With March Madness rolling into view, the sports website Grantland ran a brilliant bracket of the most hated college basketball players in the last 30 years. It presented one bracket each for the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s ... and one just for Duke. It says something profound about the national loathing for my alma mater that Blue Devils could easily have filled an entire second region (Chris Collins, anyone?) -- which would beyond a shadow of a doubt produce the J.J. Redick-Christian Laettner final of everyone's dreams.
The visceral distaste for the Blue Devils seems to be one of the few things that unites Americans of all description. You can even buy "Duke Sucks: A Completely Evenhanded, Unbiased Investigation Into the Most Evil Team on the Planet." A few years back, Duke dominated an MSNBC poll on the most hated team in any sport, with 53 percent naming the Devils over every other team in every other sport in the world. Slate's got a slideshow of the 18 most hateable moments in Duke basketball history -- could any other team even come up with three?
Why all the hate? Sure, objectively, Duke appears to represent the best of college sports: graduating most of its players, while running a system built around individual freedom and creativity on offense anchored by hard-nosed, relentless teamwork on defense. But in popular mythology, Duke has become an avatar of an overly white, overrated, and overly praised team with an air of entitled superiority.
This national consensus is fascinating, in that it seems utterly blind to what the rest of the planet knows deeply and profoundly: In world politics, we're Duke. Americans like to think they are Butler, the scrappy unheralded Midwestern underdogs one shot away from a miracle. But let's be real. The United States is a global superpower, since 1990 the unipolar hegemon atop the global order. In the Middle East it is the imperial hub, a status quo power with deep security and military alliances with almost every regime and global sanctions against the few remaining "rogues." When the world looks at the United States, it doesn't see Butler. It sees Duke.
Despite their country's overwhelming global dominance, Americans have struggled to comprehend the depth and resilience of hostile attitudes and negative perceptions. In a 2008 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans rated restoring their country's global standing above any other national priority -- including combating terrorism and protecting jobs. The whole tenor of the "why do they hate us" punditry meme suggests just how much this global distaste upsets Americans. But if Americans want to understand the resilience of anti-Americanism, they could do worse than to examine their feelings about Duke.
Conventional explanations of anti-Dukism mirror those of anti-Americanism. Some see it as a natural outgrowth of dominance, attracting the incomprehension and resentment of the less fortunate. Everyone hates Mr. Big. But this is not satisfying. Sure, the Blue Devils have been dominant, with their four national championships, 15 Final Four appearances, 11 national players of the year, and the best winning percentage in tournament history. But other teams have been as dominant over as extended a period without inspiring such hatred: who loses sleep over Kentucky, Connecticut, North Carolina, or even UCLA?
Duke's dominance has also not been nearly as comprehensive as this account would suggest. Nor, one might argue, has America's. Both only rose to this position in 1990. During the Cold War, the United States was always checked by its superpower peer competitor, and Duke had memories of Mike Gminski. For the United States, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany within NATO, and the United Nations' blessing for the liberation of Kuwait established it as the sole global superpower. Duke emerged in the mid-1980s (morning in America!), but only reached the top by beating the mighty UNLV "Running Rebels" and the Kansas Jayhawks in the 1991 Final Four for its first championship, and then repeating the next year, along the way defeating Kentucky in perhaps the greatest college basketball game ever. This was peak Laettner, the foundational moment for anti-Dukism.