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Sports as a uniting force

Even after all the anticipation for a critical Duke basketball game, it’s the rain I remember most. It started a little after midnight, and it seemed appropriate. Even the relentless street lamps of Krzyzewskiville seemed dimmer than usual as they shined on the wreckage of nights hazily passed and a game that was scarcely competitive.

I was alone in front of Wilson Gym as Saturday turned to Sunday following the Blue Devils’ 88-70 loss at the hands of North Carolina to close out the 2012 regular season. Discarded and trampled in the mud was a painted sign that read, “We Are Duke.” And I thought to myself as I watched the rain ruin the posterboard, “Who is that?”

Duke had played the game—as it had played much of its season—without an identity. The young squad lacked the leadership and cohesion of past Blue Devil teams, and I couldn’t help but wonder if their issues weren’t a reflection of the campus at large.

This is a changing university. The composition of the student body is changing. Administration and policies are in flux. Even the restaurant scene on campus seems to be in a state of upheaval (I’ll miss you, Pauly Dogs). And perhaps the most venerable symbol of the university—the Cameron Crazies—aren’t what they once were, as Duke was forced to sell tickets last season to fill out the student section for some home basketball games.

But one thing is certain for all of us: we are here, and we are Duke—whatever Duke means. And the upside of the current era of change is the opportunity for us to do some defining for ourselves. Can we not unite—administrators and trustees, educators and alumni and students from all walks of campus life—at Wallace Wade, in Cameron, at Koskinen? Why not come together over the single thing that all 26 of the varsity sports teams have in common: four letters on their uniforms?

Sports have become one of the great American morality plays, even in the collegiate realm. Other universities take pride in their football on Saturdays, not just their tailgates. And for many of the attendees, it’s not at all about first downs or forced fumbles. It’s about representing their schools, bringing together a panorama of humanity connected by disparate threads to a single organization. It’s about taking pride in the past and building excitement for the future. It’s about cheering together, winning together and yes, losing together. It is vital to the character and identity of the university.

If you don’t believe me, look no further than what happens when these schools are stripped of their athletic standing. At schools like Penn State and Miami, entire lives and whole campuses have been shattered by the sins of athletes and coaches. Even Duke struggled through such a threatening episode in 2006 during the infamous men’s lacrosse scandal. Duke is no longer plagued by any of that, with a healthy, compliant and competitive athletics program.

As issues from the housing model to the admissions process to Greek tensions have sometimes bubbled over between different campus groups, I think this institution would be stronger and more united if the Duke community in its entirety would make an extra effort to turn out for the sporting events. The frequently empty student section at Wallace Wade Stadium is one of the most glaring deficiencies in attendance, but if you don’t like football, there are 25 other teams on campus where the simple act of having Duke people in the same stands cheering for the same team would be good for everyone.

Blue Devil athletes are always excited to have a noisy home crowd to motivate them, but I’m not imploring you to attend Duke athletic events because I think the athletes need us. I’m imploring you because I think we need them.


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