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The Racial Biases of Duke Hating

Posted: 03/23/11 12:56 PM ET

First, a disclosure: I'm a Duke Blue Devils fan. I didn't attend the university, and I've been told by someone from the South that I would have fit in better with the student body on the rival Chapel Hill campus than I would have with the one in Durham. (I think she meant that as a compliment, and as a lifelong state-school guy, I take it as such.) But I can't help it; I simply enjoy watching Mike Krzyzewski's team win year after year by playing disciplined, fundamentally strong basketball while avoiding the showboating and individual-over-team play, not to mention the NCAA violations, that often mar the college game.

And as a Duke fan, I've become quite familiar with Duke Hating, a favorite pastime of fans of pretty much every other college team in the country. I've heard all the reasons why we should hate Duke: Duke is to be hated for its success -- though, for some reason, we need not hate other winning programs like UCLA or North Carolina. Duke is to be hated because it's a private school -- though, for some reason, not other private schools like Syracuse or Wake Forest. Or the four-time national champions are to be hated because they're perpetually "overrated" and "get all the calls" -- something that has yet to be quantified, but which seems to stem from a fuzzy conspiracy involving the referees, the Selection Committee, Dick Vitale, and, I think, Oswald's ghost. (For a good piece on the history of Duke hating, see Mike Kline's column for Bleacher Report.)

Duke has been this generation's most successful men's college team, so haters come with the territory. But what's increasingly disconcerting is the racial element that often seems to be at the heart of antipathy toward Duke. Over the past two decades of Duke dominance, the haters have had one thing conspicuously in common: The slick-dishing Bobby Hurley? Hustling overachiever Steve Wojciechowski? Sharp shooter J.J. Reddick? Duke haters especially hated these guys. Yet you almost never heard the haters go after a Grant Hill or a Chris Carrawell or a Nolan Smith. It's been the white players at Duke who've usually drawn the most venom... especially from white fans.

White-on-white fan crime in college hoops is not without precedent. I remember fans at Rutgers would taunt the point guard of the opposing team with chants of "Dork!" -- if and only if he was white. (One television color commentator, so to speak, misunderstood or perhaps intentionally misunderstood this practice and told viewers the home fans were jeering the opposing player because he was a freshman.) This was in the days when hip-hop culture spread into the suburbs and white kids began fronting as ghetto "gangstas." (Straight outta Middletown, yo.) In this climate, Duke's white players would make politically correct targets.

Within the past year, however, we've heard some race-based comments from black sports commentators directed at Duke players.

The day after last year's classic championship game between Duke and Butler, ESPN's Rob Parker and Skip Bayless spoke about the unusual number of white players in the game, which boasted (gasp!) five white starters. The Hated vs. The Hoosiers had more than lived up to its billing in showcasing two teams playing tough, smart basketball in a closely fought battle that came down to the last shot as Duke squeaked out a 61-59 victory. It was widely acclaimed as one of the best title games of all time. The nation's First Fan, President Obama, was inspired to call both teams in their locker rooms to congratulate them. But in the context of this discussion of the game's "whiteness," Parker labeled this one-for-the-ages final as being one of the worst NCAA championships ever. Not content with that statement, he added that if Butler -- the mid-major team with two Academic All-Americans that had captured the hearts of every non-Duke fan along with at least one Duke fan in yours truly -- had won the game, they would have been the worst championship team ever.

His synopsis seemed a pretty clear code for racial preference: Parker didn't like how these white guys played the game.

Lest you think I'm reading into his comments, Parker drew criticism in March 2008 for questioning the NBA potential of then-prospects Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Love based on their being white. Although Hansbrough has been slow to establish himself with the Indiana Pacers, Love made the All-Star team as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves this year.

Fast forward to March 2011. In his self-produced documentary for ESPN on his old "Fab Five" team at Michigan, Jalen Rose made a pointed statement about the team that drubbed his Wolverines by 20 points in the 1992 title game: "I hated Duke and 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."

When later pressed to expand upon his comments, Rose explained, "Certain schools recruit a typical kind of player whether the world admits it or not. And Duke is one of those schools. They recruit black players from polished families, accomplished families. And that's fine. That's OK. But when you're an inner-city kid playing in a public school league, you know that certain schools aren't going to recruit you. That's one. And I'm OK with it. That's how I felt as an 18-year-old kid."

In a response published in the New York Times, former Duke and current NBA star Grant Hill effectively rebuked Rose's words: "In his garbled but sweeping comment that Duke recruits only 'black players that were 'Uncle Toms,' Jalen seems to change the usual meaning of those very vitriolic words into his own meaning, i.e., blacks from two-parent, middle-class families."

Four days after Hill's response, William Rhoden of the Times noted the eloquence of Hill's letter but nevertheless invoked the language of the slave system to liken elite universities such as Michigan and Duke to symbols of plantation culture: "The reality is that, by the strict standards of black empowerment, neither Hill nor the Fab Five did the black community any favors. Uncle Tomism notwithstanding, Hill and the Fab Five both elected, for their own reasons, to play in the big house."

In the most insightful piece I've seen so far on the ESPN doc and the Rose-Hill feud, Jason Whitlock for Fox Sports agreed that Duke did indeed recruit a certain type of student, though he saw it in more pragmatic terms:

"Coach K recruited kids who had every intention of staying in school for four years [and] who had a good chance of competing academically at Duke and could meet the standardized test score qualifications for entrance." (Imagine, a high-ranking academic institution recruiting students who had a good chance of competing academically!) The Fab Five, meanwhile, "stated it was their intention to win a national championship and turn pro as a group after their sophomore season."

For Whitlock, Rose and crew were only on "the cutting edge of America's unashamed embrace of style over substance," known for their "baggy shorts, black socks, bald heads and trash talk" while never winning a conference championship let alone a national title for their own elite school. (Even their two Final Four appearances have been wiped off the books because of a booster scandal that involved Chris Webber, the best of the Fab Five at Michigan.) Whitlock describes their story as that of "Five super-talented black kids enrolled at a prestigious, white university... and, 20 years later, had the audacity to embark on a media tour preaching about black Duke players being Uncle Toms."

Let's be fair to Rose: He was describing how he felt as a teenage recruit, not today -- even if he didn't exactly back off his "Uncle Tom" comment when asked for clarification in subsequent interviews. We also cannot fault Rose, either then or now, for commenting on the unfairness of a world in which some kids are born into poverty while others into a life of significant advantages. Certainly, the story of kids who aren't from "accomplished" families despising those who are is an ageless one, and a very human one.

But in describing the black players on Duke as "Uncle Toms," Rose left himself open to deserved criticism. The term points to a destructive narrative that has become sadly ingrained in our culture: the notion that blacks who are too "polished" or "accomplished" are somehow betraying their race. This, too, is racial code: They are selling out their race. They aren't "black enough." They're "acting white."

As Ron Christie demonstrates in his recent book, Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur, the notion that blacks who sought social, cultural or intellectual advancement were "acting white" was a slur that originated during slavery and Reconstruction as a way for whites to keep down so-called "uppity" blacks. (Second disclosure: I was the editor of Christie's book.) Since then, the stereotype of "acting white" also has taken hold within the African-American community as a form of black-on-black rhetoric that threatens to subvert the social and economic gains for which generations of blacks have fought.

A successful political strategist who happens to be black, Christie writes that he himself has been labeled as someone who "acts white" because he is well-dressed and well-spoken. In one instance while volunteering as a tutor and mentor for at-risk elementary children, one student asked him, "Is it cool to study and act white like you do?" When Christie asked the student what he meant, the student explained that everyone in his school knew that "if you study, pay attention in class, and do well, you're ACTING WHITE."

Christie and Obama are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they share an interest in dispelling the stereotype of "acting white." In addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2004, then-senator Obama urged that we "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." His presidential win four years later was hailed, naively, as signaling the beginning of a "post-racial America." But as long as being "polished" or "accomplished" is viewed as the sole domain of white students and families in America, and as long as black students striving for academic success are branded sellouts for going to so-called "white" universities, we will never see a post-racial America.

Sport fan allegiances can run deep; so too can fan hate. It's a fan's right to hate, and for the most part, it's a harmless kind of hate. You might hate Duke because you didn't go there, or because you know someone you did. You might resent them their success on the court or in life, or that the school was endowed with tobacco money. Or you might not care for devils, or the color blue.

But if you hate them because they are an integrated team with "too many" white players or because their white players are "too white" or because their black players aren't "black enough," that kind of hatred isn't the innocent hatred of sports rivalries. It's a much more real kind of hate, and it ultimately says more about where we are as a society than it does about sports.

(Update) Wow, I'm blown away by the number of comments. I've responded, as HP bloggers are encouraged to do, to many of them, but I wanted to clarify or respond to some points here:

• As I tried to say at the end of the piece, there are indeed many reasons why any given fan might hate Duke, or any other team. I chimed in on one that has been discussed in a very public debate as of late.

• The stories shared in some of your comments about the taunts of Scott Williams, Patrick Ewing, etc. should make any person cringe. If incidents such as these turned someone against a team or its fan base, I cannot, do not, will not question that.

• As I also said in my piece, Rose was indeed describing his feelings as a teenage recruit, and he had every right to make his observations about class differences and how he felt about them. He's the only one who can speak to these things in his life.

• The notion of Uncle Tomism, a highly charged term that Rose raised 20 years later in a high-profile documentary and discussed in subsequent interviews, moved the discussion out of class in general and into race specifically.

• I do not share the view, as one or two comments implied, that white people are not allowed to speak about this issue. If we followed the rule that we may only comment on things said by people who have similar skin colors, it doesn't seem conducive to any sort of public dialogue. (Also, I believe all the individuals I gave voice to by quoting in this piece would identify themselves as being black, not white.) And since Rose works for, chose to produce a documentary for, and gave multiple interviews to a network that might be labeled a mainstream "white" network, it would seem disingenuous to say Rose was not inviting reaction from white commentators as well as black.

• Haters rejoice! All credit to Arizona; it's been a while since I've seen a team turn it on like that in the second half.

And why didn't people react so strongly to my piece on Champions League soccer? :)

 
 
 

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