A nasty video recently published on the ESPN website illustrates two depressing social phenomena that most people are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone deplore. But that is Splashing Rocks' job.
The charming title of the video is "I Hate Christian Laettner" (apparently ESPN will soon broadcast a full-length program with the same title). The video is introduced with the an equally pleasant textual lead-in: "Everyone hates Christian Laettner. No one hates him more than Kentucky fans. In honor of the upcoming 30 for 30 film, Kaylee Hartung traveled to Lexington to see if, 23 years later, hatred for Laettner is still as intense as ever."
Lovely, isn't it?
For those unfamiliar with college basketball, Mr. Laettner was a college basketball superstar for the historically great Duke University basketball teams of the period 1989-92. Without question, Laettner was one of the greatest collegiate basketball players of all time. He led Duke to two consecutive national championships in 1991 and 1992. In the latter year, he was not only the national collegiate player of the year, but USA Basketball's Male Athlete of the Year.
Laettner was one of those superior players who was at his very best when the competition was the most intense – which means the NCAA Tournament and its climactic "Final Four." No one excelled in that event like Christian Laettner. To this day, he holds the NCAA Tournament records for most career points scored (407), most free throws made (142), and most games played (23). He was NCAA Tournament MVP in 1991. He is the only player in NCAA history to start for his team in the Final Four for all four years of his collegiate career, including the two championships. In short, Laettner's record of success in college basketball's premier event is simply unequalled.
Yet with all his consistent excellence, Laettner is most remembered and recognized for one brilliant play. The word "iconic" is grossly overused, but in this case it aptly describes what is known among college basketball fans simply as "The Shot." With only 2.6 seconds remaining in a dramatic overtime NCAA Tournament game against Kentucky, Duke trailed by a point. But then Laettner caught a floor-length pass from Grant Hill, calmly turned, and sank an astonishing shot to nail the victory in what many regard as the greatest collegiate game ever. The man was simply "clutch," in that game and many others.
They loathe Laettner . . . .
They loathe Laettner . . . .
. . . but love Lewis: The Twisted American Sportsmind
With all these sterling credentials, one would naturally think that Laettner would be greatly admired by most college basketball fans. But for strange and disturbing reasons, a kind of mindless collective notion has developed over the years that hating Christian Laettner is somehow a normal and generally shared feeling among many of those fans. It bears a striking similarity to the equally mindless and nasty dislike of New England Patriots superstar quarterback Tom Brady. Another Duke basketball great, the incomparable long-range shooter J. J. Reddick, has also been singled out for this same kind of irrational mass antipathy.
It all has to do with profound jealousy, self-loathing, and a Quisling-like repudiation of one's own racial identity. Laettner and Brady are handsome, intelligent, and remarkably successful white competitors in sports that are largely dominated by blacks. For some unfathomable reason, this inspires intensely negative feelings against these men among a certain class of white person who would never entertain, or at least never acknowledge, such rancor against prominent black athletes.
The collective Laettner-loathing has become so widely accepted among sports media that ESPN feels comfortable in promoting a video – soon to be followed by a full program – that portrays hatred of this remarkable man as a colorful, amusing, and even likeable quality.
The video starts with the fatuous premise that "everybody" is like the feckless white liberals at ESPN and naturally hates Christian Laettner. It then finds amusement – and assumes the general public will also find amusement – in the piquant revelation that those colorful, salt-of-the-earth Kentucky University "fans" hate him even more. This is presumably because Kentucky was the victim of Laettner's legendary and endlessly re-televised impossible shot.
In ESPN's video, a vivacious woman reporter gleefully entices expressions of progressively more venomous Laettner-hate from a herd of unkempt and ill-mannered Kentucky basketball supporters. Most of them are proudly wearing their garish and undoubtedly overpriced Kentucky basketball caps and/or jerseys. An unprepossessing middle-aged man, with rapier-like wit, scornfully describes the handsome and accomplished Laettner as a "piece of crap." The reporter smiles approvingly. Another embodiment of Kentucky class and graciousness then declares that Laettner is "a bad person."
Then a blonde, fortyish woman, apparently a mom, proudly displays a tee-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "I Still Hate Christian Laettner." The classy lady then explains, "For Christmas this is all I told my family I wanted." This Mom must be real proud of filling her house with that wholesome, home-bred Kentucky hate on Christmas morning.
Several of the responses are conspicuously "bleeped-out" by those clever ESPN producers. They are subtly letting us know just how gross the invective gets when the target is a well-educated white superstar who – unlike the pseudo-students who play one year for Kentucky before promptly dropping the pretext of classes and jetting off to the NBA – actually graduated from an academically superior university after playing all four years of his eligibility.
But the video descends to its nadir of nastiness when one of the Kentucky wits purports to quote his own grandmother as having described Christian Laettner as "the only Christian she knows that will burn in hell."
This distorted celebration of irrational collective rancor is deeply disturbing on many levels, but it reflects two broader pathologies that are increasingly prevalent in a declining American culture.
The first is the grossly disproportionate importance of big-time sports in the lives, emotions, and activities of a large portion of the American public. SR has previously examined aspects of this unhealthy phenomenon in a post comparing the addiction to big-time sports with Marx's depiction of religion as the "opiate of the people." See "Big Time Sports: America's New Opiate" (Feb/ 18, 2013), at http://splashingrocks.blogspot.com/2013/02/big-time-sports-americas-new-opiate.html.
The willingness of presumably ordinary Kentuckians to spew such extreme venom against a man they do not even know – on camera – demonstrates the distorting extremes of their loyalty to a grotesquely oversized collegiate basketball program. And Kentucky's program is hardly alone in this respect.
It is evident that these people would fanatically support the Kentucky basketball team, and ferociously revile its opponents, irrespective of any considerations of the character or integrity of the teams' respective players. And their association of the basketball team with the University itself is purely delusional.
These fans are apparently oblivious to the fact that most of Kentucky's star players cannot wait to toss away their books, end the pretext of attending classes, and promptly depart the Lexington campus at the conclusion of their first and only year of collegiate competition. The blue-shirted Laettner-haters' blind loyalty to the University of Kentucky program is exceeded only by the one-and-done players' determination to immediately abandon it after less than a single academic year.
The Kentucky fans are being played for fools and suckers, and they either don't know or don't care. If Kentucky fielded a team of five probationary delinquents against five altar boys, the blue-shirted herd would continue to bellow their rabid support for the delinquents. They are just too heavily invested in the corrosive myth of big-time collegiate sports to change course.
Apart from the corrupting influence of America's mega-sports fixation, the second pathology revealed by the orgy of Laettner-hating – and Brady-hating, and J. J. Reddick-hating, etc. -- is a bizarre racial double standard.
It is perfectly acceptable, and even kind of "cool" in the twisted realm of the ESPN sports herd, to openly revile successful white athletes like Laettner, Tom Brady, and J. J. Reddick (if you doubt this, just run an Internet search using "hate" with one of those names). But expressing open contempt for black athletes, even black athletes who may have earned such contempt by their barbarous and violent behavior, is socially and politically unacceptable.
You will never see an ESPN video entitled "I Hate Ray Lewis." Or "I Hate Ray Rice." Or "I Hate Allen Iverson." Yet Christian Laettner has done nothing I am aware of to make him more despicable than these celebrated black athletes.
Oh, wait. That was kind of an understatement. It's not merely that Laettner has done nothing to warrant the nasty invective that would never be directed against these or many similar errant black athletes. He's not even in their ballpark. Lewis (indicted for murder in 2000), Rice (documented girlfriend beater), and Iverson (15-year sentence for felony maiming, but quickly granted clemency) are proven perps, yet they are not remotely despised and reviled like Laettner, Brady, or Reddick, whose records are clean of such behavior.
The classic example is Baltimore Ravens linebacker legend Ray Lewis. He was indicted for murder, but was able to avoid conviction by pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. But never mind. The Barbarians of Baltimore have erected a heroic statue of the miscreant Mr. Lewis, and he has achieved the status of a beloved and respected elder statesman in the pro football and ESPN cultures.
So the documented criminal offender, Ray Lewis, is a revered Baltimore Legend, while the family man with the spotless and distinguished personal record, i.e, Christian Laettner, is an object of nationally broadcast rancor, even 23 years after his athletic triumphs. This isn't Denmark, but something is seriously rotten here.
One of the weirdest aspects of this whole sorry spectacle is that Laettner himself seems to take it in stride and even share in the "joke." He recently appeared for an interview with ESPN host Dan Patrick which actually seemed designed to promote the forthcoming hate-Laettner video. Why Laettner would condone a national celebration of malice directed at him is anyone's guess. Perhaps he is so inured to what he he has endured over the years that he has decided the best defense is to roll with the punches.
But Laettner is now a 45-year-old family man, with a wife, two daughters, and a son. Is it possible that his wife and children can lightly dismiss a nationally broadcast program explicitly featuring the widespread hatred of their husband and father? More likely, ESPN's "I Hate Christian Laettner" programs are deeply hurtful to the Laettner family. One can only imagine the nasty abuse the Laettner children will likely endure as a result of all this.
Yet millions of mindless ESPN viewers will watch the program and join in the perpetuation of what amounts to media-approved hatred of a remarkable athlete who has done nothing to warrant such animus. In today's America, it could only happen to a white heterosexual male who had the audacity to excel aggressively in an arena where most of his fellow whites are content to serve as props and spectators.