In recent months, a minority faction of professors, with little or no resistance from the Brodhead administration, has waged an assault on not only Duke athletics but on the personal character of all Duke athletes. In an interview with the New Yorker, history professor Peter Wood expressed certainty that an athlete advocated genocide against Native Americans. The evidence for this startling claim? None: the remark came on an anonymous student evaluation form in a class that contained dozens of non-athletes. Shortly thereafter, cultural anthropology professor Orin Starn—writing in Mike Nifong’s house organ, the Durham Herald-Sun—asserted that “an arrogant sense of victimization and entitlement seems to have replaced any semblance of clear-thinking or self-reflection in Duke sports circles.” The athletes’ offense? Exercising their First Amendment rights to hold a rally defending the role of athletics at Duke, after months of attacks from professors like Starn.
This reflexive anti-athlete mindset peaked in a dubiously argued essay by English professor Karla Holloway, who previously had contended that the increased committee work occasioned by her role chairing the Campus Culture Initiative’s “race” subgroup made her a victim of the affair. “The ‘culture’ of sports,” explained Holloway, “seems for some a reasonable displacement for the cultures of moral conduct, ethical citizenship and personal integrity.” A Duke alumnus appropriately rebuked the Group of 88 stalwart:
You seek to indict the entire team and all white males, particularly athletes, because of the inappropriate language of one or two people. In other words, you seek to attribute the conduct of one person to an entire group and declare the group guilty. This type of justice is not tolerated in any other context. Why is it acceptable for the lacrosse team?
This case has featured a consistent pattern—encouraging in one way, deeply troubling in another—of the most impressive reasoning about Duke affairs coming not from the institution’s faculty but from its student body.
And so it is on athletics as well. In yesterday’s Chronicle, Rachel Shack, a
Shack’s essay effectively debunked the anti-athlete bias to which, sadly, all too many Duke professors adhere. She wrote:
I have been a lifelong Duke fan. When I was admitted to Duke, my dream became a reality. I was not recruited to Duke as an athlete. In the months following my acceptance, I decided that sports were too significant a part of my life to give up, so I tried out and walked on to the women’s lacrosse team, a team which has gone to the Final Four my first two years at Duke. Since my first day of practice, I have felt extremely privileged to be a part of such a special, driven, and talented group of women. At Duke, I have served on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, a group which interacts with the Athletic Department as well as organizes and participates in several community service projects. I am a member of the first class of Baldwin Scholars, a program which stemmed from Duke’s Women’s Initiative, and which aims to change women’s leadership roles and attitudes on campus.
That being said, I am first and foremost a serious student, as are most student-athletes I know. I and my fellow athletes have enormous respect for the faculty at Duke. One of the ways we demonstrate that respect for our professors is hard work. Duke athletes work hard. Last year, 362 Duke student-athletes earned a place on the ACC Academic Honor Roll, which led the conference for the 18th straight year. A 2004 graduate of the Women’s Lacrosse team earned the prestigious honor of valedictorian as a mathematics and classics major.
Compare Shack’s rhetoric with the absurd statement of Group of 88 member Paula McClain, who pronounced herself “aghast” that Duke would even consider a program to give professors a more accurate sense of athletic culture by spending more time with individual teams; or the sophomoric remarks of two other arts and sciences professors, who ridiculed Duke’s “preprofessional athletes.”
The lacrosse player also delivered a stinging—and brutally effective—critique of the so-called Campus Culture Initiative, whose chief purpose appears to be to codify the intolerant attitude initially manifested in the Group of 88’s April 6 statement:
The professors of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences proclaim themselves open-minded, dedicated to helping their students examine all sides of the issues before releasing them into the world, well-educated and prepared to make their own choices and form their own opinions. However, recently published opinion pieces by faculty, especially faculty who are on the Committees of Campus Culture Initiative, contradict those values and open-mindedness. The Campus Culture Initiative Committees should be working to further unify athletics and academics, instead of alienating and castigating some of the most hard-working people on this campus.
In her recently published article, “Coda: Bodies of Evidence,” Duke professor Karla Holloway makes the point that important groups of students, such as African American women, have been marginalized in the wake of the Duke Lacrosse rape case. I understand their conflicted sentiments in recent times. However, adopting her suggestion to downsize or eliminate the sports programs at Duke would, paradoxically, deprive others’ of their civil rights: Title IX serves as an important social function in creating access for women and minority men to colleges that would otherwise not be available. Sports and the “ethic of sportsmanship” not only add to the moral standing and character of the university, they are an integral part of the full educational experience. Learning to work well and cooperating with people from different backgrounds, leading a team, and working towards a common goal are all values directly translatable to the classroom and should be encouraged instead of criticized. Professor Holloway borrows the expression, as if it were a negative, “defeat also tests the character of the fan, for the true fan must remain loyal even during the bad times.” That is very true, and especially pertinent right now. Within the athletic department, those words are reflected by how many different teams support each other on the field and off, especially now that we are recovering from a “bad time.” However, this support and appreciation should not come just from within the athletic department. All who support Duke, including and especially its brilliant professors who share their knowledge with all of us, should and must remain loyal to what Duke has always stood for: excellence in academics and athletics, and the student-athletes who directly contribute to the excellence in both.
There’s no place for someone like Rachel Shack—or Reade Seligmann—in the Duke of Orin Starn or CCI powerhouses Peter Wood and Karla Holloway. At some point, the trustees will have to choose what kind of Duke they desire. Shack’s essay points them in the proper direction.