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Duke Asks Its Crazed Basketball Fans to Heckle Responsibly

The fervent basketball fans at Duke University, hundreds of whom are camping in a tent village to get prime seats for Saturday’s rivalry game against the University of North Carolina, have been a target of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts this year.

The student section of Blue Devils fans, called “Cameron Crazies” for the energy and antics they bring to that cramped arena at Duke, heckles opponents with the help of “cheer sheets” that include biographical details and biting comments about opposing players. Past cheer sheets from games against U.N.C. called one of its athletes “the ugliest player in the N.C.A.A.” and said of another, “no way he’s allowed to live within 200 yards of a school.”

The suggested chants were sometimes targeted — “Caveman” for one player with long hair and a beard — but largely innocuous, including “Go, Devils, Go,” and “Baby!” Duke fans regularly scream and wave their hands at opposing players when they inbound the ball.

At a D.E.I. town hall hosted by Duke’s student government this year, sports fans were encouraged to be responsible in any heckling of opposing players and to refrain from slurs, according to Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle.

The town hall, which included comments from basketball players and members of the athletic staff, was intended for students who participate in the tent village tradition called Krzyzewskiville, or K-Ville, after the former men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. About 100 people attended the event, according to the university.

David Ntim, a sophomore biomedical engineering major who is camping in Krzyzewskiville, did not go to the town hall but said he understood its intention.

I definitely see how it could warrant just these conversations on, ‘How do we promote where people are at and understand the balance of heckling,’” Ntim said.

In a joint response to emailed questions, Duke and the student line monitors who oversee the tent village said the town hall was part of the student group’s “proactive emphasis on D.E.I. in K-Ville to foster a greater sense of community in the traditions that surround Duke basketball.” Kyle Serba, a spokesman for the Duke men’s basketball program, said the event was not in response to a particular situation involving Duke students.

The university has been on both sides of accusations about unruly crowd behavior.

In 2013, a North Carolina State basketball player said fans in Duke’s student section had mocked his dead grandmother. In 2022, a Duke volleyball player said fans attending a match at Brigham Young University had called her a racial slur. In both instances, the host school investigated and said it found no evidence to support the claims.

D.E.I. efforts on college campuses have been polarizing, with the University of Florida eliminating all related positions last week.

Danielle Boaz, an associate professor of Africana studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said Duke’s town hall might be a sensitive topic because it could displease certain donors, or the event’s purpose could be misconstrued.

“Unfortunately, even saying, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t be racist’ can be seen as too liberal or too ‘woke,’” Boaz said.

Duke and the line monitors said that discussion points at the town hall included using inclusive and respectful language, as well as an overview of conduct rules at Krzyzewskiville and at games. They said cheer sheets “are a classic part of our game day traditions” and “have always aligned with our goal of ‘heckling responsibly.’”

In recent years, the student government has tried to make Krzyzewskiville more accessible by providing financial aid in the form of camping supplies. The annual cost to attend Duke is about $83,000, according to the university’s website.

Krzyzewskiville, located near Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., started in 1986 as Krzyzewski turned Duke into a basketball juggernaut. He won five national championships in 42 seasons at Duke, retiring in 2022.

Some Duke students sleep in tents for weeks before the annual home game against the North Carolina Tar Heels, who play about 10 miles away in Chapel Hill. It is one of the fiercest rivalries in sports and a cultural moment steeped into the fabric of the state.

“You have to have a delicate balance because you don’t want D.E.I. to be killjoys, but at the same time you want it to be a family experience that the whole community can enjoy,” said Dan Aldridge, a professor of Africana studies at Davidson College, near Charlotte.

He continued: “I think for Duke, there is a context because their fans are so notoriously obnoxious.”

Insensitive conduct from professional fan bases has also been a concern. Native American groups have long protested the tomahawk chop gesture used at Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves games. A soccer match in Las Vegas ended early last year as supporters of the Mexican national team erupted in anti-gay chants, and the year before, someone in the Paris crowd threw a banana at a Brazilian soccer player.

“Sports always become this place of tensions and this place that we try to say, ‘Well, this should be outside of politics,’ but it never really is,” Boaz said.

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