Tomorrow, Duke football will take the field at Wallace Wade against Elon, marking the start of a season unlike any in recent history. The team is coming off of a 10-4 finish, its best in 20 years, and one that featured an ACC Championship appearance and a heartbreaking primetime New Year’s Eve thriller against Johnny Football and company.
Duke appears to be on track toward becoming an All-American academic-athletic powerhouse. But with its eyes locked on big-time, big-money sports, is it becoming an athletic-academic powerhouse?
Success on the field has been the return on Duke’s massive investment in its football program. This year, the first noticeable renovation to Wallace Wade Stadium—which will, in total, cost approximately $40 million of the $100 million athletics renovation budget—has manifested itself in the form of 6,346 brand-new royal blue seats on the east side of the bowl, an inexpensive but aesthetically pleasing update. And there’s more to come. Over the next few years, the track will be removed from the stadium and relocated behind Koskinen, the Finch-Yeager building will be demolished in favor of a state-of-the-art press box and luxury suite tower and ultimately, if fan attendance is sufficient, the horseshoe will become a bowl.
Duke football, the institution, has been created. But is it good for Duke University, the academic institution? It would seem so—a strong football program generates more revenue, more donations, more national attention, more progress toward achieving excellence in all facets of the modern American university. The administration would like us to see investment in football as an obvious plus, but it actually raises questions about Duke’s mission as a university.
Given that Duke Football is here to stay, the University must consider carefully the team and institution’s future. At onset, two paths appear: athletics at the expense of academics—in the vein of universities that create fake classes for their athletes—or athletics as supplementary to academics—in the vein of schools with high GPA standards for teams, like the Ivy League. Not surprisingly, Duke seems to be paving its own way, maintaining high academic prowess while continuing to raise the bar on the quality of its football program.
Currently, Duke’s football team’s academic standing is commendable, thanks in part to head coach David Cutcliffe’s strong emphasis on education—which is perhaps most embodied in the 2008 athletic strategic plan "Unrivaled Ambition." The team has the highest Academic Progress Report rating in the ACC, scoring 992 out of a possible 1000. But with more on-field success come higher stakes, and with higher stakes, temptations—to reduce football admissions standards and to separate completely football student-athletes from the rest of the student body, like what has developed at Stanford.
Duke must continue to resist these temptations. Maintaining strong focus on academic success is immanent to the program’s place in the university. As the school continues to pioneer the pursuit for a true academic-athletic powerhouse, it must always remember to prioritize academics first.
As for football, the foundations of the program have been built, the stadium is being rebuilt and the institution is not far behind. Will the fans come? If the 3,000-plus locals that attended “Meet the Blue Devils” Day—the team’s open house and autograph fair—was any indicator, the answer is yes. Maybe it will be against Elon, maybe it will be on ESPN primetime the Thursday before Thanksgiving against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or maybe it will be in a few years. But one day, Wallace Wade will be a Field of Dreams come true.