Ashley: The contradictions of March Madness

Mar. 09, 2013 @ 11:24 AM

As time wound down in Duke University’s victory over Virginia Tech Tuesday night, the three Blue Devil seniors exited the game, one by one, to resounding ovations from the Cameron Indoor Stadium faithful.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski embraced each one. The warmth of the embrace for Ryan Kelly seemed especially strong.

By any measure, the Ryan Kelly story these past few days has been wonderful – dogged competitiveness, enthusiasm, the spirit of college basketball at its best.

Kelly, injured in a game Jan. 8, didn’t play for nearly two months – then came back last Saturday to score a career-high 36 points in what Coach K called “one of the performances of the ages.”

For good measure, Kelly later in the week was one of four Duke men’s players named to the All-ACC Academic team. And like fellow senior Mason Plumlee, it was his third year cited for academic excellence – at one of the most academically rigorous universities in the country.

But just days before these truly feel-good events unfolded, a thoughtful essay in The New York Times sports section Feb. 23 highlighted the contradictions inherent in big-time college basketball, contradictions pervasive throughout the college landscape but which attract particular attention to Duke.

The school, after all, has managed more than all but a handful of elite schools to exemplify athletic excellence coupled with mostly unyielding academic standards. Even skeptics among the professoriate worry about marginal erosion, not full-scale abandonment of those standards in pursuit of athletic victory.

Still…

As Bill Morris, who crafted the Times essay – “A Tent City for Fun and Profit” – put it:

“But even at Duke, where crazy is cool and basketball is king, some administrators, faculty and students are asking if big-time sports – and some of the behavior that goes with it – is a big waste of time and energy.”

I suspect it’s no coincidence that Morris’ essay appeared just days before we plunge into this region’s most treasured season – March Madness. With the regular season culminating this weekend, we look forward to the ACC Tournament and then three weeks of increasingly manic NCAA Tournament play. 

So maybe now is not the best time to raise an issue I’ve been fascinated with, spending much of my career around big-time college sports programs – many years in North Carolina with side trips to similarly basketball-crazed Kentucky and Penn State’s football obsession (a sorry tale of tragic contradictions in its own right).

A quote in Morris’ essay from William E. Kirwan, chancellor for the University of Maryland and co-director of the watchdog Knight Commission, summed it up:

“We’ve reached the point where big-time intercollegiate athletics is undermining the integrity of our institutions, diverting presidents and institutions from their main purpose.”

I suspect no Duke student braving winter nights in Krzyzewskiville, the tent village that intrigued Morris, dwells much, if at all, on that concern during their siege of Cameron Indoor. Again, K-ville, like so much about the college sports experience, is a glorious study in contradictions. Morris doubted much studying is going on, but Duke students have long clung to the “work hard, play hard” ethos and on any given evening, you’ll see many tenting students hunched over laptops, keeping up with their academic demands.

I’ll be glued to the television for many games in the next few weeks, like most of you. And this paper will as we should treat the events as front page news day after day.

But when the dust settles in early April – one hopes, with an NCAA champion or two from Tobacco Road – perhaps it will be time to resume the ongoing debate and reflection on Kirwan’s point.

There are few better places to do it.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or at bashley@heraldsun.com.