This Sunday, Lindsey Harding will become Duke's second women's basketball player to have her jersey retired in the rafters of Cameron Indoor Stadium. I, for one, do not see the occasion as reason for celebration.
In electing to retire Harding's jersey, Duke is placing Harding alongside the most accomplished athletic company in school history. There have been just 14 basketball players to have their jerseys retired in school history-13 men, and one woman, Alana Beard-making induction into the club more exclusive than any other athletic honor at this University, even more so than the Hall of Fame.
In recent years, Duke has established two primary criteria for jersey retirements. The first is for the student-athlete to receive some type of distinguished recognition for his or her contribution. Most retired players have won National Player of the Year, but other distinctions such as Defensive Player of the Year or setting some type of school or NCAA record have also been considered. Harding did all of these as a senior, winning the player and defensive player of the year awards and setting Duke's all-time assists record. The second unofficial guiding requirement is for the player to graduate from Duke. Harding did that too.
On paper, her resume reads as if she should be a shoe-in for jersey retirement-except for one little fact: Harding sat out the entire 2004-05 season because of a "violation of team rules," which is college sports' umbrella category for an indiscretion that the school, player or both does not wish to publicly disclose. That is, assuming that arriving late for the team bus did not warrant a year-long suspension in former head coach Gail Goestenkors' rulebook.
The public will likely never be quite sure why Harding missed what would have been her junior year, even though it seems at times as if the entire student body has heard the rumors. In some senses that is OK; the cause for Harding's suspension is her business, and we should leave it at that.
But the discussion needs to be more complicated than that. Last week I spoke with Georgia Beasley-formerly Georgia Schweitzer, who after Harding and Beard is probably the third-most accomplished women's player in Duke history. Beasley emphasized that Harding had made the best of her second chance and should be honored for her accomplishments.
"Everyone knows she made a mistake," Beasley said. "She's the first person willing to admit that. She did something wrong. Plenty of people have done the same thing at college. She got a second chance and did the most of it."
I agree with Beasley, except for one detail. Harding never really admitted it.
When she returned at the beginning of the 2005-06 season, the one in which her team came oh-so-close to winning the national championship, Harding's coach and teammates spoke of how she had apologized for what she had done and was ready to move forward. But the fans and members of the media who still wondered what had happened, why Duke's point guard had been sidelined for an entire year with no explanation, were all shut out.
Putting speculation about the specific infraction aside, fans and media are usually willing to accept honest apologies and move forward. For an example of the right way to deal with a problem, the Duke community should look to Zack Asack, who was willing to publicly speak of his indiscretion after being punished. Asack probably will not win a Heisman Trophy, but I have the utmost respect for his handling of the situation.
It is unclear why Harding did not do the same, as the public would likely have quickly moved on from a rules violation that did not involve the breaking of any laws and did not even cause a suspension from the University like Asack's did.
"A player's conduct both on and off the court are considered when making the determination whether a jersey is retired at Duke," Jon Jackson, Duke's Associate Athletics Director for Communication wrote in an e-mail. "In this specific instance, of course it was discussed. Lindsey's absence from the women's basketball program was handled internally and appropriately. She is completely deserving of this honor and we look forward to a wonderful afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 20."
But that is the beauty of cloaking the suspension in a "violation of team rules" and refusing to discuss it even three years later, right? Nobody will ever know whether rumors that the punishment did not fit the crime were true. People will continue to whisper over something that could have been put to rest with a little honesty.
If it were so important that whatever happened stay between Harding and her teammates and coaches, then Duke should have kept her accomplishments in the record books-not in Cameron's rafters.
In an e-mail late last week in response to my inquiry, President Brodhead wrote to me: "It's always pretty thrilling when these ceremonies take place; next week's will be as well."
Under these circumstances, I respectfully disagree.