Tonight Duke and UNC will play each other for the third time this season, and there’s a little-known fact about the two schools, a fact that’s definitely not brought up every goddamn time they face each other on the hardwood: The schools are merely eight miles apart. “Eight miles apart on Tobacco Road,” folks say, which is a very delicate way to describe the perpetually clogged lanes of 15-501. It’s a fact mentioned in pregame reports, postgame recaps, on Wikipedia pages and blogs–so many blogs!–like this one. It is part of the common parlance, part of the public record, the trivia that everyone knows such that it’s no longer trivia. It’s a joke I’ve made before on Twitter. It’s a stat I’ve spent the better part of two years trying to make a coy reference toward in Duke’s alumni magazine, where I work. And yet–
*cues 30 for 30 music*
What if I told you it was all a lie? What if we’d been inculcated over many years to believe–to trust!–a lazy statistic based on imprecise measurements?
What if Duke and UNC…were nine miles apart?
Sir, I just asked you if you wanted a Bo-Berry biscuit.
Forget the biscuit. Yeah, I said it–forget the biscuit. This is too important.
Google Maps is useful. It’s creepy as hell, and it remembers WAY too much stuff about bars I’ve been before and apartment complexes I’ve considered living to the point where it was almost impossible to get clean screenshots for this post…but it’s useful. And because of that utility, we’ll be getting quite familiar with it today.
On the site, you plug in two locations, and it gives you, typically, the driving distance between them. Do that with Duke’s stadium and UNC’s stadium and you get 10.6 miles. It’s parking lot to parking lot, Towerview Boulevard to Raleigh Road.
But that’s not good enough. It’s confined by roads, calculated for grounded vehicles. What we want, though, is the distance “as the crow flies”–that, ostensibly, will give us the eight-mile number. If you right-click on your starting point, you can use a tool called “measure distance” to get precisely that.
But time and again, we fail to get those numbers. If you start at the Duke Chapel and go to Chapel Hill’s Old Well–perhaps the two main touchstones of the campuses–you get 8.79 miles. Quad to quad is 8.6 miles. Stadium to stadium–Cameron Indoor to Dean Smith Center–is perhaps the truest metric when talking basketball, and it’s 8.85 miles.
Only if you draw from Duke’s stadium, on the southwest corner of its campus to the heart of UNC’s quad do you start to get values below 8.5. To such buffoonery I say, please, let’s try to have some academic rigor. It’s a slippery slope from that to, say, drawing from the edge of Duke Forest to UNC’s east campus, which gives you a tidy 5.79-mile distance between the two. Why stop there? Cameron Indoor to the city boundary of Chapel Hill is 4.92. Are the campuses actually five miles apart? Get out of here.
What we quickly realize is that any honest measure of the distance between the two schools is closer to nine miles than eight. Proper rounding dictates then that, by any estimate, these universities are nine miles apart. And yes–you’re goddamn right that this is a semantic post, but I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!
Why do we say eight miles, then? I’d argue that any measurement under ten miles appropriately conveys the closeness of the universities. The cities of Durham and Chapel Hill are about 10.5 miles away, city hall to town hall, so any number closer than that is already icing on the cake. They’re so close that the team’s basketball coaches live and vote in the other’s county–K in Orange County, Roy in Durham County. How much closer does ESPN need them to be, in their prepared in-game graphic, to really get the audience to engage?
I’d even argue that “nine miles” sounds better, aurally, than “eight miles”–the assonance of the I’s livening the phrase, while also dodging any confusion about Detroit’s Eight Mile Road. Which is what, if we’re committed to using the erroneous number, we should really start calling 15-501, but I digress.
The point is that “Nine miles” is a better statistic in every sense. So I don’t know if it’s laziness, or a lack of fact-checking, or both, that enables the wrong number to persist. It’s such a prominent stat that I don’t hold any hope of really changing minds with this investigation: BIG EIGHT MILE has too much clout to overcome. But I hope we can all be a little bit more mindful of these numbers when we quote them. In a rivalry where every number matters, where every showdown presents a chance to look back and show how close the two teams are over the last 100-some games, we don’t need to lie to say they’re physically closer than they are.
So sing it. Sing “nine miles, not eight” from Franklin St., from Ninth. Sing it from Fullsteam and Top of the Hill. Sing it from the 15-501 overpass of I-40, right between the two campuses. Let your voice carry the message back to both, but sing loud: It’ll have to travel just a little further than you thought.