It’s March, which only means one thing: the NCAA Basketball Tournament is coming. Practically unheard of my side of the Atlantic, this annual event is certainly a highlight of my sporting life in America. Last year the women’s side of the tournament captured most of my attention, partly because I was a beat writer for the Stanford team, but also because they had a great chance of going all the way. I did, however, catch a bit from the men’s tournament, including the final (where Duke narrowly defeated Butler) in a sports bar up in San Francisco.
The reason I had strayed so far from campus was because I was watching it with a friend who did her undergrad at Duke. She was there because she wanted to find a place where she’d have safety in numbers with fellow Blue Devils fans. But even in this safe haven, I was struck by how many people just did not like Duke. Most weren’t Butler fans or alumni from Duke’s rival schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but they were certainly not neutrals. They really, really wanted Duke to lose.
Being English, I can certainly sympathize with the Blue Devils fans. Each time a major international soccer tournament rolls around, there is a noticeable contingent within the UK of Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh fans supporting ABE (Anyone But England). In return, many England fans–who often have family links to one or other of those Celtic countries–will brush the dislike away and happily lend their support when roles are reversed. There might be longstanding political and soccer rivalries between those nations and England, but it is hard to keep those going when we rarely play games against each other and live in a pretty equal society. The enmity goes only one way.
But being an English soccer fan, I can also sympathize with the haters. Manchester United is a hugely successful and well-supported team over here, but I really don’t like them. And I’m not alone. They really are a polarizing club: their phenomenal success in recent years, frustratingly a result of being one of the best-managed clubs in the World, has earned them many fans but lent them a perceived arrogance that has created even more enemies. In fact, as I write this column, I’m happily watching their big rivals, Liverpool, conclusively beat them.
I’m not sure why Duke is so hated. It has certainly had success, but four National Championships spread over twenty years doesn’t make it unbeatable. As a university, it is also known for being a rich, private institution–so perhaps it’s because Dukies are elitist. But then there are many others in that category, including Stanford, which easily have more than its fair share of athletic dominance. It could be its style of play, some suggesting that Duke players manage to win more fouls than have really been committed, but even that doesn’t seem a good enough reason. If that were really true, then officials would slowly get wise to the ruse.
Looking in as an outside observer, it is strange that the Blue Devils are so disliked–and a little unpalatable. Some fans surely harbor real justification for hating Duke, but I wonder if many just do it because that’s what you do.
And it makes me start to reevaluate my own choices in sport. Next week Manchester United has an important match against foreign opposition in the Champions League. If they win, it won’t hurt any of the teams I have a soft spot for domestically, but it will help raise the profile of the English league in general. Maybe I need to bite my lip and honestly cheer for the Red Devils.
Tom Taylor also enjoys rooting for the Arizona State Sun Devils and New Jersey Devils. Contact him about watching a Devils game or two at tom.taylor “at” stanford.edu.