Rooting for Duke: a rueful reflection


Mar 24th 2014

When Duke lost to Mercer in the NCAA tournament on Friday, I posted this message to the group of family and friends with whom I have happily spent March playing “Bracketology” over the past few years:

“I was hoping for whew, but it’s definitely a whoa. Mercer was fun to watch, alas.”

And then I started thinking about that “alas.” I have been a Duke basketball fan ever since I enrolled as a freshman in 1968.
But watching Mercer beat Duke brought me right up to some cognitive dissonance that I’d long avoided (mostly). Rooting for Duke does not jibe with my values. And it’s not just the obvious—that Duke is an expensive, elite, private institution. No. What I saw today in living color is the clash between community and the star system. In Mercer I saw a team filled with players who had been together as a unit for two, three, even four years because they are not good enough to be recruited into the NBA after their freshmen or sophomore years. And it showed. They played with communication and teamwork against the strikingly talented Blue Devils. And it worked. While watching I pulled strongly for Duke to eke out the victory, but afterwards I realized that underneath the disappointment lurked a deep satisfaction with what I had just witnessed.

The star system has distorted so many aspects of our society, from the billionaires who pour huge amounts of money into shaping public opinion to suit their interests just because they have amassed unimaginable piles of money. And even those who pour huge amounts into otherwise worthy causes, like The Gates Foundation’s commitment to global health initiatives. In my own life I have witnessed its impact on academia—reverence and big salaries for the biggies, along with recruiting wars, combined with insecure tenure and often shockingly low salaries for non-regular rank instructors. This phenomenon feels like a grotesquely overgrown child of the American Dream of success and prosperity. And it is surely a factor in our collective unwillingness to think clearly about and remedy the shocking levels of inequality that permeates our daily existence.

I still love to watch basketball. And I will probably keep rooting for Duke, but I hope to stay a little more awake to the embedded contradictions.