A trusted correspondent emailed me yesterday after my post about Dan Shanoff’s WSJ comments mugging — not about the fact that my post was only dubiously newsworthy, but to ask, “you don’t really read comments, do you?” The answer I gave him, because there seemed no reason not to be honest, other than the fact that it’s kind of embarrassing, is “if it’s on something I wrote, hell yes I read the comments.” (I also read the comments here, because they’re generally very good)

It’s probably/definitely writer/vanity stuff on my own writing’s comments, but during lull periods with work, I will pretty much read anything I can. So more broadly, yes, I’ll read a comment, sure. It doesn’t mean I’m any less perplexed about internet comment cultures — at bulk-volume comment sites from the Gawkers to YouTube to Fanhouse — or more inclined to read those goofs’ comments. I just…I don’t know. I know life’s too short to do it, but life can also feel very long and boring to me unless I’m reading something.

But I’ve been clear, too, I think about how corny I think argumentum ad comments section is — any conversation that starts with someone typing under a punny pseudonym writing “First!!1!” doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously, and so probably can’t bear much in the way of analytic weight. And yet, despite the fact that most of its argumentation is based on samples from the most prankish, dumbass trolls out there — YouTube commenters, Wikipedia page gag-editors, people on message boards and at NC State games — I could buy a lot of what Seyward Darby (above) was selling in her piece for The New Republic online about the weird and weirdly enduring nexus between homophobia (how homophobic it actually is, I’ll get at later) and hating the Duke Blue Devils. Here’s Darby on “the jarring and disproportionate level of homophobia that routinely gets directed at (Duke) players”:

[W]hile it’s obviously hard to quantify the assertion that Duke is the object of more homophobia than other teams, it’s also hard to think of any other squad in college hoops that has seen so many of its players singled out so prominently for gay bashing in recent years.

Why has this happened? The answer, I think, has something to do with race and class. Disparagers of Duke typically frame their opposition to the school, and its basketball team, in terms of anti-elitism: Duke, according to this view, is a private school plopped in the Carolina Piedmont, where it caters to wealthy, mostly white elites who have zero regard for the local community–in Will Blythe’s words, “those obnoxious students and that out-of-state arrogance.” That’s a defensible sentiment, as far as it goes, even a liberal one in many respects. But, in the world of sports, being white as well as wealthy often translates into a perceived softness.

Which, you know…yes, it does. But I think there are two things Darby’s missing in this article. One of them is corrected by her (UNC fan) TNR colleague Jason Zengerle in this blog post — his gist being that this isn’t so much homophobic sentiment, even if it does arrive in homophobic language, as it is just trash-talking situated in the current bro-lexicon. That the lexicon in question is homophobic — and just as often, if less publicly, racist, sexist, whatever — isn’t really hard to argue. I’d argue, too, that this stuff is easier to ignore because of how dumb it is and where it is — it’s on message boards, in comments sections, places that you don’t go to unless you want to see (or participate in, if that’s your thing) the very worst of the internet’s atomized, ignorant, radically selfish and dis-intellectualized discourse. If Greg Paulus is clicking through the comments on videos of himself getting dunked on, he’s probably going to get his feelings hurt. But why the hell would he do that? Why the hell would anyone?

The reason why would be my second issue — Christian Laettner shows up late in Darby’s piece, but he’s kind of the rosetta stone of this whole deal, I think. This was a guy who delighted in — practically invented, to my mind — the whole idea of Duke as the heel. Yeah, there are other things to dislike about the school, but Laettner — as this old Sports Illustrated piece about him (which Brendan Flynn found) illustrates — just delighted in fucking with people. A large part of that, for him, was not just running around like a fool after hitting game-winning shots but actively pretending to be gay with teammate and good friend Brian Davis…to fuck with just the sort of buttheads who didn’t have comments sections at the time, but to whom that would be the most irritating thing in the world.

Laettner’s basketball-player-as-Andy-Kauffman bit isn’t any cooler to me than Andy Kauffman’s, but it seems grounded in that taboo-flouting intentional irritation tactic. Duke hate objects since — the perpetually exultant Shane Battier, floor-slapping Greg Paulus, smirking J.J. Redick — are less avant-garde in their approach to being annoying, but seem to use the jeers and taunts as the same sort of motivational fuel that Laettner did, and seem often to go out of their way to invite them. So who knows, maybe Greg Paulus actually is reading those comments sections to get himself psyched. It’s not quite the same as walking across the Duke campus holding hands with Nolan Smith — something Laettner used to do at Duke with another guy, just to mess with people — but it’s a different world we live in now, I guess.