I've been doing a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking, about the long
series of recent attacks and counter-attacks centered around the Duke
basketball program. To me, it's like a national expansion of the kind
local sentiment that Duke generated during the 1991-1992 season, when
Duke won its second national title.
Then, Duke-bashing was pretty much the province of UNC fans who were
aghast that the hated private Yankee school down the road in Durham
could challenge the baby-blue fortress of Carolina basketball.
Nationally, on the other hand, Duke generated a brief cult following
that culminated in the rock-star status of players like Grant Hill.
So what happened? What's changed within the Duke program that has
created such violent national dislike over the past few years?
In a word: nothing. The Duke program is exactly the same. And that's
The underlying issue is that Duke basketball shows that you can win more
consistently with brains than with brawn, and in American culture
winning with brains is just not democratic. Brains are marketplace
items, something that is already amply rewarded in the job market.
A brain is a Wharton MBA, or a Harvard LLD, or a Duke MD. Sports is
supposed to be about talent: about quickness and instinct and brawn and
height. It's where the rest of the world gets even with those privileged
smartass engineers and doctors and computer geeks.
Sports is about mythology. It's about Thor and Achilles. It's a purely
physical contest about who can jump higher and run faster and punch
meaner. It's about guts and stamina. It's the one place where an MBA
absolutely no advantage.
Sports is about the guys in the back of the class who know that all that
physics and literature crap is just a bullshit facade over the
foundation of America. It's about an athlete standing up to one of
elitist prep-schoolers and saying, Go Ahead. Make my day. And then
dunking him into oblivion.
And so when a guy with an unpronounceable Polish name recruits players
with the smarts to graduate from a private school, and does it cleanly;
and when the players under this cerebral Polish guy kick ass not
or twice, but year after year after year against state-funded
with a quarter of the graduation rate, it creates the disconnect of a
So the outraged blue collars just have to go looking for reasons. It's
the refs, who won't call fouls on the choir boys. It's the coach,
works the refs more than other coaches. It's the sports writers, who
overlook every snot-nosed tantrum. It's the announcers, who fawn all
over the golden boys.
But it's really just one more instance of the value of privilege in a
society that hates privilege. It's one more instance where having
is an advantage. It's not right. It's not fair.
Duke bashing is about the perception that the prep boys have yet another
reason to feel superior. That's what it's about. And until this fact
acknowledged, we'll have to put up with all the justifications
by folks who just can't understand how this elite private school can
keep up this kind of domination in a world not made for them.