Minutes after Duke’s 98-85 win over N.C. State in Cameron Indoor Stadium, an intensifying rumor blew up- at least in the research triangle- when former N.C. State star and NBA veteran Julius Hodge spread the unverified gospel to his 14,000 followers:
I hope the “national media” or Swofford makes a deal about the #cameroncrazies chanting “How’s your grandmother” to Tyler Lewis. RIP ma’am
— Julius Hodge (@Follow24Hodge) February 8, 2013
The story goes that while N.C. State freshman Tyler Lewis was on the free throw line with 13:47 remaining in the second half, a group of Cameron Crazies began chanting, “How’s your grand-ma?” The fans were on their way home, and ESPN’s online replay was still an hour away, so for the moment nobody could confirm or disprove the rumor. But, if true, it would’ve been a horrifying bit of insensitivity on the part of the Duke students- Lewis’ grandmother passed away last Friday at age 83.
The incident began shortly after Lewis’ foul shots, when an N.C. State sophomore tweeted about the chant. He based his opinion on a video sent to him by an unidentified friend inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, and quickly disappeared from twitter. The rumor gathered steam until Hodge’s tweet, and became national in scope when Alex Kennedy, a USA Today NBA writer with nearly 50,000 followers, gave it the most dramatic treatment yet. The wildfire was spreading, and containment was no longer an option. Several N.C. State players- Richard Howell, Jordan Vandenburg, and Rodney Purvis, at least- joined the twitter escalation after the game, condemning the Duke student body for its insensitivity. Black Sports Online was the first outlet to run a story, but others weren’t far behind.
And I promise we’ll chase that truth down as best we can. I do. But here’s where I have to cut the journalistic tone for a second, because at almost any other school in America, an incident like this- if true- would give us all a temporary shudder, and then be dismissed as the work of a few tactless undergrad shits. But the chant didn’t happen at any other institution. It happened at Duke, everyone’s favorite bastion of supposed elitism; a school where embarrassments both trivial and significant become public fodder, and where the student body does is its own worst enemy. I can feel it happening again, the cycle of outrage and shame, and it’s too much for me to stomach.
The first question is, when was that reputation first sullied? Maybe, originally, with the rise of the basketball program, which transformed Duke from a small southern private school into a legitimate brand, and ushered in the era of national recognition. That’s when Duke began to matter, and when you matter, someone out there will hate you. But the real negativity- the kind that goes beyond your basic athletic rivalries and resentments- began with the infamous lacrosse scandal in 2006. The initial public furor painted the lacrosse players as rich, white, entitled kids who considered themselves superior to a local stripper, and thought they could rape and abuse her without repercussions. On a broader scale, it painted the entire student body as the perpetrators of a cultural crime, and the largely black population of Durham as the victim. That’s when it became okay to hate Duke.
The whole thing was fabricated by an ambitious district attorney who was disbarred for misconduct while the players were exonerated, but the perception remained. Perceptions tend to do that.
As a Duke alum, I can impart two nuggets of wisdom. First, that perception is complete bullshit. Second, there are plenty of students at Duke who are rich, white, entitled slugs who consider themselves superior to everyone. They’ve always been there. They’ll never go away. And if you can’t reconcile those two ideas in your head, our innocence and our guilt, then all I can tell you is that while I don’t want to engage in a lengthy debate, I would suggest that you haven’t been paying attention to the nuanced characteristics of your fellow man, and you may be prone to demonizing large segments of the population without a ton of firsthand evidence. Watch out for that- if you’re not careful, you might become a racist.
About that perception- it remained, despite the lacrosse charges being dropped, and it hasn’t improved. Sad to say, Duke has repeatedly fashioned its own noose. The latest PR disaster struck last week, when students threw a racist frat party. Before that, there was a sexist frat party. A player on the girl’s lacrosse team dressed as Buckwheat from the “Little Rascals” for Halloween, and thought it would be a good idea to complete the costume with blackface. A minor was found drunk in a porta-potty during a football tailgate. A 2010 grad named Karen Owen made a powerpoint detailing the strengths and weaknesses of her various sexual partners, and- surprise!- that baby went viral. The Atlantic Monthly killed the school in a piece called “The Hazards of Duke” shortly thereafter, which echoed a prescient Rolling Stone that ran four years earlier called “Sex and Scandal at Duke,” which itself exposed a seedy sexual underbelly rife with imbalanced power dynamics and unhealthy self-images.
My perspective? Unfortunately, I graduated a year before the lacrosse incident, so I missed out on the moment when the University fully transformed into a misogynist, elitist, racist cesspool teeming with alcohol and drugs and unchecked acts of sexual depravity despoiling the entire campus. But I’ve heard it was a real shitshow.
Sorry, I have to check my tone. I know I do- I know I do, I know I do, I know I do- or I’ll start making light of some really serious issues. And I want to convey that I know they’re serious issues. I don’t want you to think I’m some kind swaggering asshole who tries to prove his manhood by excusing obscene masculine behavior. I don’t think I am that guy. The people of Duke are not that guy. An overwhelming majority of students hate this shit too, and they react against it in proactive ways. You hear less about that because it’s not quite as juicy, but it’s true. And here are two other key points:
1. All of the embarrassments at Duke University came after the lacrosse scandal.
2. The lacrosse scandal was a lie.
I think it’s important to remember those facts. Especially after last night’s alleged chants, in light of the predictable things that everybody will infer about Duke students. It’s important to remember the lacrosse origin not because it absolves Duke, but because it fucking implicates the rest of the country.
The truth is, there is a magnifying glass focused on Duke, and I’ve lived long enough to know that if you put a magnifying glass on anyone or anything, they will not always come out looking good. Why? Because young people- no, sorry, forget ‘young’ as a qualifier- people are flawed creations, and often they are racist and sexist and elitist and lacking empathy and downright insensitive to the plight of others. Young people just happen to have more energy, so they burn a little brighter. Maybe these shortcomings are due to some intrinsic flaw in humanity, or maybe they say something about the moral decline of America, or maybe it’s all a sick prank hatched by a higher power bearing no resemblance to any of the ones we worship. But forget the cause. Let’s get basic- this stuff happens everywhere. EVERYWHERE.
“So why does it keep happening at Duke?” the world asks. “Why is it so public, so dramatic?” Because Duke is your whipping boy. Because Duke has the magnifying glass, installed under false pretenses, under which all blemishes are revealed. And I hate that I have to repeat this, but I will: I am categorically not defending horrible people. I am merely explaining why it may appear that horrible people exist in larger proportions at Duke, when in fact that’s a conclusion that lazy smug facile vengeful people draw. I am sketching the silhouette of the magnifying glass so you can see it in your brain, and feel its searing heat. Other schools are just as bad, but those schools didn’t have their own lacrosse scandal, and so the giant eye is not staring at them.
Let’s pause a moment to go meta and examine some of the inevitable reactions to what I’ve written so far. Then I can pre-emptively defend myself and stay away from twitter for a while.
Reaction of the community outside Duke: You’re just another rich, white man who thinks he’s entitled to minimize other people’s feelings, and is defending an indefensible school racked by institutional rot simply because he happened to attend said school, and wants to uphold the power structure that allows a place like Duke to exist.
My Defense: I’m not rich, never have been, and perhaps, despite my best intentions, never will be. And it’s really something to be accused of elitism by people who never attended Duke, but often did attend other prestigious private universities, and are often themselves from privileged backgrounds. It’s the One Percent calling me the One Percent. Neat trick, but I’m starting to dislike the taste. Truth: I’ve never once in my life felt like I had any power beyond a sense that I might have a certain percentage of control over my own destiny, and even that feeling is fleeting. I have no arrogance to display for you. I wasn’t raised to believe that my feathers were brighter than my neighbor’s.
And I am not unique among Duke students. There are a lot of us, past present and future, who don’t fit a stereotype. And as for wealth beyond my wildest dreams, I was an English major, so even the Duke degree didn’t confer the financial rewards you might imagine. Here’s what did happen in my four years at Duke, as I remember it- I had friends, lost friends, gained friends, suffered through an unexceptional first semester before getting my academics together, spent some time in the lovely Duke Gardens, ate too much Chik-Fil-A, wrote some short stories (bad), directed a play (bad), wrote a screenplay (derivative), and used funds from a campus organization to make a short 16mm film (iffy on the technical side, but raw and still a little exciting), and yes, had some experience in the periphery of the teeming alcoholic and sexual cesspool. My team also won a softball intramural championship against the law school. That was the highlight, if you want just one.
All of which is to say: Stop thinking you know everything about someone because of where they went to school. Stop thinking that Duke is unique because it attracts a higher percentage of elitists than any other private school that costs $60,000 per year. You’re being an asshole. While you’re at it- and believe me, this is something I have to remind myself too- work on the assumption that rich white men are inherently bad people. Work on falling into the stupid political trap that different schools attract simpler, less corruptible kids.
Reaction of the community inside Duke: Just like every Duke graduate who has gone on to work for a national or semi-national platform, you think it’s trendy to hate Duke and you want to pick on us and you’re just mentioning the Tyler Lewis chant for the hits and you’re still bitter about being denied credentials for last year’s UNC game and Duke is wonderful and nobody here has done anything wrong.
My defense: Why you goddam self-sabotaging bastards, can’t you see I’m trying to defend you? DID YOU EVEN READ THIS? (Like I said, Duke can be its own worst enemy.)
I’m already well off the rails here, so let’s get back to the chant. Did the students taunt Tyler Lewis about his dead grandmother? Here are a few things I do know:
*A lot of Duke students at the game adamantly insist that this is not true. They say they were chanting “past your bedtime,” because Tyler Lewis looks extremely young. They point out the pre-game cheer sheet, and how there’s nothing there about Lewis’ grandmother, and that nobody would ever encourage that kind of thing.
*Nolan Evans, a junior who works at the N.C. State student newspaper and was on press row for the game, is one of many who insists that he heard Duke students chanting, “how’s your grandma?” I gave Evans a call afterward, and found out that he grew up in North Carolina as a Duke fan, and still roots for them passionately when they’re playing anyone but State. He wanted me to tell you all that he thinks it was a minor, stupid issue initiated by a handful of dumb fans, and that he doesn’t think it reflects Duke students as a whole. And he told me that he wishes he’d never given his friend Reeves Thompson permission to cite him on twitter as someone who could confirm the negativity, considering how the whole thing blew up.
At the very least, Nolan utterly convinced me that he has no axe to grind. And he was certain- dead certain- that he heard correctly. I even asked if there might have been some kind of retroactive influence thing going on, since he didn’t even know Lewis’ grandmother had died until after the chant. Was he sure. “No doubt,” he said.
*The Chronicle, Duke’s student paper, insisted that it never happened. In the comments of that same story, someone claiming to be a Duke grad student named “Joseph Henry” insisted that at least four people had spread the word and told him to chant “How’s your grandma?” because of the recent death.
*A few reporters, some of whom are talented and who I won’t name out of a very legitimate respect for the excellent work they do on a daily basis, argued on twitter that since they hadn’t heard it while on press row, it didn’t happen. I hope it goes without saying that this struck me as worrisome- for a journalist to discount an accusation because he/she and a few pals can’t remember hearing it…it doesn’t hold water. I fully admit that I’m not sure what I heard, even after listening to the video, and it’s strange to me that there’s no reasonable doubt on their end.
*Since actual truth always comes last in these situation, behind everybody’s personal hang-ups and the immediate rush to judgment, I’ve saved the video of the free throw until the bitter end. After listening several times, I think I hear “how’s your grandma?” at around the 35-second mark. I think it’s indisputably different from “past your bedtime.” But a lot of people disagree. See for yourself:
I care about the truth of these accusations because it was a pretty horrible chant, and I wish it hadn’t happened anywhere, much less my school.
I don’t care about the truth of these accusations because in the end, it’s the neanderthal behavior of a few vigilantes and I can’t be bothered. It says nothing about Duke. What I’m going to say may next may become the part of the argument that undermines everything that came before, but fuck it, we’re being honest: It may not even say as much as we want about the kids. The students that did chant, if they exist, might have been caught up in a really stupid and indefensible moment. They may not be terrible people, at heart. They may go on to redeem themselves before they die. The pain they may have inflicted tonight, and the reaction, may help them see the ugliness that ensues when you harm another person. And maybe we should all take a moment to remember the worst thing we’ve ever done, and what became of us.
Yes, Duke has embarrassed itself to an absurd degree over the past seven years. I don’t mind admitting that. But I want to emphasize, one last time, that the school’s worst elements exist everywhere. Duke became the embodiment of a generation’s sins when a rogue prosecutor hatched a harmful lie and stirred up some shit that never got unstirred. So, okay. Here we are. The Gothic bubble is pierced. All of its flaws are now on display, bare and ready for your whip. Maybe you need that whip. I get that, too. But before you swing, I advise that you’ll experience the greatest pleasure if you remember not to look around.