Everybody Hates Duke: Why Some Teams Rile Us

In my house, we cheer first for Duke University and second for "ABC": Anybody But Carolina. Simply by saying this, I'm going to provoke a whole bunch of people—not only University of North Carolina fans, but also all-purpose Duke haters, who are legion. I can't think of another team that engenders so much ill will. People so dislike my alma mater that apparently they'll vote against a politician just because he went there.

To crib from my colleague Fareed Zakaria: why do they hate us? It's easy to see why a team might inspire loyalty and love, but why do other teams inspire loathing, even among people who don't have any obvious reason for a grudge against them? Rather than seek the answer among Carolina fans, I decided to ask some researchers who might be more neutral. (Not entirely so: one was from a scrappy 13-seed school that lost in the first round, and another was from top-seeded Syracuse. Mostly, they gave me different versions of the same explanation: everyone likes an underdog; nobody likes the top dog. After the sweet weekend of upsets we just had, I couldn't argue with that. Here are their takes, with a few stray italicized thoughts of my own:

The theory: Duke = Microsoft.
The theorist: Paul Damiano, organizational psychologist and president of GoodWorks, which "takes principles of psychology and applies them to work"

"I think teams follow a similar life cycle to the one that businesses follow, going from an entrepreneurial stage to growth and development to getting bigger and ultimately becoming a monopoly and undergoing regulation. In business, the entrepreneurial phase is young and exciting. In sports, these are the teams just coming onto the scene, and all of a sudden they start generating success. [Think Murray Stateor Northern Iowa.] Then we go to the growth phase. In business, you begin to develop more consistent systems and procedures, and you can replicate your success. In basketball, teams start to get a 15- or 20-win season more frequently, and success breeds success because they're able to get better players. At that point we still like these teams, because we remember when they were nobodies and it's kind of cool watching them succeed. But then it turns ugly. Just like in business, the teams enter a cycle of dominance. This is the monopolistic phase. And we don't like monopolies. When teams like Duke reach this phase, we start to think they've developed unfair business practices. They get to be on TV more, so they get more exposure, which lets them attract higher-caliber players, which gets the sports media speaking more highly of them. And then, just as people think monopolies get unfair business and trade advantages, people think the team gets too much of the benefit of the doubt from the regulatory agencies—a.k.a. the referees."

The theory: People like to "release and express anger" in groups, particularly against the arrogant jerks who deserve it.
The theorist: Kit Yarrow, chair of sociology department, Golden Gate University

"It's about a shared passion, a way to feel united in an increasingly fragmented society, a way to feel like part of something. Rooting for or against, it doesn't matter—the emotions are both highly satisfying: joy and triumph if your beloved team wins, joy and a touch of sanctimonious satisfaction that there's fairness and predictability in the world if that vexing team that you love to hate loses. 'Against' is cooler today. It's a way to release and express anger. Who gets to be the bad guy? It's going to be a team that fans think has a comeuppance coming. That could be a team that appears entitled, one that's overpromised and underdelivered, or a team that appears to break the rules or gets special privileges. It always comes down to arrogance."

The theory: March Madness is "a microcosm of American values."
The theorist: Joe Kotarba, chair of sociology department, University of Houston

"The way people respond to the tournament reflects a lot of fundamental values in our culture, one of which is the classic American view of the underdog. We like to see someone who does not have great resources work hard and succeed. You can see this in the widespread support for the state of Israel, just as you can see it in the way people love St. Mary's, Gonzaga—they're small schools, and they don't recruit the top athletes. The teams we love to hate are the ones who appear to have unfair advantages. Many people hate the Yankees because they appear to simply buy all the talent they need to win the World Series, and similarly, we look at programs like Carolina [see, Tar Heels, people hate you too!], like Memphis, and we see them as being very powerful and having an advantage that others don't."

The theory: The winners—"BIRGs." The losers—"CORFs."
The theorist: Rick Burton, Falk professor of sports management, Syracuse University

"There's a concept in sports marketing and social psychology which is called BIRGing, 'basking in reflected glory.' It's when the fans are saying, 'We won.' But if the team loses, the fans are CORFing, which is 'cutting off reflected failure.' The opposite of 'We won' is 'They lost.' In BIRGing, you are on the team. But in CORFing, you've got to remove yourself from the team if you lose, and then you have to have somebody to blame for that. So a school can really only be disliked if it's had historical success that has hurt the feelings of lots and lots of people. Also, if a school has amazing last-second victories that snatch away your BIRGing and turn it into CORFing, you're never going to forgive the people who beat you at the buzzer."

The theory: We're looking to define ourselves.
The theorist: Packy Moran, visiting professor of sports management, York College of Pennsylvania

"The act of taking a side in a basketball game, especially a meaningful one like an NCAA tournament game, is 'associative psychological needs' being met. It is an act of self-definition that helps individuals feel like they know where they are and who they are in the world. This includes the creation of perceived in-groups (other fans of the team, region, etc.) and out-groups (fans of rival teams, conferences, regions, etc.). I think the reward is from investment and return—regardless of the direction for or against a particular team. The more you invest, the greater the return needs to be for you to feel value in the experience. If you really hate Duke and they lose, you feel good. If they lose big, you feel great. If they lose on a replay of the Christian Laettner shot at the Spectrum and you get to see Coach K thoroughly disgusted while you are on the phone canceling your American Express card, then that is the ultimate. [Even I find those credit-card commercials annoying.] March Madness is great for schadenfreude!"

The theory: "Some teams are just evil."
The theorist: My editor, Kate Dailey

[OK, fine. But she was talking about Florida State.]