The Ultimate Sports Villain

Many of you have probably seen one or more of the films in ESPN’s sports documentary line, “30 for 30.” Since a different person directs each film, they vary widely in style as well as substance and quality. Some of them rather blithely reinforce the notion that sports convey objective truths—in effect, that there is an empirically “correct” way to interpret these narratives. Others are more sensitive to the fans’ ability to make something more from the action on the court. “I Hate Christian Laettner,” a recent film in the series directed by Rory Karpf, provides an especially thought-provoking example of the latter sensitivity, both because its titular framework prioritizes fan reception and because its titular subject was often considered college sports’ most notorious villain.

In attempting to explain what made the Duke forward so widely disliked among fans, both during his early 90s college basketball heyday and presently (such that he was voted the “Most Hated College Basketball Player” in a bracket-style competition conducted by Grantland.com), the film identifies “five points of Laettner hate”: “privilege,” “white,” “bully,” “greatness,” and “looks.”1 Rob Lowe’s narration carefully guides the viewer through each topic, between clips from interviews conducted with Laettner’s family, coaches (including Coach K), teammates, and opponents, and with Laettner himself. Perhaps most insightful, however, are the interviews conducted with three self-avowed Duke “haters,” two of whom have produced creative content of popular resonance that attests to the notion that “Duke sucks.”

In reflecting on the motivations that drive them to “hate” Christian Laettner, these anti-fans are forced to reckon with the narratological basis of their interest in sports. In effect, each Laettner anti-fan recognizes that their dislike is based on the role Laettner plays in the drama that is college basketball—not, in any meaningful sense, on who Laettner “actually” is. “When I’m at the game booing Duke,” admits Peter Rosenberg, producer of the YouTube video “This is Why Duke Sucks,” “I’m not thinking about what the real story is. [The players are] characters. Bad guys” (5:50). Standing in for the privilege and wealth that Duke itself is perceived to represent, especially when compared to its fellow colleges and universities on North Carolina’s “tobacco road,” each Duke player—and particularly Laettner—came to be seen as “the poster child for…entitlement,” asserts Andy Bagwell, co-author of Duke Sucks (8:35).

As the documentary takes pains to point out, Laettner did not actually come from a family with tremendous economic privilege, but his attendance at Duke and at a Buffalo, NY prep school before that elided his lower-middle class background for most viewers. Laettner was also not interested in disavowing notions of his privilege or any other negative perceptions. If anything, as Laettner and those close to him attest, he encouraged the “haters” to hate. As Duke teammate Bobby Hurley puts it: “He liked being the villain” (58:00). In essence, Laettner understood the narrativity of the game and relished the opportunity to perform his role in it, whether it matched his off-the-court personality or not.

When it comes to several “points of Laettner hate,” like “bully” and “greatness,” Laettner and the anti-fans’ narrative interplay is pretty straight-forward. Laettner was exceptionally talented, brash, and physical. He was more than willing to intimidate opponents and even teammates (chief among them Hurley) in pursuit of on-court excellence. Like most good actors, then, Laettner was psychologically skilled as well as physically gifted. Still, the not-unwarranted perception that Laettner was eager to hurt and bully others using those psychological skills is troubling.2 In pursuit of a basketball narrative that would satisfy him, Laettner did not hesitate to play the “bad guy” role that his anti-fans expected.

Yet the aspect of Laettner anti-fandom that is most interesting to me—related as it is to my dissertation chapter on white fan memoirs and race in the NBA—is the documentary’s notion that Laettner’s whiteness made him more hateable to opposing fans. The second prong of the “five points of Laettner hate,” “white” is also the most structurally significant to the film. It allows the filmmakers to juxtapose Laettner and Duke as villains to several famous and largely-African American teams that opposed them: Georgetown in the 1989 NCAA Tournament, UNLV in the 1990 and 1991 Final Fours, and Michigan’s “Fab Five” in the 1992 title game. Laettner’s teams were the villains, the film explains, both because they represented Duke’s pseudo-ivy pretensions—coded as obnoxiously white—and because, intones Rob Lowe, “To be black was to be cool. And everyone wanted in” (18:00). The logic of the documentary holds that, by virtue of their superior blackness, these talented Duke opponents were beloved in a new America that embraced rap (MC Hammer is shown) and black actors (cue a cast photo of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). Thus Duke, the oppressive white favorite, was a foil for these black college basketball heroes. Only Duke wasn’t the favorite in three of the four games, but the underdog. And the notion that Laettner and Duke were overwhelmingly hated for their whiteness, rather than embraced by large swaths of the white American viewing populace because of it, is a strange one.

For a certain stripe of fan, like Laettner anti-fan interviewee and sports journalist Ariel Helwani (a self-described white Jew from Montreal who wore Malcolm X gear to school as a child), this narrative of black heroism and white villainy was no doubt motivating. But the filmmakers’ claim that the affinity that white youth of the early 1990s showed for African American popular culture represented such an overwhelming cultural shift that most fans supported majority black teams because they were majority black seems to me to be myopic in its generational purview (director Rory Karpf was a teenager during Laettner’s Duke career) and naïve in its understanding of systemic racism. White enthusiasm for, and appropriation of, African American popular culture was not a phenomenon that began in the early 90s, but rather stretches back through the history of rock’n’roll and jazz, all the way back to minstrelsy and the cakewalk. These enthusiasms for black cultural production did not mean, however, that most white Americans can be said to have overtly supported black Americans, or reviled other white Americans, as a consequence. Karpf establishes a false binary. It is likely, in light of President Reagan’s anti-black “War on Drugs” and the beating of Rodney King that sparked the 1992 Los Angeles riots (among numerous other possible examples), that the blackness of these teams more often served to their detriment and Duke’s benefit in determining who were the “heroes” and “villains” for the majority of America’s (majority white) sports fans. The notion that opposing teams’ African American “cool” determined Laettner’s villainy is less than convincing.

Yet the documentary also presents more complex racial reasoning for fan antipathy to Laettner. Michael Eric Dyson asserts in an interview that the “swag” embedded in Laettner’s “brand of whiteness” was an “unapologetic [appropriation of] black styles of masculine projection” (15:33). According to Dyson, this appropriation, and not mere whiteness itself, made Laettner so hateable. In other words, Laettner’s version of the “cool pose,” Richard Majors’s notion that black males have responded to systemic oppression by adopting personas that confront and disrupt the performative expectations of the white establishment, makes him hateable. He is a white guy with black basketball aesthetics.

Dyson’s notion is worth taking seriously, especially insofar as other prominent white players said to play with “black” style, like Jason Williams and Marshall Henderson, have also been reviled. Perhaps this stems from some cultural memory of minstrelsy—the white performer acting black, whether on stage or on court, is necessarily offensive given the traumatic history of racial inequality in this country. Perhaps it is simpler than that—one imagines that many white fans, not wanting to appear racist, fear avowing their dislike for “black” style and, in Laettner, found someone who they could revile for the same reasons without appearing so. Either way, from this perspective it seems Laettner is hated both because he’s “too white” and “too black.” These narratives don’t have to cohere in any way and, in fact, seem the more hate-inducing exactly because they don’t cohere.

Whatever the validity of Dyson’s claim about Laettner’s appropriation of black male style on the court, the “looks” portion of “I Hate Christian Laettner” affirms his affinity for African Americans off the court. Named one of People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful,” Laettner had plenty of female admirers, but he was also the subject of homophobic rumors surrounding his relationship with his friend and teammate, Brian Davis. Davis, who is black, attests that Laettner shared his interest in hip-hop and “loved black people. He knew where I was coming from” (27:00). When Laettner asserted, in a Sports Illustrated interview, that his focuses were “basketball, school, and Brian” (54:00), the rumors gained steam, leading to a series of homophobic incidents involving opposing fans. Laettner, in typical style, was unconcerned with these rumors and, if anything, used them to fuel his fire. (He played particularly well in a road game against Shaquille O’Neal’s LSU team in 1992, where the home fans chanted “homosexual” at him.) After graduation, Laettner purchased Davis a new car, about which Jay Bilas asserts: “all of us raised our eyebrows” (54:49). In an era in which homophobia was rarely policed, fan projections about Laettner’s racial style and his sexuality intersected in a way that evoke the “erotic economy of celebration and exploitation” described in Eric Lott’s Love and Theft.

It would be ridiculous to actually compare Christian Laettner to a blackface minstrel. But by unapologetically adopting the role of the villain, Laettner seems to have made himself a flashpoint for American social traumas that reach far beyond basketball. Ultimately the “five points of Laettner hate”—“privilege,” “white,” “bully,” “greatness,” and “looks”—do not define Laettner, but the most common interpretive frameworks fans choose in order to express hatred through his college basketball narrative. The lasting revelations of “I Hate Christian Laettner” are that Laettner understood that he was such a fungible character all along, and that many of his “haters” have come to recognize the same thing 20 years later. Sports may feel empirical affairs, but we fans perpetually imbue athletes with our politics and personal resentments, whether we realize it or not. Christian Laettner may be The Devil or merely a Blue Devil, but it is always a matter of narrative and the mind’s eye.
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1 Perhaps intentionally, this five-pronged structure echoes Coach K’s own 5-pronged approach to basketball (and life) known rather ominously as “The Fist.”
2 Most notorious among the many instances of verbal and physical abuse attributed to Laettner was his infamous “stomp” on the University of Kentucky’s Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 Elite Eight. Though most observers felt the obviously intentional kick merited Laettner’s ejection, he was merely assessed a technical foul. Spared an early exit, Laettner went on to hit a buzzer-beating game winner—one of the most famous shots in college basketball history. In light of the documentary’s release, Laettner issued a half-hearted apology to Timberlake last month.

Check out Noah’s blog, American Sports Narrative and the Fan: http://americanculture.wustl.edu/projects/cohan/blog.php

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