Commentary

Photo detracts from Duke's image

Updated: October 18, 2013, 2:48 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

Duke Basketball on ammoland.comAmmoLand.comA photo of Duke's trip to West Point got picked up by a gun-advocate site after the image went viral.

How many words is a picture worth? One thousand? Two thousand? More?

Well, what number of words are we to take from the image of members of the Duke men's basketball team holding and posing with assault weapons?

Four thousand words? Five thousand? A New York Times Sunday magazine cover piece?

Now, first off, it's not as bad as it sounds, because the guns were fake. But still, what message is being sent by the image of five young (black) men posing with guns, and what message are we supposed to take from that image?

With all that is going on with gun issues, and kids and gun issues in African-American communities, you would think that someone would have had the sensibility to think about that before they allowed the image to represent these kids and the school.

Speaking to ESPNU on Wednesday, coach Mike Krzyzewski emphasized that the team did more than just play with fake guns during the team's visit to the U.S. Military Academy. The team heard the West Point cadets addressed by their superintendent, met people at Ground Zero and went to the Apollo Theater and a Broadway musical as their New York trip continued.

"They saw people with tradition," Krzyzewski said. "They saw people working together to be one. They met people who loved what they did, and what they were doing and did it every day with a passion. And I think it was an amazing educational experience for our guys."

Unfortunately, because of one image, that's not the visual takeaway of the experience.

It's not like the players are standing in front of a U.S. Military Academy sign to indicate where they are, nor are they are dressed up in full camo gear indicating that they were simulating some military activity.

And even though the guns are not real, there's still a feeling of irresponsibility that comes from looking at the image. How did someone at a major university let this image get out? What was Coach K thinking letting this picture go public with no true context? Where and who was the adult in all of this?

Duke associate athletic director Jon Jackson told Durham's WRAL-TV, "If you take the image by itself and it's taken out of context it could be seen as are we somehow glamorizing gun violence or something like that."

The question is why didn't someone think about the connotation beforehand? That thinking alone could have provided the plausibility needed to nix the whole situation before it became a situation.

What makes it bad is that there is no safety net in the image. It's not like the players are standing in front of a U.S. Military Academy sign to indicate where they are, nor are they are dressed up in full camo gear indicating that they were simulating some military activity. Nope. Just kids under the age of 25, black kids, standing in Duke warm-ups posing with M4s and AR-15s in their arms, strapped over their shoulders, so real-looking we have no idea they're laser guns. Whose brilliant idea was that?

It shows a lack of consciousness not only about gun control but also about the issues around youth gun violence. Those under age 25 constitute 38 percent of all firearm deaths and nonfatal injuries, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. For the Duke players, this was probably their true "Call Of Duty" moment -- it's even called that in the university's story about the day -- but they needed to be aware that no one was going to see them in that pic and think "video game."

And then there's the black thing. In the photo, the only players holding weapons, posing, are young black men. Although there are other teammates in the background, both black and white, they are not a part of the imagery and therefore not part of the perception. The urban violence (in which the victims and violators are mostly black men) that is plaguing many of our inner-city 'hoods is something that both the players in the pic and the coaching staff at Duke -- who go out and recruit kids from these same violence-plagued neighborhoods -- should always be cognizant of. Especially when sending out universal messages about what Duke basketball and higher education are supposed to represent.

We live in a day and age when the relationship between young people and guns can no longer be looked at in a cavalier matter. Too many irresponsible things are happening when young people and weapons come together for responsible people to not be responsible. Even in moments of innocence.

What if you were one of the parents of those kids in the picture? Is that how you'd want your child to be represented? How about this: What if those same kids had taken that same picture with those same fake guns in their dorm room, without the coach's consent? How fast do you think the university would have put them on suspension? Distanced itself from the image? Maybe from those players?

Probably faster than it took for Duke get the image pulled off social media. (See what remains on Twitter below.)

@Duke_MBB took in West Point today, complete with gun simulation training. #DukeElevate pic.twitter.com/TbMrRGEcqJ

Look, I'm a fan of Coach K. I know him and have mad respect for him. So what I'm saying here is not to chastise him or the program, or to call them out, or to make a mountain out of something that really is the height of a pitcher's mound. The only purpose here is to make them -- ask them to -- think. That's all.

To think about how messages can be perceived, about how something innocent can be read the wrong way. To pay as much attention to something like this as Duke did about its players not having facial hair or tattoos because it wanted to send out "the right message" to the boosters and general public about the type of young men Duke is developing.

When asked whether the university put out an official statement about the reasoning behind the image, Jackson responded to me in an email, saying:

"We did not put out a formal statement about the pictures," he wrote.

"The photos [you referenced] are authentic. They are, however, a few of many pictures taken when the team visited the U.S. Military Academy and participated in a number of activities with the cadets and officers. One of those activities was a combat simulation exercise, which helps build trust, communications and coordination among the team. As you noted, the weapons in the photo are actually laser guns, not real firearms, and are connected to a digital scoring system. In addition to the combat simulation, the Duke team toured the grounds, viewed a parade, listened to messages from USMA leadership, took part in conditioning drills and went through a basketball practice on site. Taken in context, photos of all these activities document a powerful and meaningful day for Duke student-athletes. Of course, any one of them taken out of context can be misinterpreted.

"West Point was one of a four-day team-building/personal development trip by Duke Basketball to the NYC area called Duke Elevate. The team also visited the World Trade Center, Rucker Park, the Apollo, etc."

Elevate. Elevate the players, elevate the team, elevate the school. That was the idea. Elevate the image of what a young, minority student-athlete is supposed to represent at a school that came in No. 1 in academic and athletic excellence on the National Collegiate Scouting Association's 2013 Collegiate Power Ranking. Instead, gun-control advocates shouted an alarm, while gun-advocate websites like AmmoLand.com reposted the photo and wrote about the team being persecuted by those who fear guns.

Pretty sure that's not the image Duke wanted elevated.

This isn't about the picture and the story behind it as much as it is about no one with the program seeming to think beyond their own "Duke basketball world" and the impact an image like that can have outside of that world. 

Before they agreed to pose for a picture that had the chance to be seen by the public, either the athletes or a university employee should have considered how the sight of the team toting authentic-looking weapons might appear.

It takes away from everything the experience was supposed to be about. And becomes a teachable lesson that uplifts everyone involved instead of a regrettable one where nothing is learned.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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