Duke shows athletes are exception to its rules with housing snafu

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski argues a call during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski argues a call during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Don’t let the idyllic campus, small enrollment and huge tuition fool you. Duke is taking another step toward Jock School status.

A university that U.S. News & World Report ranks among the 10 best in America in 2018 is tweaking its standards again for the sake of athletics. An esteemed academic institution that once at least aspired to keep sports seamlessly interwoven into the overall mission of the university has further frayed that tapestry. The most prestigious member of the Atlantic Coast Conference might not be on a slippery slope to Alabama, but it’s not Stanford, either.

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A few years ago, the once-exalted ivory tower of men’s basketball reduced itself to a one-and-done trade school — the University of Kentucky Tobacco Road Campus, basically. Now Duke is making another concession that says a lot about the power athletics has to construct its own reality, separate from that of the university as a whole. It is creating a different set of living conditions for athletes than for the student body at large.

In late February, the school informed the incoming freshman class of 2018-19 that it is mandating random room assignments — no more requesting and prearranging roommates. First-year collegians will simply get who they get to live with, not necessarily who they want.

With athletics given wide latitude to circumvent that policy as it sees fit.

Duke vice president for student affairs Larry Moneta explained the loophole to Yahoo Sports in an email Tuesday: “All athletes are subject to the policy prohibiting personal selection of a first year roommate. While Athletics may be involved in pairing certain athletes with roommates because of academic and athletic schedule compatibilities, the athletes themselves will have no role in the selection of their own roommates.”

Translated: Blue Devils basketball players will continue to room with basketball players, football players with football players, and so on. The coaches and staffers will arrange it, not the players, as if that differentiation matters.

To be clear, if there were no change in policy then there would be no issue. Duke would continue doing what the vast majority of Power Five schools do, rooming athletes with athletes. But when a campus problem is identified and a policy changes, but sports doesn’t change with it, that’s a pretty glaring exception.

It’s a missed opportunity to bridge the divide between the general student experience and the cloistered student-athlete experience. And it stands in stark contrast to the stated reason for the new policy.

“We’ve watched over the last several years that an increasing number of students were preselecting roommates … and it began to become a much larger percentage of the class than we would’ve liked,” Moneta told National Public Radio last week. “There was more homogeneity among the students who chose their own roommates, and so we just reached the conclusion that it was antithetical to our aims of broadening students’ horizons. …

“We’re being very deliberate about the kind of first-year experience that we think would best suit our students — an experience that really is about engaging with difference and opening their eyes to opportunities, and meeting entirely different people than the ones they grew up with or went to high school with.”

Unless you’re an athlete. Then forget all that. Broadening horizons with a non-athlete roommate, opening eyes to opportunities and meeting entirely different people are only situationally important. The school recognized a campus demographic problem, but won’t require athletics to be part of the solution.

Apparently Duke athletes are too important, or too limited, or too controlled for that sort of thing. God forbid No. 1 basketball recruit R.J. Barrett should live with an aspiring biomedical engineer instead of, say, No. 3 recruit Cam Reddish — who he will see for several hours every day anyway at the Blue Devils practice facility. Their presumed nine-month stopover in Durham will be spent largely within the basketball cocoon.

For decades, universities sought to break down the walls athletic departments constructed to keep athletes in their own little campus fiefdoms. They passed NCAA legislation to diversify campus housing, for example, trying to end jock dorms and bring athletes back into the general student population. But the pendulum has swung back toward segregation in recent years.

Now, schools build Taj Mahal facilities that are basically designed to keep athletes there most of the day — not just for practice, weightlifting and watching film. Meals are served there, study halls and tutoring sessions are conducted there, even leisure time is taken care of. There is a miniature golf course and a bowling alley at Clemson’s football facility. There is a barber shop at Alabama’s.

Duke athletics is not going that far — but it will bypass playing a role in the overall campus integration mission. Athletes already are removed enough from mainstream campus culture, and they will remain that way in Durham.

A general view of the Duke University Chapel and a statue of James Buchanan Duke on the Duke University campus. (Getty file photo)
A general view of the Duke University Chapel and a statue of James Buchanan Duke on the Duke University campus. (Getty file photo)

Blue Devils football coach David Cutcliffe echoed Moneta’s rationale, citing scheduling as the reason for athletics being excepted from the university policy. “Our schedules are so rigid, there’s no way to do that,” Cutcliffe said Monday, adding that his non-athlete daughter will be part of random roommate selection.

Thing is, there is a way to do it. Two other powerhouse academic schools with heavyweight athletic programs make the random freshman roommate philosophy work — Stanford and Notre Dame, universities that have an abundance in common with Duke.

The Cardinal and Fighting Irish seem to manage this campus integration idea without it destroying the sports side. Stanford is tied for No. 5 in the U.S. News national university rankings while also No. 1 by a wide margin in the Learfield Directors Cup standings for overall athletic excellence. Notre Dame is tied for 18th academically and sixth athletically in those rankings.

At both schools, freshmen athletes do not live with other athletes from their sports. The vast majority of them don’t live with another athlete, period — they live with NARPs (Non-Athletic Regular People, in the Stanford nomenclature). And there is no such thing as freshman dorms with athletes clustered together.

The jocks are simply mixed into the general student population and expected to assimilate. What a concept.

(There is a good reason why said concept is better suited to the Stanfords, Notre Dames and Dukes of the world than most huge state schools. Namely, the freshmen populations are so large that a truly thoughtful attempt at matching sleep schedules and study habits for prospective roommates would be an unmanageable task for admissions.)

There are some common-sense allowances made: surveys are taken by both Stanford and Notre Dame to match up freshmen with similar sleeping, waking and studying hours, for example. That helps pair athletes who need to be up early for workouts with non-athletes who aren’t likely to be partying until 2 a.m.

My daughter, Brooke, is a freshman swimmer at Stanford. When she arrived on campus in September, she found out that her roommate was Yasmeen, a chemistry major from Saudi Arabia. A Catholic athlete from Louisville, Kentucky, and a muslim non-athlete from the Middle East have become good friends, learning a lot from each other along the way.

I asked Brooke on Sunday if the NARP cohabitation experience has been a positive. She said it had. “I wouldn’t want to spend all my time just with swimmers,” she said. “This gave me a friend outside my sport.”

Does the random roommate process work out every time? Of course not. But the success rate is high enough that both schools remain committed to the concept — even for athletes.

Duke is perfectly suited to do the same thing as Stanford and Notre Dame. It has a small student body with a high-achiever work ethic — the NARPs often are more accomplished than the jocks, and many will make more money in their lifetimes. But the sports side of campus doesn’t seem interested in playing ball with the administrative vision of a more integrated freshman class.

Duke has enough educational gravitas that it doesn’t need to let the athletic tail wag the academic dog on the issues of freshmen housing or one-and-done basketball recruiting. But it is anyway, taking another step toward Jock School status.

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