Duke Blue Devil fans have pleasurably watched rival UNC’s cheating scandal..
But we should not be so smug. Our cloistered university has its very own sports scandal. Every year, Duke athletes collectively miss classes by the thousands. Their absences are curiously registered as “short term illnesses,” but team travel is the real reason. Planes, buses and a private jet – only for Coach K’s hoopster royalty – transport Duke players to games nationwide. “Unrivalled Ambition,” the Athletic Department’s strategic plan is hubristically entitled. We must have top sports teams, because, well, we are Duke. All about excellence.
But sports excellence comes at a price. It’s a full-time job being a Division I athlete, about 40 hours a week according to an NCAA study. A college athlete’s life? Practice. Games. Travel. Playing from behind on schoolwork.
Athletes in my big introductory course this semester have missed almost a hundred classes between them. They are delightful, hard-working kids, but they don’t have time to do much more than pass. You can’t get much from a class missing so many lectures. Athletes do not have time for semester study abroad; writing for the school paper; joining student government. We give our athletes an impoverished imitation of a real college experience so that Duke can win a few more golf tournaments.
It’s not just Duke’s problem, of course. We have witnessed the big-timeazation of sports at every Division I university. A decade or so ago, only men’s football and basketball players had little time for their studies. They still don’t. They are recruited for their sports talents to become the unpaid stars of the billion-dollar college sports entertainment complex. But now the so-called “minor” sports make the same demands. Year-round training. Constant practices. Trips countrywide. Duke sometimes feels like a semi-professional team camp. Our gleaming multimillion dollars sports complexes would make most small countries envious.
We can debate football and men’s basketball in their corrupt glory. They provide good entertainment, and, after a bobby socks 1950s fashion, encourage school spirit. But why big-time the other sports? They lose money. Relatively few people go to their games. No professional future awaits a swimmer or field hockey player. Being on a team provides great rewards – comradeship, competition, joy of the game. But these could be better gained by fielding women’s and men’s club teams. They could also practice regularly and do some local trips. No reason exists besides blind boosterism for big-timing every sport.
It’s a matter of principle too. Why the odd university obsession with sports excellence? And why have 18-year-old college students spend a working week on team obligations? Fantasy football, mindless ESPN watching and joyless youth soccer weekends already take up too much American time, certainly too much of mine. We would have done well to keep universities for the school play, cancer lab internship, the arts, voluntering, new ideas and, yes, the pick-up games and club sports.
It’s too late for that now. New buildings are going up. We have new championships to win. The guardians of Duke sports excellence watch over us like the gargolyes on the quad.
I’m teaching the big course again next semester. The form emails will flood my inbox once more. “I regret to inform you,” they begin, before specifying the many days the student will miss for sports.
I’m sorry too.
Orin Starn is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University and played college soccer and golf.