Early one morning in November 2007, just as the college basketball season was getting under way, a message from my mother popped up on my laptop insisting that I go to the Wikipedia page for Kyle Singler, a 6'8" then-freshman phenom debuting at Duke, my alma mater. There was "interesting information about him personally," she wrote--information that revealed "his comfort with himself and his truthfulness." I came across nothing so enlightening after I skimmed the page, so my mom took a look and discovered that the revelation she'd applauded--that Singler was "not only the first 'openly' gay player at Duke but also the first in D-1 History"--had disappeared. (Like many other accusations of homosexuality that have since appeared on Singler's Wikipedia page, the one in question had only been up for a short time--twelve minutes to be exact.) I gently offered my perplexed mother two this-is-how-the-world-works explanations for what had just happened. The first was about the unreliability of Wikipedia. The second was about Duke basketball and homophobia.
Duke is probably the most despised team in college basketball. And proud Duke haters--like my colleague Jason Zengerle and Will Blythe, author of To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry--have often imbued their dislike of the Blue Devils with a political subtext. To many of its staunchest enemies, Duke is a malevolent Goliath--an elitist, corporate, conservative force out to crush more virtuous, liberal Davids. In the UNC-Duke rivalry, Blythe explains, "[i]ssues of identity--whether you see yourself as a populist or an elitist, as a local or an outsider, as public-minded or individually striving--get played out." He also notes that UNC's long-time coach Dean Smith, who retired in 1997, was a vocal Democrat while Duke's coach Mike Krzyzewski is an active Republican. This has only added to the sense that there is something fundamentally liberal about loathing the Blue Devils.
But there's one major problem with the neat morality play that left-leaning Duke haters have constructed for themselves: the jarring and disproportionate level of homophobia that routinely gets directed at the basketball players. There's the classic "This is Why Duke Sucks" YouTube video that has received more than 1.6 million hits--and boasts lyrics about one Duke player being a "bitch" and another having a "dude's face all on [his] balls." Or the more recent (and explicit) video, "Greg Paulus--'I Kissed a Boy,'" which mocks Duke's senior guard for, among other things, enjoying the taste of men's sweat. Or another video about Paulus ("Tea Bag: A Greg Paulus Tribute"), posted by user TarHeel32Blue, which shows several clips of the guard near or between the legs of other players.
Exhibit A, however, is the cascade of homophobia directed at superstar three-point shooter J.J. Redick during his years in Durham. In 2004, N.C. State guard Scooter Sherrill said publicly that, after Redick shot threes, he had "his hand up like he's gay or something." A quick perusal of Redick's Wikipedia history reveals dozens of now-deleted comments like, "J.J. Redick is a confirmed homo sexual" with whom it's rumored "coach K made sexual arrangements." A notorious photo snapped during a game shows a Duke fan with a "JJ is Redickulous" sign standing unsuspectingly next to a Maryland supporter who adds "-ly gay" with his own poster. The New York Times wrote about the cheers of "Brokeback Mountain" often shouted at him during games, and you can still find photos on Tarheeltimes.com that show Redick's face superimposed on images from the movie.
Redick graduated in 2006, but anti-Duke homophobes have found no shortage of targets in the years since. (As far as I know, no Blue Devil has ever admitted to being gay--not that it should matter.) A YouTube video titled "dook's (duke's) Kyle Singler caresses Jon Scheyer's face"--which slows down on-court footage of Singler brushing something off his teammate's cheek--has drawn comments from users like bradley23unc, who wrote, "kyle was just lettin jon know that those lips were his later on that night. … jon gave kyle a blowjob in tha locker room after tha game." And, just last week, when the website canigetaverdict2.com asked, "Who's The Most Annoying Duke Basketball Player of Alltime," one user declared Christian Laettner, who played for Duke in the early '90s, "annoying, overrated, homosexual, and white."
Before continuing, I want to note that, while I went to Duke and still cheer for the team, I'm not a super fan. I attended only four games in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and I didn't sleep in a cold, muddy tent for weeks to see the big game against UNC. In addition, I'm well aware that homophobia is all too common in the world of sports--and hardly the exclusive province of Duke haters. (This YouTube video targeting UNC's star player carries the charming title, "Tyler Hansbrough is Faggy.") And yet, while it's obviously hard to quantify the assertion that Duke is the object of more homophobia than other teams, it's also hard to think of any other squad in college hoops that has seen so many of its players singled out so prominently for gay bashing in recent years.
Why has this happened? The answer, I think, has something to do with race and class. Disparagers of Duke typically frame their opposition to the school, and its basketball team, in terms of anti-elitism: Duke, according to this view, is a private school plopped in the Carolina Piedmont, where it caters to wealthy, mostly white elites who have zero regard for the local community--in Will Blythe's words, "those obnoxious students and that out-of-state arrogance."
That's a defensible sentiment, as far as it goes, even a liberal one in many respects. But, in the world of sports, being white as well as wealthy often translates into a perceived softness. (And Duke's white players seem to attract the lion's share of the homophobia directed at the team.) For many Duke bashers, expressing anti-gay sentiment seems to be just one more way of delivering the message that Duke players are whiny, wimpy, pampered products of privilege.
To be clear, I am not alleging that the majority of anti-Duke types are homophobes. And, while I will be rooting for the Blue Devils proudly today, I will be the first to concede that there are good reasons to criticize them. But, if liberal Duke haters are going to continue insisting that their contempt for my alma mater's team carries some kind of political virtue, they may want to at least grapple with the fact that there is a nasty strain of bigotry emanating from their ranks.