The Blue Devils Aren't Angels

The stadium scene.
March 6 2001 3:00 AM

The Blue Devils Aren't Angels

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It's hard to dislike Shane Battier. On the court, the Duke senior is a whirling dervish—grabbing rebounds, chasing down loose balls, and draining three-point shots with alarming frequency for a 6-foot-8-inch power forward. Off the court, he's a religion major with a 3.4 GPA. He serves as the chairman of the executive committee of the Student Basketball Council, a group that's trying to give unpaid student-athletes a say in the multibillion-dollar business of college basketball. But even with this impressive résumé, there's no way that Battier would be compared to former Princeton All-American and Rhodes Scholar Bill Bradley (as he recently was in a fawning New York Times profile) were it not for one key factor: He plays for Duke, the team constantly held up as the white knights of the increasingly sullied college basketball world.

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Watch any Duke game on television and listen to the announcers praise the Blue Devils for their "intelligence" and their "class." See Duke's mascot greet players from opposing teams with the sarcastic sign, "Welcome Fellow Scholars." Pick up a column by the pre-eminent basketball writer John Feinstein (Duke, Class of '77) and read him gush about "the school that wins with smart kids." Battier is just the latest Duke player to be put in Bradley's company. Before him came Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Trajan Langdon.

There's only one problem with all this Dukophilia. It's absolute bunk. Just consider some recent happenings at Duke:

In 1995, Duke center Greg Newton was suspended from the school for two semesters after a student court found him guilty of cheating on a computer science exam. Newton returned to Duke and resumed playing for the basketball team. Two years later, Duke guard Ricky Price was suspended from school for plagiarism. He too returned to Duke and resumed his basketball career.

In 1999, Duke point guard William Avery led the Blue Devils to the NCAA championship game. Unfortunately, while Avery was lighting it up on the basketball court, he wasn't going to many classes—and as soon as the season was over, Avery, a sophomore, dropped out of school and made himself eligible for the NBA draft.

Last year it was discovered that another player from that 1999 team, Corey Magette (who also left the school early to go to the NBA), shouldn't have been playing at all, because he was ineligible. While in high school, Magette had received $2,000 from a summer-league coach. Pending a decision by the NCAA, Duke may have to forfeit all its victories from that year.

Earlier this month, the San Jose Mercury News, examining data from 1994-97 (the last four-year period the NCAA used for documentation of grades and test scores), found that freshmen entering Duke on basketball scholarships during that period had an average SAT score of 968. The average SAT score for Duke's freshman class as a whole is generally in the high 1300s.

If all this sounds rather ho-hum and familiar, that's the point. Duke, for all the hoopla, isn't immune to the various ills plaguing college athletics—from compromised academic standards in admissions to student-athletes misbehaving once they are admitted. Duke probably doesn't cut as many corners as the Fresno States of the world, but it's not a bastion of purity, either.

So what explains the general perception of Duke as being above the fray? Part of it can be attributed to Duke's general academic reputation. (Although Stanford's basketball team, currently ranked No. 1, seldom receives Duke-like accolades.) Another explanation is Duke's vaunted PR machine. Whenever a Duke player does a summer internship on Wall Street or learns a second language, the media inevitably hear about it. (Georgetown players, on the other hand, have been working as summer interns on Capitol Hill for years, but you never hear about it in the press. The only reason I know is that I've seen some of them up there.) There's also probably an unfortunate racial element to the perception. The fact that Duke always has a number of white players no doubt makes some basketball observers assume the team is smarter than the rest.

But the biggest reason for Dukophilia is that people are desperate to believe in it. With college sports such a cesspool, people want there to be one school that hasn't compromised its academic mission in the pursuit of hardcourt glory. They want scholar-athletes like Bradley to still play the game. But as William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman document in their recent book The Game of Life, even the basketball players at Bradley's alma mater aren't what they used to be. While once upon a time athletes going to Ivy League schools had the same academic profile as non-athletes, today they have lower SAT scores and GPAs, on average, than their fellow, non-athletic students.

Every team in college basketball has cut corners. And, as fans, we benefit from those cut corners. The high level of play we've come to expect from the nation's best college teams just wouldn't be possible without some of those compromises. It's a choice we as fans have made. Now we have to live with it. Duke is an outstanding basketball team. Let's just appreciate that team for what it really is.

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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