With so many ways of communicating, the awkwardness of breaking up is no longer reserved for uncomfortable in-person conversations. More and more, it’s happening with no semblance of intimacy. As is the case with Matt Feeney’s breakup with Duke basketball via Slate.com, it’s being done to advance an idea–a polysyllabic one at that–rather than to send a message to the dumped.
Mr. Feeney, in stereotypical PhD fashion, piles his argument high and deep. Duke is unworthy because it is a “hysterical lie” whose players “condescended” the author when they passed him the ball in pick-up games (Mr. Feeney was a self-professed former jock who “ran” in pick-up games with the then-current players, but he sensed condescension when these Division I athletes shared the ball with this PhD student in a pick-up game). Why is it a hysterical lie? Mr. Feeney says that though he once drank in the idyllic portrayal of Coach K as the anti-Calipari, he drew inspiration from the Penn State imbroglio: Coach K isn’t the anomaly, he’s just another part of the problem. Mr. Feeney hopes you’ll need your thesaurus for this:
I’ve faced this truth head-on only in the last year, thanks to Penn State. Now I can go back and consider Coach K for what he actually does in his job. Besides the degraded admissions and academic standards, whose products I saw first-hand, I can ponder his recruiting methods. I’d always heard he was a “great recruiter,” but I avoided thinking about what this really entailed. Now, thanks to UCLA freshman and former Las Vegas prep standout Shabazz Muhammad (who was just benched by the NCAA for violating its ideological obfusc- , er, “amateurism rules”), I can hear it in my head: “He talks a lot about the Duke brand. … I think the thing that makes his sales pitch so good is that he’s really speaking from the heart.”
Did Coach K really try to recruit a high school star by telling him that Duke is the finest epiphenomenal projection of synergistic marketing strategies in all the land? I might not have believed it, except Julius Randle of Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, received the same pitch late this summer. After getting Randle “hyped” by flattering him with LeBron James comparisons, “Krzyzewski,” USA Today reports, “went on to talk about branding.”
Coach K, then, solves the sleazy prisoner’s dilemma of college recruiting by talking like a Don DeLillo character. From the heart, he sells 16-year-olds on the honor of entering his great simulacrum, “the Duke Brand,” which consists largely of the hysterical myth of Mike Krzyzewski. I imagine that comes somewhat easily to him.
Mr. Feeney opens himself up to a great deal of criticism here: his misunderstanding of the recruiting process, his misunderstanding of the Coach K effect on the University, his misunderstanding of the brand that Duke is in fact pitching. Indeed, Mr. Feeney sounds more like Rabbit Angstrom here than a grand PhD scholar writing from on high at Slate.com.
Amusingly, a lot of the elite recruits Duke is after aren’t worried so much about Duke’s Brand–Elton or otherwise–but about their own brand. A lot of the recruits want to know about, for example, the sort of marketing deals they might be able to secure, and how having been a Duke or UNC or UK alum might affect that, positively, negatively, etc.
To avoid the silliness of the author’s presentation and to hone in on what I suspect was his point, there’s no doubt that college basketball has become (or has long been) an incubator for future economic gain for particular individuals that are particularly gifted at the game itself and at being…marketable.
I get all gesticulated just thinking about it, but Duke is not alone in being proud of what being a former Coach K/Duke-trained player can mean in the world of basketball and the world that can accompany it. And though it may say something about the purity and purpose of the game itself (it does), that the young men (and women) coming into the NCAA are already thinking about the economic ramifications of their college choices…isn’t that something we want them to think about, too? Come and get an education on top of playing top-flight ball, and prepare yourself for long-term success no matter what you end up doing, or what careers you go into down the road? Isn’t that what we want them to do wherever they go to school? I for one do not think Duke has the secret to such outcomes. But there’s nothing wrong–and shouldn’t be–with pitching your University’s ability to help with long-term success. You think high school seniors looking to become PhdDs aren’t thinking about the Duke brand, too, or what their brand might be, too? Or the name-that-university brand?
We Duke fans may think the University does this well, but we’d all benefit (and I suspect, all root for) a system in which those coming in and going out of the system (athletically and otherwise) are better in every way for the world that awaits them. Whether this approach accomplishes that, I’m not so sure…but the culpability the author places on Duke here seems to be more than a little misguided.
Or as Stanley Fish once wrote, “The purpose of a good education is to show you that there are three sides to a two-sided story.
Edit: I erroneously wrote that Mr. Feeney’s story appeared on Salon.com. The story, of course, appears on Slate.com. I apologize for the error.