Sympathy for the Blue Devil

As a Duke grad and a journalist, I’m used to a fair amount of heckling. The e-mailed links telling me what’s wrong with the institutions of Duke and the mainstream media. The pointed comments about everyone from Dan Rather to J.J. Redick. I’ve learned to respond playfully and then back away if it turns out this is one of those times in which the heckler doesn’t see what’s so damn funny about Rather/Redick being a prick.

It’s taken some time, but I’m immune to most of it now. For years, I derived little but pain from men’s basketball. I didn’t enjoy the wins, in part because I was never surrounded by anyone who cared to celebrate with me, and I grimaced in anticipation of the needling after each loss. That eased over the years, and I treasured the 2001 championship. With journalism, the irritation can run deeper because critics make such blatant lies in an effort to get their spin on things, but I’ve learned to steer clear of the Kool-Aid dispensers.

I also see the flaws in each of these institutions, as important as they are to me. Journalism has issues — the sensationalism of conflict, the cowardice in failing to present facts, the lack of calming context. Duke suffers at the hands of ESPN, which overexposes the men’s basketball team to the point that it’s simply impossible to blame viewers for turning against them. And while Duke students, contrary to popular opinion, have never been a simple gaggle of spoiled BMW drivers, Duke alumni … well, let’s admit it — we can be a little status-conscious. I’ve been frustrated that Dukies don’t keep in touch after graduation unless the situation can be defined as “networking.”

(Hey, I’m not going to offend anyone. If you’re reading this, and you’re from Duke, you’re obviously an exception.)

So under normal circumstances, I can generally laugh off or nod along with criticisms.

This week, it’s been far too painful.

The lacrosse situation (check with Brendan Nyhan for the best roundup of coverage — clearly a case in which a blogger is outshining journalists in terms of connecting the dots) seems to get worse every day from any number of angles. And there are plenty of parties who never set foot in that house who need to answer some questions.

The more I think about it, the less I think someone on the team should “come forward.” (OK, if someone committed or assisted an actual assault, a confession would help, but I’m being realistic.) What are they expected to say? “I wasn’t there, but I heard it was this guy”? I’m no lawyer, but I don’t think that’s going to fly in court. And I doubt it would help much with the investigation.

And Duke’s administration is in a situation to which I can relate as a journalist. A lot of people want to believe the worst about Duke, for a variety of reasons. So for these people, this can’t be a simple problem of a few cretins on an out-of-control team. It has to be institutional. And Duke, usually the poster child of “political correctness gone wild,” has responded the way journalists so often do. The school is wringing its hands in public, promising to get at the roots of problems it has tacitly admitted — not necessarily with evidence.

The media, to put it mildly, haven’t helped. A good juicy story with overtones of race and class is too good for the cable hounds to pass up. So they’re camped out in front of the Chapel.

The angle they’re missing: This problem goes far beyond Duke. It’s a problem of male athletes and their entitlement attitudes toward women. It could even go beyond athletes, judging by the way Capitol Hill men treat women as ornaments and/or outlets for whatever deviance their button-down lifestyles don’t allow. (Oh, you thought it was just a couple of guys you heard about on the news? Guess again.)

But you probably won’t hear that angle. It requires research beyond parking a news van in front of the Chapel. It complicates their hot story. And it’s a story we’re going to be stuck with for some time.

(I think journalists learn a lot about their profession when the reporting hits home. Every oversimplification can make us cringe, and that should make us realize the importance of getting the whole picture in our own stories.)

Given that, Duke could’ve used some good news this week. And we were less than 10 seconds away from having it. Then a Maryland player hit an impossible fadeaway 3-pointer over the best shot-blocker in women’s basketball, and it all fell apart.

Everyone has been fawning over Maryland since then, especially here in the Washington metro sprawl. And I can’t really blame them. It was an incredible effort.

But few people realize what a tragedy it is for Duke. That’s because very few people have been following this team since its first baby steps out of the ACC cellar. The injuries and lack of support that kept the team from finding success under Debbie Leonard. The years of slowly building to elite level, only to hit various stumbling blocks. The four-overtime loss in 1995, the closest call as Duke failed to reach the Sweet 16 until 1998. The miserable loss in the 1999 final after a terrific run past traditional powers Old Dominion, Tennessee and Georgia. The Jackie Stiles buzzsaw that left Duke’s Georgia Schweitzer in tears in 2001. Two more Final Four losses in 2003 and 2004.

So that’s five straight Elite 8 performances, four of the last seven Final Fours. Since making the Sweet 16 for the first time in 1998, they haven’t missed it. In the ACC, it’s a similar story — after winning their first tournament title in 2000, they did it four more times. Not bad, considering their all-time ACC Tournament record as of 1994 was 2-17.

Consistent excellence, years in the making. And they were finally poised to capitalize on it — a couple of blowout wins, a heroic win over Connecticut IN Connecticut, an easy Final Four win over LSU. Then a 13-point second-half lead against Maryland that was still four points in the last minute.

This team isn’t overexposed like the men. Far from it. SportsCenter’s “Ultimate Highlight” last weekend showed far more shots of eliminated North Carolina than it did of Duke. (Stuart Scott doing the editing?) Everyone knows Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. No one knows Gail Goestenkors.

And that’s a pity. Coach G helped usher in a new generation of women’s basketball coaches that was unafraid to show a little enthusiasm and smile every once in a while. She impressed the heck out of me the very first time I saw her team play, pressing UNC Wilmington into oblivion and being as friendly as she could be to the handful of reporters who gathered in the nearly empty gym.

So this week, I’ve been hearing from people who couldn’t name two players on Maryland’s team and have probably seen less than 20 minutes of women’s basketball in their lives. I could tell them Sheryl Swoopes made all the difference in the game, and they’d nod along.

That’ll pass, of course. People will move on to something else.

We’re about due for another scandal in journalism, aren’t we?

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