Why I Refuse to Hate Duke

It’s March. The time of year when all of a sudden many of the Carolina fans in my Facebook feed start behaving like Donald Trump supporters, high on xenophobic mob juice. The time of year when people who know me from UNC (I’ve been an undergrad, a graduate student, and an employee there) think they can assume I’m a Tarheel. This, in turn, makes it okay to say things about Duke, its players and people, that they’d never want their mothers to hear. The time of year when it only takes a day or two of first round games for me to get tired of defending my family and our nuanced take on college sports allegiances.

Because I am not a Carolina fan, despite the place being full of wonderful people I know well and love, including some of the best professors and best students I’ve ever had. Despite growing up in Chapel Hill. But that’s not what get’s people worked up. It’s that I won’t let them say nasty things about Duke, which is basically heresy.

On principle, I refuse to hate Duke because the language of hate creates a behavioral permissiveness that leads to horrific outcomes. If you are complaining about what Donald Trump’s hate speech does to stadiums full of angry white people, then take a minute to recall the kinds of behavior that result from inciting hatred in the same atmosphere over a ball game. That bad behavior–when you throw glass bottles at Duke players as they leave the court, yell threatening things at the players about their sisters and mothers, use homophobic and violent language to put down their players–is what we are teaching a generation of young people to both take and give. A good rivalry should be something different.

But more to the point, I can’t hate Duke because there’s nothing nasty about Duke that, at its core, isn’t true about Carolina. I can just see y’all’s eyebrows climbing and the retorts spilling forth. But the elitism! The whiteness! The snobbery! Did we mention the elitism? And the whiteness!!!?? We let ourselves go with self-righteous fury toward the evil empire of privilege that is Dook…which is a big lie and arguably has been for a long time. Especially coming from Carolina. And my most progressive friends are the worst behaved. Like their public university street cred sanctifies their rudeness. But it doesn’t.

My parents worked with Dean Smith and his wife on equal rights efforts in the community when I was a baby. My sister and I went to high school with their kids, who are amazing women. My mom and dad both went to graduate school at UNC (though if your dissertation is on the history of white supremacy at Carolina and documents the foul people they name their buildings for and how they used slavery to build the entire institution, maybe you get negative legacy points?). I loved Carolina basketball as a child, and I loved Dean.

But I wasn’t fond of Carolina students, as a group. Those were the people who destroyed my town every time they won a game against Duke. I snuck out to watch the 1991 Duke NCAA victory bonfire with a friend and was so impressed that they were contained on campus and only immolated themselves and destroyed their own furniture! Those Carolina frat boys were the beloved sons who could do no wrong, yet harassed me nonstop beginning at age 10 anytime I was on Franklin street after dark. Don’t get me wrong, frats are frats. But at Duke, when the pressure of reprehensible greek behavior became too intense, the frats were kicked off campus. At UNC they still reign supreme.

I was a student organizer in high school and was involved in both the Duke and UNC anti-sweatshop sit-ins that constituted part of a nationwide movement to bring accountability to the licensed apparel industry. The sit-in at Duke was the first and inspired a wave of protests at universities across the nation. It was fascinating to watch how Duke’s more agile bureaucracy interacted in a far more substantive way with its student activists. At UNC student organizers were treated like outside agitators and the administrators in South building gave us the perennial runaround, politely inviting us to lots of committee meetings and then pushing through their own agenda during the summer.

I watched this happen to student movements at UNC time and again–first as an active young community member, later as a leader in Student Congress–whether it was support for the housekeepers (who in 1997 forced the University to settle a lawsuit on violating the 13th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution), pushing back against steep tuition increases, or renaming campus buildings for non-KKK Grand Dragons. Much of UNC’s administration was an old boys’ club of the worst southern kind–the kind that thinks it’s not and earnestly sells itself as the “light on the hill.” And that was long before the recent, um, changes. As an undergrad, I remember being told “if you hate Carolina so much, maybe you belong at Duke.” I thought, if you really love something you ought to want to make it better. But no, disloyalty to the Tarheel brand would not be tolerated. Nothing could have turned me off faster than a consistent refusal to be self critical.

But I was still a Carolina basketball fan. I liked watching the games and felt my public school pride. And then I met my husband, who’d gone to Duke, and we had babies and watching basketball fell to the bottom of my priority list. He grew up in a trailer in the woods, just like me, but he’d gone to that other school down the road. My spouse doesn’t care what team I like. He’d rather I liked Carolina more because then maybe I’d make time to watch the games. He’s a committed Duke fan, but he always pulls for the ACC.

What our marriage changed was something different. We bought a home together in Durham, a city that was progressive, exciting, integrated, and affordable. For years I took the Duke campus shuttle to the Robertson Scholars Bus, which ferried anyone who wanted to travel between Duke and UNC for free. I used the bus to get to my graduate classes and teach at Carolina.

I learned a lot in the 7 years that we lived in central Durham–the first 7 years of my life in a “house divided.” I got a look at Duke from the inside. The students on the bus with me. The workers. The many many UNC employees that commuted by bus from their homes in Durham because they couldn’t afford to live in Chapel Hill. I watched the Duke lacrosse scandal unfold from the inside, relatively speaking (the house was a short walk from ours). I noticed that racism and elitism at Duke operated in a different institutional context–a less comfortable one for the status quo of privilege–because of Durham, a strong community that spoke up for social justice and aimed to hold its institutions accountable.

I am embarrassed to say I was shocked at how diverse the students were. There were actually American people of color (please cringe now), not the ridiculous image I had in my head of token international students who were just as rich as the certainly overwhelming majority rich white people that were Duke’s essence. And they were WAY more present on campus than what I’d experienced at UNC, where I’d felt like the public spaces were dominated by white frat culture, with wee pockets that black students staked out for themselves in front of the cafeteria or the undergrad library, with everyone else seemingly invisible. Invisible like the teeny little Unsung Founders Memorial where you can literally sit your ass down, put your feet up, and eat your lunch on the backs of slaves, all in the shadow of Silent Sam.

After a few months of riding the bus and grudgingly finding these Duke students awfully interesting real people, I sat down with my husband and looked up the numbers. Carolina is 71% white. Duke is 46% white. My mind was blown. Could that be right? Duke is 10% African American to UNC’s 9% (8% in 2014). Duke does just as well at attracting (and much better at retaining) black students. I knew it first hand in a sense; we were constantly having to send our black undergrads (and white, for that matter) for coursework on race to Duke…because at Carolina we had no one teaching those classes.

Yes, 19% of Carolina students are first generation. But you know what? 10% of Duke’s are, too. One in every ten Duke students comes from a family where they are the first to go to college. Those kids have a harder time finishing and are harder to teach, but Duke does a better job of it, with higher retention and graduation rates.

I am not arguing that Duke is the light on the hill that UNC fans want to think Carolina is; far from it. All these big institutions have big issues. Duke is still expensive and has more rich students than Carolina. But whenever I point out anything positive happening at Duke, progressive Carolina fans call me out for–at a minimum–my disloyalty to the public university system. And I call bullshit.

UNC is only 20% a public school, and the rest of its money comes from tuition, rich donors, Pepsi, and the NSF just like the any private school. Carolina was designed as a publicly financed university for the white male children of the home-grown aristocracy. Every working class white person, woman, and person of color that has stepped through those doors has done so because of struggles for access by those same people, often facing great opposition from the powers that be on the Board of Trustees and in the state house. UNC fought federal orders to better integrate until 1981, for crying out loud (and only acquiesced then because the demands were watered down by the new Reagan White House).

Carolina has never been a university of the people. It’s excellent to try to make it that way, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved. But let’s not lie to ourselves. If you want to look at where the most substantive work is happening to educate the citizens of North Carolina, look at the other 15 schools in the system, picking up UNC’s fiscal droppings and trying to make ends meet with no big donors and sports teams to bring in extra cash. Or our awesome network of 54 community colleges that provide the actual training that most of us need to operate in the real world and gain job skills. There are many wonderful things about Carolina, but man-of-the-people self righteousness, we have not earned.

Why does any of this matter, you fierce basketball fans might ask. To a lot of people it doesn’t. But this is about the people who–whether they realize it or not–think being Carolina fans gives them some sort of working man’s license to shit on the young adults who go to Duke and the kids who play basketball there.

I had to ask my husband why people hate Grayson Allen, because I keep seeing friends of mine saying nasty things about him, but I haven’t watched any games and have no idea. He reminded me about the cult of hatred for white Duke players (by other white people). Sure, he tripped someone. Not anything more egregious than other people do all the time with no one caring. People like Duke’s black players (except when they hate them for “being too white,” like Battier). But the white players just seem to ooze the privilege people associate with Duke, even if those same kids at another school would go thoroughly unhated.

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We enjoyed this final step in the WSJ’s Madness Machine

But it’s about basketball, my dear, not politics. Can’t you agree Coach K is totally hatable? Well, here’s what I’ve observed about the people involved in the sport, and the way they run their programs. Coach K treats his players like dignified young adults worthy of respect and a good education in exchange for what they bring Duke. And he knows the game, at the end of the day, is a game. Roy Williams fails on both these fronts. Sure, Coach K is a huge conservative. Funny that. I wouldn’t want him to be my elected representative, but he takes a lot better care of the young men and families in his program than we do at Carolina. Dean was different. But that’s not been Carolina men’s basketball for a long time and we should be honest with ourselves about it.

I grew up in Chapel Hill. I have 3 degrees from UNC. I know scores of truly amazing people at UNC…and at Duke. Both of those campuses are full of incredible young people, many of whom would not have been there 60 years ago. Neither they nor their players deserve to be treated like dirt. And I’m sorry, but it’s pretty much a one way hate street. In particular, I am tired of supposedly progressive people talking a level of trash that transcends basic human decency in defense of a place with the level of white supremacist history and lingering institutional racism and sexism that Carolina has.

Duke TOTALLY has its issues, but let’s get off our high horses okay? Basketball does not exist in isolation from the rest of the institution, as the scandals at UNC have shown. Carolina fans don’t get to hate Duke on grounds of elitism, I’m sorry, we just don’t.

We shouldn’t have to dig too deep to just cheer our own teams on and call it a day. We can even wish the other team ill on the court (I’m not asking for miracles). In our house the rule is if we can’t explain what we’re saying or doing to our children in a truthful manner without violating the norms of acceptable behavior we are trying to teach them as social beings, then we shouldn’t be doing it. Let’s start there.

I don’t care about what basketball team people like, I care about how we behave in public, how we treat other human beings, and, beyond that, perhaps that we question our self righteous assumptions once in a while.

Even if you don’t stop hating Duke, you might at least stop acting like a drunken sailor all month on my Facebook feed.

8 thoughts on “Why I Refuse to Hate Duke

  1. Nice piece! I urge you to consider that those “stinky” Ivy Leagues you refer to are also working hard–and doing a good job–at some of the same issues you are looking at. 15% of Harvard undergrads are first generation students, for example, and 11.6% are African American. 76% of students receive financial aid (which does not include merit aid). (Duke with its similar price tag only funds 50%, a percentage which includes merit and athletic aid.) Of course, the basketball team at Harvard is not nearly as strong…


    • Hannah, I’m so glad you replied because I meant that comment in the most tongue and cheek manner possible. I changed the wording of that phrase to be less ambiguous. Yes, as hard as it can be for many to reconcile, the Ivy Leagues are at the cutting edge of making the very best educations accessible to the neediest students. Of course our challenge “on the ground” is getting kids a primary and secondary education that will allow them to compete at those schools, but those schools are doing much of what needs to be done from their end. I have many friends and family doing amazing work at Ivy League schools and know well how far they’ve come in the past few generations. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!

    • I agree with your point. At the same time, given the size of the Harvard endowment, it is very debatable whether Harvard should charge tuition at all. I say this as a Duke and Harvard grad.

  2. bravo! i applied from out of state to 2 schools only…duke and chapel hill. ended up at duke. my daughter goes to carolina. the hatred part of the rivalry…i don’t get it. never did and still don’t. great article!

  3. Very thoughtful. Well written and persuasive.

    Your cited stats are startling. Your command of UNC history is a real eye-opener.

    And your reference to the North Carolina community college system should be required reading for all state legislators.

  4. All so true. Of course the folks who should read this probably won’t see it. Love the shout out for the other UNC schools and community colleges, but UNCW had more in common with U N C than you might think

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