Duke Men’s Basketball is undoubtedly central to Duke culture. When people think of Duke, they think of Cameron Indoor Stadium, the “GOAT” (Coach K), Christian Laettner and a famed basketball dynasty. The Cameron Crazies are inarguably one of the most spirited student sections in the history of college basketball; many students come to Duke to be a part of this unique community, and not a single non-Duke student can wrap their minds around the fact Duke students would sleep in tents for weeks during the depth of winter for a single game in March. But it seems that the love for Duke Men’s Basketball begins and ends with the Duke community.
Animosity towards Duke Men’s Basketball doesn’t stop with UNC Chapel Hill; America hates the Blue Devils. According to the Bleacher Report, “Duke Men’s Basketball is arguably the most hated sports team in the country,” and much of the media attention is centered around its villainous reputation. For example, ESPN’s 30-for-30 on Duke Men’s Basketball titled “I Hate Christian Laettner” explains that the former Duke star—arguably the best college basketball player in history—was hated for five reasons: his privilege, his whiteness, his dirty playing, his “pretty boy” good looks and his infuriating greatness. He led the Blue Devils to back-to-back national championships and solidified his role in Duke lore with “The Shot.” Concurrently, he established the archetype for a classic Duke player: the perfect villain.
We’re the bad guys—America’s public enemy No. 1. It’s easy for us to suggest that we’re hated because we’re the best. But do our critics’ points have any merit?
Duke is North Carolina’s gothic ivory tower. With an endowment of over $12 billion, this elite institution is certainly a place of privilege. Our status as a private university stands in opposition to NC State and UNC’s status as public institutions with different funding systems and cultures. Historically, this privilege has seeped into the country’s perception of Duke Men’s Basketball players as spoiled and entitled. In “I Hate Christian Laettner,” Jalen Rose, former NBA star and member of the Michigan Fab 5, expressed his dislike for institutions like Duke: “I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited Black players that were Uncle Toms.” His teammate, Etan Thomas, penned an article in 2019 titled “How Duke became Black America's most hated team: the perception of white privilege.” He wrote that Duke “embodied the privileged, spoiled team that had everything given to them.”
This perception spread throughout the country in the 90s and flashes of it remain today, with some of it perpetuated by Cameron Crazies’ chants. Thomas recalled watching a Duke game when he was young in which the Crazies chanted, “It’s all right, it’s OK, you’re gonna work for us one day!” They’ve also chanted “Safety School!” to Wake Forest and “We’re Smart! You’re dumb!” to UNC. Last month, the Crazies shouted “Start your tractors!” at NC State, a chant that reeks of classism, especially when coming from the mouths of Duke students. Even if the Laettner days are behind us, a deep rooted superiority complex still haunts us.
Traditions and chants are a fun way to show our deep-rooted allegiance to Duke Men’s Basketball. But it’s time to reconsider the message behind some of our practices. Conversations around campus condemn classism, but when classist and elitist chants and comments are made in Cameron, they are shrugged off as school spirit. Even if the classist, elitist sentiments conveyed through these chants are unintended, it has become too easy to fall into the trap of mob mentality of the Cameron Crazies. We should be clever and funny enough to not resort to these shallow and elitist practices—and in many instances, we have. For example, the nationally utilized “Air Ball” chant is said to have originated with the Cameron Crazies. We can still be the most vicious student section in the country without taking digs at another school’s academic prestige or wealth. We can be spirited without being elitist.
America Loves the Underdog
Duke is one of the most dominant programs in NCAA history. We’ve won five national championships in twenty-four years, reached 16 Final Fours and have an NCAA Tournament-best .755 winning percentage. We’ve sent countless stars to the NBA, including the likes of Kyrie Irving and Brandon Ingram. People love to hate historically successful sports teams like the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. If you’re not one of them, you’re wishing for their downfall.
The truth is, America has always loved underdogs—and not just in sports. The thirteen colonies were an underdog against the British. The American Dream hinges on the fact that everyone has a shot at success. The love for underdogs isn’t just a pattern, but a psychological phenomenon. Over the years, Duke has proven itself to be anything but an underdog, attracting plenty of support, but also plenty of hatred from all over the country.
The Bad Guys Can Be Good, Too
In recent years, Duke Men’s Basketball has made strides to decrease the perception of snobby elitism. The team is no longer regarded as recruiting only “Uncle Toms” or privileged white players. There has been increased diversity in the team, and the program has produced many African-American stars including Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum and Seth Curry, who “aren’t viewed in the same light as their predecessors,” Etan Thomas wrote. “People may root against them but the racial undertones that had once been glaring are no more…the culture has changed, and Duke has changed with it.”
However, Duke remains a predominantly white and wealthy institution, and these factors will continue to influence the school’s culture if prejudices are left unchallenged. It is up to us, the Duke community, to recognize our institution’s historic legacy and continue to hold ourselves to a high standard of sportsmanship.
There will always be people that hate Duke, but let them hate Duke for the right reasons. People should hate Duke because we’re infuriatingly good, not because we are prejudiced. Our culture is beginning to change for the better; therefore, we are coming into our role as the bad guy for all the right reasons. Captain Wendell Moore put it best after their 20 point rout of UNC last week: “The thing is, we love being the villain.”
The Community Editorial Board is independent from the editorial staff of the Chronicle. Their column usually runs on Tuesdays.
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