faculty when both UNC and N.C. State recently hired head football coaches and failed even to pay lip service to serious consideration of black candidates.

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