The global significance of Carolina-Duke (yes, really)

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Dukes Jon Scheyer (right) and Marcus Ginyard clash in this 2010 encounter.
A couple of years ago a local radio personality asked me on a pregame show prior to a Duke-Carolina game whether our long-running local hardwood feud is the "biggest rivalry in all of sports." I hesitated a bit, and said "well there is Real Madrid-Barcelona, and Celtic-Rangers." (Loyal readers of Triangle Offense will recall from my blog postings during the 2010 World Cup that I'm as passionate about soccer as college basketball.)

OK, but really, where do Carolina and Duke fit in The Big Picture? That's the kind of comparative sports culture question that has long fascinated political scientist Andrei (Andy) Markovits of the University of Michigan, who has spent the past week shuttling between Chapel Hill and Durham on a spring break visit from Ann Arbor.

The ostensible reason for Markovits' visit to town is to participate in a conference on the 30th anniversary of the German Green Party's entrance into the Bundestag, as well as a series of talks and classroom visits related to Markovits' scholarly expertise in German politics, contemporary anti-Semitism and related issues.

But while German politics made Markovits' academic career, it's his writing about global sport that has given him a much larger public audience. Markovits is lead author of three widely respected, scholarly books about sports and sports culture: Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism, which explains why the U.S. uniquely doesn't treat soccer as a major spectator sport; Gaming the World, a study of the impact of sports on globalization processes; and Sportista, a study of female sports fandom in the U.S. that was published last fall.

Markovits's next sports-related project is a comparative analysis of great rivalries in world sport. And that brings us to the real organizing principle behind his visit to these parts this week: in order to take his first-ever pilgrimages to the local temples of basketball—Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Dean E. Smith Center—as well as scratch an item off his bucket list by attending the Carolina-Duke game tomorrow night in Chapel Hill. Markovits plans to include a section on the Carolina-Duke hoops rivalry in his next book.

Hence this past Saturday night, Markovits took in the epic Duke-Miami game from center court as the guest of a ranking Duke academic administrator. Eighteen hours later, he was in Chapel Hill watching the Tar Heels dismantle Florida State from plush lower level seats in the Dean Dome.

Markovits has been a Tar Heel admirer from afar for many years. We met 10 years ago when he was a visiting scholar and I was a graduate student at Harvard; he decided to teach my book on Carolina basketball in his Harvard course on sports and modernity and invited me to give a guest lecture on the history of UNC basketball. He continues to assign the book (“More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many”) to his course on sports culture at the University of Michigan, a course which is featured in an ESPN magazine article this week on the legacy of the Fab Five.

As a regular at the Big House, Crisler Arena and Yost Arena (hockey) in Ann Arbor, and as someone who has visited many major soccer stadia around the world, Markovits is not easily impressed; rather, he is the ultimate sophisticated sports consumer.

Hence, it was with great interest that I spoke to Andy Tuesday morning to see what his initial impressions were of Durham and Chapel Hill.

For overall intensity of experience, Markovits gives Cameron a clear nod over the Dean Dome. "The atmosphere in Cameron was just electric," he says.

Whereas students surround courtside in Cameron, in Chapel Hill students are relegated to one end zone, and another section removed from courtside, alongside the band and cheerleaders.

"There were cheerleaders in the aisles" in Chapel Hill noted Markovits. "Who puts cheerleaders in the aisles?"

In contrast, Markovits credit the Blue Devil crowd with lifting their team to victory Saturday night. "Miami would have won that game on a neutral court—they were quicker, better."

But as a political sociologist, Markovits is as keen to identify similarities as differences. Markovits spotted a common character type in the Duke and Carolina crowds—that of the "dignified, older fan" wearing school color in an "upscale way"—i.e. the designer sweater-tinted Carolina (or Duke) blue. In both crowds you could find adults who look like marketing professors or accountants absolutely and totally absorbed in the game—and others who are there to see and be seen.

While Duke gets the edge in atmosphere, Carolina has the more impressive basketball museum according to Markovits. He spent about 90 minutes in Duke's museum, and was impressed that you can go directly from it into Cameron and that it has space to honor other sports besides hoops. But he spent two and a half hours in the Carolina museum, including about 45 minutes around the Phil Ford display. Then to reinforce the impression, Markovits got to see Ford and former head coach Bill Guthridge honored at halftime of the FSU game for their respective inductions into the National Collegiate Basketball and North Carolina Sports Halls of Fame.

Markovits says that the museum provides overwhelming evidence that "when you add up the really good players they have given to the game over the decades, Carolina stands head and shoulders over everyone else." But Markovits was paying attention not only to the exhibits but to the clientele.

"The museum is a place for fathers to take their kids, and to get their picture taken next to the icons of basketball. It doesn't really have anything to do with the university as such."

That observation points to one of Markovits's key themes: College sports teams in the U.S. are the equivalent of soccer clubs in Europe. Leading soccer clubs (such as Andy's preferred Manchester United) typically started as church-based or labor-based nonprofit organizations, before evolving into commercial entities. The noncommercial origins of those clubs and the strong linkage between the clubs and particular geographic locations create an attachment to teams that is different in kind from those found in franchised American pro sports—but not so different from those attached to today's highly commercialized college sports teams.

So Duke has the better crowd, and Carolina the more impressive museum and historical legacy.

But who will have the better team Saturday night? That remains to be seen. Markovits does, however, have one piece of tactical advice, drawn from the Duke-Miami game, to pass along to Roy Williams:

"Miami didn't play Ryan Kelly very well. They should have double-teamed him."

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