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America’s March Madness Problem – Foreign Policy

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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.

America’s March Madness Problem – Foreign Policy

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