Type the words “I hate Duke” into a vaunted Internet search engine, and a flood of highly relevant results arise, including at least six T-shirts of varied vintage and message (“Breathe If You Hate Duke”) and dozens of articles, including a review of the recent ESPN “30 for 30” documentary (“I Hate Christian Laettner”) and a comprehensively snarky Slate post that recounts “The 18 Most Hateable Moments in Duke Basketball History.”
This is how entrenched Duke hatred is in the American psyche: Even the #slatepitch adheres to the conventional wisdom. Duke hatred is ubiquitous and universally accepted; the notion of anyone who did not actually graduate from Duke finding a reason to root for Duke feels like either knee-jerk contrarianism or base-level trolling. No one roots for Duke, for reasons that, if one digs deeply enough, get at our nagging national preoccupations with race and class and social privilege.
But mostly people don’t root for Duke because they really are continually and inherently annoying (this week’s example: A Wall Street Journal piece on the Blue Devils’ synchronized floor-slapping that feels like it was almost deliberately assigned to bother the shit out of people).
But this is the year that may present a true dilemma in regard to the American pastime of hating on Duke, for this is the year that Duke may face an undefeated Kentucky team in the NCAA final, and the Wildcats are the one squad that has aroused nearly as much antipathy as the Blue Devils themselves. This has already been a complex year for Duke hatred, given the ethical problems that have descended on archrival North Carolina; it makes it a little difficult to hate like this and be fully happy when the house you’re hating from is constructed entirely of reflective materials. (It also is becoming increasingly clear that Mike Krzyzewski might really be the greatest college basketball coach in the history of the sport, which is the sort of unavoidable truth that tends to manifest itself in spiteful comparisons of Krzyzweski’s likeness to a rodent.)
And now, if Kentucky finds a way to blow through Wisconsin, Duke might well become the last, best hope to foil the Wildcats’ buzzsaw of a season. And this would present the majority of the country with a legitimate hater’s dilemma: Do we root for the team that represents the encroachment of professionalism on the college game, or the team that so smugly embraces the “collegiate ethos” while reveling in its own professional elitism? Do we pull for the ringers, or the preppies?
I don’t know if there’s a correct answer here. In a way, I want to see Duke play Kentucky, because they appear to be the two best remaining teams in the tournament, and there is something to be said for advocating for the best possible game, and there is something to be said for the history that a Duke-Kentucky final would allow us to revisit. But I know what will happen when I watch Michigan State play the Blue Devils on Saturday: I will root for the Spartans, because this is what my emotions will demand. For at least one more game, there will be nothing more American than unapologetically hating on Duke, without any reservations. Might as well do it while we still can.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb