After living in Chapel Hill for almost 18 years, I finally went to a Carolina-Duke basketball game. The experience was both interesting and puzzling.
I find basketball a reasonably entertaining game, an endorsement whose lukewarm nature might explain why it took me the best part of two decades to attend the fixture. Not regarding it as a religion – for which I humbly apologize – very likely accounts for my jaundiced (some might argue uncomprehending) responses.
The Duke team stepped onto the court. A storm of booing greeted them. Three possible explanations presented themselves:
▪ This barrage was seriously intended and due to past crimes and misdemeanors, real or imagined, of the team or its predecessors through history.
▪ The hostility to the Duke team was still genuine but sprang from some fundamental philosophical objection to their very existence, while leaving entirely open the question as to how one might stage a basketball game against them and comprehensively trounce them if they did not exist.
▪ Some complex form of reverse dramatic irony was at play here, whereby the hostility expressed was entirely feigned by the crowd and to be taken merely as a joke, and that this pretense was fully understood by the actors (in this case the Duke team) but not at all by at least one member of the audience (in this case me).
This might have explained the apparent indifference on the faces of the Duke team, whose member received the insults hurled at them with apparent equanimity. If this third explanation held water, then the acting on all sides was first-rate.
It was after the tip-off that things got even more interesting. My neighbor, who by his pre-game comments might have been taken to be a quiet and mild-mannered chap, the sort of person who might offer you advice on life insurance or carpets, was instantly transformed into a wildly gesticulating, bellowing man possessed who volubly proclaimed against every decision by the referee that was not entirely in Carolina’s favor.
Minor variations on this theme were observable in the demeanor of most people, most of them adults. Again, it was hard to see whether this behavior was to be taken at face value or whether parody was intended.
I had attended a handful of games at Duke’s home court. Blind partiality and the utmost hostility to the opposition were the order of the day from home fans on those occasions. I had taken a charitable view that this might be due to some quirk of the court’s architectural features that cause it to resemble a medieval library and hence engender the intolerance so often associated with that period in history. Or that Duke fans were uniquely biased.
The Duke-Carolina game convinced me that this was a fanciful theory. I am now inclined to believe that it might be a national norm for basketball fan behavior.
As someone from the land that invented and indeed exported football (i.e. soccer) hooliganism, I may be ill-equipped to utter any recommendations on sporting crowd behavior. And nobody was actually beating up anyone else. But I venture this modest proposal: If the Carolina and Duke coaches and captains (as opposed to a university bureaucrat) were to issue a serious appeal to their fans to show a modicum of sportsmanship to the opposition, it would be a revolutionary step for the better. There is not the slightest reason why courtesy could not coexist with devotion to one’s team and enthusiasm for the cause.
But what do I know? I’m just an unbeliever.
Rob Carter lives in Chapel Hill.