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The stakes of the game

Not long ago, I asked my mother if she could name five current or former Duke basketball players. Of course she could. She started with the two Paulus brothers. Then there was Jon Shyler. Who could forget that tall, bearded national champion: Brian Zebra? And what about Lance Armstrong? Or that boy who sweated a lot—who was he, again? Oh, right. Something Singer? The Wedding Singer! That was it. It might not come as a surprise that I don’t often analyze basketball with Mom.

But even someone who might confuse Andre Dawkins for Andre the Giant understands that this wasn’t exactly a banner year for college sports. In fact, for a while this year, trying to explain the allure of NCAA athletics was a lost cause.

This was abundantly clear the last time I visited Duke as a journalist, a few weeks before the allegations out of Penn State made other examples of impropriety look like parking tickets. Even then, the future of college sports was still a tricky subject that seemed to dominate all my conversations. As it turned out, it was no longer possible to yak about sports in the familiar parlance of prediction, hyperbole and the occasional bit of measured reason. Instead we discussed the economics of compensating college athletes beyond room and board. There was idle chatter about the appropriate penalty for such a heinous crime as accepting a free tattoo. And we were (and still are) exploring how NCAA sports can exist without the NCAA. A popular theory contends that the ruling body of college sports might soon give way to four self-governing super-conferences. Poof! Just like that, the NCAA would disappear.

Right when I began looking for excuses to chat about anything other than college sports—politics seemed tame by comparison—something even more bizarre happened. Basketball season tipped off. Football segued into the bionic mode of bowl season. It wasn’t long before I realized, much to my surprise, that the way I consumed college sports hadn’t changed in the slightest.

Between all the black eyes and body shots, from Miami to Oregon and too many places in between, the games somehow remained the same. They still satisfied those of us loony enough to plan our lives around them.

Of course there’s some cognitive dissonance here. How could the sports themselves maintain their appeal while everything around them went so rotten? There are more reasons than ever to be cynical about the merits of college sports. Cases of athletics bringing out the worst on a campus abound—and not just in faraway places. But what this past year has taught me is that the part of college sports that we truly appreciate has a remarkable way of redeeming itself.

The quality of competition isn’t what it is in the professional ranks, nor will it be even if these athletes are paid someday, or if the college level is officially designated the minor leagues in some sports. There’s still no comparison for the camaraderie of the modern student section, or the feeling when everything for your school’s team breaks the way you want just when you least expect it, or the undying thrill of a bonfire that burns into the wee hours.

As much as I cherish reporting on its insanities and inanities, I also can’t get enough of watching and debating college sports with many of the same people I did when I could actually call these athletes my peers. Every year that ends with a cruel thud, we wonder if we’ll be foolish enough to care so much the following year. By the next opening day, we’ve already forgotten that we ever entertained such a question.

This might ring sentimental or, worse, naive. Those are two words that can terrify a reporter into surrendering his notebook. And yet I hope, more than anything, that I’m telling the truth. You might think so, too, if you know what it’s like to tiptoe through the Krzyzewskiville mud to watch Duke rout some cupcake that has about as much chance of winning as I do parasailing on the moon. The experience is never not worth it.

Ben Cohen graduated from Duke in 2010 and was the sports editor of The Chronicle and co-editor of Towerview. He writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @bzcohen.

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