The game-night entrance of Coach Michael W. Krzyzewski at Cameron Indoor Stadium follows its own modern-day royal protocol.
The exalted leader of the Duke men’s basketball program strides out with his entourage of assistants and student managers trailing behind. Cheering students do the “We are not worthy” bow as he crosses the floor to the bench. His accomplishments—five NCAA titles, three Olympic gold medals, the men’s college basketball coach with the most all-time wins—bestow divine authority. The court bears Coach K’s name, as do two campus buildings, like monuments to a Roman emperor.
Coach K will step down at season’s end, shuttering his four-decade run, and there will be tributes aplenty during this farewell season. But what is the reality of athletics at Duke, that would-be shining star of college sports?
We like to think we do sports the right way. No fake classes at our gothic wonderland, unlike those plebeian state schools down the road. We are all about excellence to match our $80K per year sticker price and glassy new buildings paid for by billionaire hedge fund alums. “Unrivaled Ambition” is the hubristic title of our athletics strategic plan.
It’s a more mixed picture from up close. As a former college soccer player and veteran Duke professor, I’ve gotten to know players from just about every team, from men’s basketball to women’s field hockey.
Many take pride in competing for Duke, but double duty on the field and in the classroom stretches them perilously thin. And the pleasures of communitarian Cameron craziness provided by Coach K’s blue-chip teams go hand-in-hand with academic corner-cutting, rampant commercialization, and some unsettling racial dynamics. Our hallowed basketball program turns out to be plagued by the same troubles as so many other schools in the billion-dollar college sports-entertainment complex.
Our Duke situation invites a more nuanced understanding of college sports. In the polarized kabuki theater of these familiar debates, we have rosy NCAA propaganda championing the myth of the noble scholar-athlete, and, on the other side, critics who see only lies, corruption, and exploitation.
Neither view captures the complexity of college sports at Duke and beyond. It’s a tale of the good, bad, and the ugly, where honest discussion and real reform remain in short supply.
Only in the United States do universities field high-powered sports teams with millionaire coaches and gargantuan television contracts. Our supersizing of college sports makes for school spirit, funky mascots, and tipsy tailgating fun, but also the oddity of what are supposed to be non-profit educational institutions deep in the big-money sports business—tax-exempt, of course.
Despite solemn university declarations about the sanctity of education, the money and glory in sports tend to make them a first priority. The mythologized “student-athletes” of the NCAA pieties are, as often as not, really “athlete-students,” if you consider where they distribute their energies in their college years.
The Duke administration seems to accept tacitly that sports come first, whatever the team. At every semester’s start, athletes bring me and other professors an official “Notification of Varsity Athletic Participation” form listing days they will miss for game travel. Never have I heard of an athlete missing a game to come to class.
It’s routine for players to miss six or seven classes a semester, always in catch-up mode, regardless of the review sessions I arrange. Practice schedules also limit athlete class choices. “Half-assed,” is how one male athlete described the quality of his Duke education. (Like other Duke athletes in this article, he gave me permission to use his comments with the understanding I would not identify him.)
To their credit, most Duke athletes try to fulfill their academic obligations, and many are strong students. Despite the UNC-CH independent study scam, the old practices of fake transcripts and sham classes are not so common anywhere nowadays.
Most universities maintain academic support centers for their athletes, both from genuine concern for them and to also ensure they don’t lose eligibility by flunking out. Duke athletes can take advantage of tutoring and work space at the three-story, 56,000-square-foot Michael W. Krzyzewski Center for Athletic Excellence. The generally excellent staff there do their best to help players keep up with their studies.
Coach K has avoided the bad press of cheating scandals. The team has a dedicated academic adviser who steers players to friendly faculty and keeps tabs on their performance. If you are among the go-to professors, you can ask for tickets to the occasional game.
We faculty have too often gone along by doing independent studies with Duke athletes that, although not fraudulent in the UNC-Chapel Hill manner, do not involve much work either. One colleague met with her basketball player-student only five times over the semester. “Not my most rigorous class,” she admitted.
A few basketball stars have excelled academically. Emeritus religion professor Bruce Lawrence recalls standout forward Shane Battier sending in an essay at midnight after a big game. “I’ll never forget his dedication, imagination, and will power,” Lawrence said. Then-Duke President Nannerl Keohane wanted to nominate Battier for a Rhodes Scholarship. A cramped room at Oxford? Or a multimillion dollar NBA contract with fame and glory? Battier headed for the NBA to win two titles with the Miami Heat.
But it’s a tough trick to play basketball at Duke and do well in school. Players are constantly away during March Madness, and exhausted when back on campus.
JJ Redick, a thoughtful student and the all-time leading Duke scorer, sat in the back of my class, baseball cap pulled low. What does it feel like to be a sports celebrity with millions watching your televised exploits on game night—and then the next morning to be just another college student stuck in class? Focusing cannot be easy as we professors drone away at the board.
Not all players take their scholastic obligations with great seriousness. Some years ago, a friend of mine had a star guard in his class who seldom showed up and turned in almost no work. My friend is one of those basketball-friendly professors who gets his share of players, and, although not asking much, he did want the player to turn in his final paper.
One afternoon, a manila envelope appeared under his door with what he expected to be the essay. Instead, the star guard had enclosed a signed picture of himself in game uniform, apparently thinking that would suffice for a passing grade. It didn’t.
The increasing numbers of one-and-doners have somewhat weakened Duke basketball’s attraction on campus, and perhaps in general. Except for the fabled man-child Zion Williamson, a well-liked figure whose delightful laugh sometimes rang out across the East Campus dining hall, we have trouble even remembering the names of any recent players.
They stay too briefly before moving on to professional careers for the fans to form deep bonds. The one-and-doners sometimes just stop going to class in the spring semester, melting away for NBA draft preparation.
It used to be that only players in the archetypal college revenue sports of basketball and football had little time for their studies. But in recent times we have witnessed even so-called “minor” sports becoming big time. Early morning practices. Trips countrywide. Fifty game seasons, in the case of men’s baseball and women’s softball.
Duke can feel like one big sports camp with its twenty-seven varsity teams, roughly 700 athlete-students (about 10 percent of the undergraduates), and an athletics program with thirty times the budget of any humble academic department. Our gleaming training complexes would put those of the sports federations of many small countries to shame.
Some expansion has to do with Title IX, and the growth of women’s sports. Today, we have many more women’s teams and scholarships for female athletes, although there’s still a long way to go. Data available from the Equity for Athletics Disclosure Act show that Duke spent $57.1 million on its men’s teams in 2019-2020 and $25.4 million on women’s. The lack of equity is common at universities nationwide, despite loopholes that allow Duke and other schools to remain in Title IX compliance.
Critics further note that women of color have been denied Title IX’s fuller benefits, since players from white suburban families predominate on most women’s teams, whether soccer, lacrosse, or field hockey.
At Duke and other universities, male and female athletes contend with similar pressures nowadays. By its own regulations, the NCAA has a 20-hour-a-week limit on “athletically related activity,” a way of protecting athlete time. But a Chronicle of Higher Education investigation found that the average Division I athlete spends more than 40 hours a week on their sport, including practice, film study, and “voluntary” workouts. “Easily over 50 hours a week,” a player on one Duke men’s team estimated for the many weeks when the team travels.
“Your day is filled with workouts, meetings, classes, and you’re being looked at under a microscope by every teacher, coach, and advisor in your life,” another player explained in a paper for one of my classes. “The anxiety of messing up engulfs you like a body of water.” His day begins at 5 a.m. with three hours of physical therapy, weight training, and wind sprints that make it hard for him to stay awake in class.
According to a 2015 study, almost a third of college athletes describe themselves as “seriously overwhelmed.” What has been called the “quiet crisis” of player mental health worsened in the pandemic, with players often isolated with their teammates and for a while, the only students on campus at all.
The Duke athletics department has made Calm, an anti-anxiety app, free to players along with increased access to counseling. These seem like Band-Aid solutions when varsity team members are still effectively expected to be performing two full-time jobs as both athletes and students. “One has to sacrifice a lot to survive day by day and mentally not break down,” one player told me.
And then there’s race. Former Duke women’s basketball point guard Kyra Lambert turned heads at a 2019 campus forum by asserting that college sports “look a lot like slavery.” She noted that older white coaches like Coach K, John Calipari and Nick Saban take home as much as $10 million a year, while their young, predominantly Black players received only the price of a scholarship.
Complaints from Black athletes about a “plantation mentality” have become more common following the murder of George Floyd and the emergence of Black Lives Matter. A player on one men’s team noted in an assignment that “we are expected to devote our entire time and effort to the team and leave behind family who may be going through rough times.” He cited a study showing that even three-star football recruits are worth $150,000 a year to their universities, far less than the value of their scholarships, even at pricey Duke.
An economist recently estimated that Zion Williamson earned $5 million for Duke by leading the team to the ACC championship. He saw none of that money. Instead, in a classic turn of college sports absurdism, Williamson was named in a lawsuit alleging his family received a paltry $3,000 a month from Adidas in violation of those sacrosanct NCAA amateurism regulations.
Of all Duke sports, football has by far the largest total number of Black athletes. Their coach, David Cutcliffe, is respected around campus, and many players appreciate being able to get a Duke degree. “I know personally that if I did not play football,” one player says, “I would not be in college.” Still, some Black players have described to me their anxieties about having to prove they belong in the classroom among mostly white classmates with perfect SAT scores from top prep schools.
It is fair to ask why Duke and other schools even play football. The dangers of long-term brain injury from so many blows to the head are well-documented by now, including dementia and suicide risks. Players often postpone surgeries until season’s end, playing in pain in the meantime.
At the start of every spring semester, my football students appear in class on crutches and in arm slings from various operations like a scene from the recovery ward in a World War II movie. Most of them are Black, teenagers or barely much older. They perform to entertain majority white crowds.
The leaders of college sports are scrambling to adapt to the changing times. After years of pressure, the NCAA has grudgingly allowed athletes so-called “Name, Image, Likeness” rights, or NIL, enabling them to earn money from endorsements and other commercial ventures.
Coach K recorded a spot for BLM, which was a mildly-improbable turn for a man whose last notable political engagement was hosting a “Blue Devils for Dole” reception for Republican senatorial candidate (and Duke grad) Elizabeth Dole. This spring, Duke named Nina King as its new athletics director, the first woman and first person of color to hold that role. Recognizing problems that need fixing, King has established a “Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging” task force as universities do nowadays.
The challenges remain formidable. Despite most players being Black in men’s basketball and football for decades now, Duke has never had a black head coach in either sport. Only three of the twenty-seven varsity sport head coaches are people of color.
A few prominent players may profit from NIL opportunities (Bojangles has signed Duke guard Wendell Moore to praise its chicken sandwich) and, in a welcome development, women athletes have especially benefited, leveraging their sometimes-large social media followings. The big-time college sports system with its massive TV contract revenues, multimillion-dollar coaching salaries, and unpaid young Black players remains in place.
The announcement of Jon Scheyer’s appointment as Duke’s new coach typified the hyper-commercialization of college sports. Duke President Vincent Price introduced the new coach before a backdrop stamped with the Rocket Mortgage logo. An unopened Coke bottle was carefully product-placed on the lectern.
A couple of the players in attendance wore Nike sweats, yet another Duke corporate sponsor. Scheyer will need to win to keep the job, but he will have no money worries whatever happens. According to one source, his salary will be about $7 million, presumably not including a hefty undisclosed fee from Nike like Coach K has received.
Even subtracting kingly coaching salaries, the basketball program remains a cash machine. What business would not be if it got its key workers—in this case, the players—for a fraction of their market value? The revenues generated by Coach K’s stellar teams have helped to pay the bills for other Duke sports.
It may be a bit unorthodox to have a new coach announced and yet Coach K leading the team for one more season. At UNC-CH, that other retiring Tobacco Road legend, Roy Williams, turned things over to his successor, Hubert Davis, without a farewell tour.
In contrast to Williams, who models the down-home folksiness of a barbecue pit master, Krzyzewski has run a more military coachship, the West Point graduate accustomed to command. That he chose to delay relinquishing the head coach’s seat is not so surprising; he apparently was not quite ready to join Ol’ Roy in the green retirement pastures of charity golf tournaments, grandkid time, and glory days’ reminiscing. Whatever one might say about college sports and its discontents, Coach K may well deserve the accolades he will receive in this final season. Not many among us can claim to be among the best ever at what we do.
When travelling abroad, I find that Duke, despite our Ivy League pretensions, remains best-known for its basketball prowess. A Bolivian immigration officer, dubious about my papers, waved me through a couple of years ago when I said I was a Duke professor. (“Coach K!”, he grinned.) He could not have cared less about us nerdy academics.
Back during the Duke lacrosse scandal, I got a message from then-athletics director Joe Alleva. I had written a rather shrill op-ed in the Raleigh News and Observer suggesting that Duke should get out of the big-time college sports business by downgrading to club teams.
I expected Alleva to take me to task, but he greeted me politely in his office at Cameron, and gave me a walking tour of the new football facility. “You know,” he said, “I agree with a lot of what you said about all the problems.” I was struck that even a leader in the college sports system recognized its flaws just like—or perhaps even better—than the rest of us. (Alleva left Duke for LSU in 2008).
We always seem to have some new commission proposing this or that reform. Real enforcement of the 20-hour-a-week limit on athletic activity would be an essential start. A cap on coaching salaries, say at $1 million a year, would free money that could be used to pay players by one formula or another. And it would be good to see caring coaches, of which Duke has many, receive tenure. They could focus on the welfare of their players instead of having to worry about getting fired after a losing season. All schools nationwide would have to commit to measures like these to keep the playing field level.
Any such big changes seem very unlikely. If more athletes mobilized for change, that could force real reform. A group called “United Black Athletes” meets at Duke, although with no players from the men’s basketball team, perhaps because it would violate the omertá-like expectation of loyalty to the “Brotherhood,” as current and former players sometimes like to refer to themselves. Pressure to conform, and the sheer difficulty of finding the time, make it hard for college athletes to organize for their rights.
I have also found plenty of Duke athletes are happy enough with things as they are. That player with the 50-hour travel weeks? “I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “We agreed to become student-athletes with the understanding that we would sacrifice a substantial portion of our lives for our sport.”
“Competing for a university is a privilege, opportunity, and choice, not an obligation or a job,” said a player on a women’s team.
Then there are the joys of the game, for players and fans alike. Whether the agile épée thrust of Kevin Chao to win the ACC fencing championships or Alana Beard, a future Hall of Famer, rising to her buttery jump shot, I delight in the achievements of the athletes I’ve gotten to know. They gain much satisfaction in creating what philosopher Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht calls “athletic beauty,” not to mention the lifetime bonds they form with teammates.
We fans get more mundane rewards, whether gathering with friends to watch a big basketball game or grilling hot dogs in the stadium parking lot before Duke’s football team goes down in some new agonizing defeat. There’s too much invested in college sports to imagine much will change anytime soon, even though we know it should.
Coach K coaches his last regular season home game on March 5 against the hated Tar Heels.
I expect I’ll tune in to watch.
Orin Starn is a professor in the cultural anthropology department at Duke, where he teaches a class on sports and society. He has won the university’s highest undergraduate teaching award, and is the author or co-author of seven books, including The Passion of Tiger Woods.