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Thursday, June 11, 2015

June 11, 2015: North Carolina Stories: North Carolina Basketball

[In honor of the upcoming birthday of an old friend, on which more this weekend, a series on histories and stories from the Tarheel State! Add your Carolinian responses and stories in comments, y’all!]
On schadenfreude, bigger problems, and the need to keep an open mind.
As a lifelong fan of the University of Virginia’s sports teams, I have to admit that the recent, ongoing allegations against and investigations into Roy Williams’ men’s basketball program at the University of North Carolina have prompted some serious feelings of schadenfreude. Partly that’s just sour grapes, of course; outside of the brief mid-1980s window of Ralph Sampson’s heyday, UNC has consistently dominated UVa in men’s basketball, and the childhood traumas of repeated sports butt-kickings tend to linger. But while Virginia is of course not an Ivy League school in its approach to athletics, it nonetheless felt, to this Virginia at least, that UNC represented a more aggressively cynical athletic powerhouse, a university where the “student athletes” tended to be even further removed from the official definition of that category. So I can’t lie, stories about rampant cheating and malpractice at UNC have resonated satisfyingly with the me who will forever be about 10 years old.
Yet the me who is 37 years old and an analytical AmericanStudier to boot believes that the details of UNC’s academic fraud and programmatic skirting of the rules and other violations represent, as do pretty much all such revelations about college athletics, much more of an example of trends taking place around the country than an anomaly. If that’s true, if we would find similar or at least parallel efforts at numerous other big-time college sports programs, than simply punishing UNC, necessary as such a response no doubt is, might well become at the same time an elision of the bigger problems, indeed would serve as an implicit argument that UNC’s particular program rather than the NCAA in every way comprises the problem. Seen through this lens, efforts to unionize college athletes such as the one underway at Northwestern thus become far more significant collective responses, and the ones on which we should focus our communal attention as much as possible.
And then there’s Dean Smith. For permanently 10 year old me, Smith was the symbol of all I despised about North Carolina basketball. Yet when Smith passed away earlier this year, I had the opportunity to learn a number of striking stories and histories about which I, to my shame and perhaps because of that instinctive antipathy toward Smith, had previously known nothing. Such stories, including both of the ones hyperlinked previously in this paragraph as well as this amazing Twitter story, make clear that Smith represented the best of what college sports can include and mean, as well as just a genuinely inspiring and influential-in-the-best-sense American life. As I’ve written before in this space, being willing to admit all the things I don’t know is as vital to my evolving AmericanStudying as any other element or perspective, and I’m very happy to say that my ignorance about Dean Smith has been replaced by a more knowledgable, and far more beneficial, awareness of just how much we can learn from this North Carolina basketball icon.
Last Carolina story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Carolinian histories or stories you’d share?

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