Human history has been marred by struggles between groups. Untold millions have perished for simply being members of the out-group. Criteria for such divisions have varied widely over the years, including characteristics such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality and many others. Sometimes groups have formed and fought in the absence of any detectable differences between their members.
As forward-thinking, enlightened people, we believe that we recognize the tragic senselessness of these fault lines of the past and, as members of a single species, can rise above such arbitrary and destructive divisions. I like to think that I can do this too. But earlier this week, I realized that I frequently don’t live up to this ideal.
You see, I am a Duke basketball fan. This is a group affiliation that developed as a result of my birth at the Duke University Medical Center to two parents with more Duke degrees in their families than can be listed in this space. I went to my first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium when I was 3 weeks old; rooting for Duke passionately is something that was implanted in me from a young age.
Unlike participants in many inter-group conflicts throughout the course of history, I can view the situation objectively and recognize that my affiliation with Duke basketball is entirely by chance and does not give me any sort of superiority over those lacking this affiliation. If my dad’s GPA and MCAT score were a little lower and he had gone to medical school at the University of North Carolina instead of at Duke, I would probably be ruminating over the Tar Heels’ National Invitation Tournament loss. I can also recognize the utter stupidity of caring whether a group of guys my age can get a ball through a cylinder more times than another group of guys my age.
But recognizing irrationality does not eliminate it. And so Monday night, I gathered in my common room with several other Duke fans and some neutral observers to watch Duke take on Butler for the national championship and proceeded to turn into a virtual Neanderthal intent on preserving my tribe’s superiority.
In the first half, naturally pulling for the underdog, many watching with me began to root for Butler. Long accustomed to acquaintances rooting against Duke for the sole purpose of annoying me (at least that was how I saw it), I resented their betrayal, my desire to prevail becoming even stronger.
As the game wore on, the score excruciatingly close, my body reverted a state that evolved in our primitive, pre-human ancestors to defeat enemies, not to watch a basketball game. I lost interest in food. I lost interest in the people around me (I was already missing a friend’s birthday celebration — sorry, Jon). My palms sweat. In the final minutes, my hands and lower arms became numb and tingly.
Finally, when Brian Zoubek (brother of Sarah Zoubek ’08) rebounded a Butler miss with 3.3 seconds left and Duke up by one, I jumped out of my chair and hugged my suitemate, who I have known since we were infants in Durham (thank God Gordon Hayward’s halfcourt buzzer beater didn’t go in). I became lightheaded from jumping out of my chair so fast with blood pooled in my extremities.
After watching the postgame interviews, I called my family and exchanged texts and Facebook chat messages with friends with whom I have experienced the agony and ecstasy of Duke basketball over the years. I spent the next day in a state of exuberance. I wore a Duke shirt just so everyone would know it was my team that won. I ran into a friend who is UNC fan and made sure he was aware of the previous night’s events. I watched highlights and read articles about the game, wanting to relive the glory over and over.
Upon the team’s return to campus Tuesday, Duke President and former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead ’68 GRD’72 described the game as an “ordeal.” Interestingly, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the origin of the word “ordeal” is related to the Old English word “dal,” meaning division. It is the human inclination toward group division, competition and domination that produces ordeals as trivial as sporting events and as grave as violent civil strife.
On one hand, I am ashamed that I am capable of that sort of primal and immature reaction to an athletic event (and if my parents are any indication, these reactions will not become more mature with age). But it could be worse. At least I’m not celebrating the literal destruction of a rival gang.
And it could be even worse. I could be a Carolina fan.
Matthew Ellison is a senior in Branford College.