Picture this: you’re a basketball player about to inbound the ball from the sideline. All around you, there are crazed, blue-clad fans yelling, screaming, and trying to reach out and touch you.
Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, a tinderbox of an arena for a program of the Blue Devils’ magnitude, is one of the toughest places to play in all of sports. The student section known as the “Cameron Crazies” is right on top of the action and is merciless no matter the opponent.
It was this atmosphere that the 2016-17 iteration of the Marist Red Foxes stumbled into for the opening game of the season.
The Red Foxes were coming off consecutive seven-win seasons. Duke’s last two seasons had resulted in a national championship win and a Sweet 16 appearance. The Blue Devils’ roster featured names like Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, and Grayson Allen.
Marist didn’t have any of those guys.
Duke, who opened the season with the number-one ranking, destroyed Marist with the game finishing in a palindromic 94-49 win for the Blue Devils.
Though the result was nowhere near ideal, it was the least significant thing to come out of that game. Even though Duke won by 45 points, it was Marist that made the more impactful statement that November night.
This game was not supposed to happen. Marist was scheduled to begin its season at Penn State and Duke was supposed to host the University of Albany. The games were both part of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.
It seemed pretty simple. Marist had the game in place well before the start of the 2016-17 season. But, things were about to get a bit more complicated.
In the middle of the summer of 2016, Marist athletic director Tim Murray got a phone call from tournament director Greg Porcino. Albany had pulled out of the game with Duke because of the controversial HB-2 law passed in North Carolina. Would Marist take its place?
Most people remember HB-2 as the “Bathroom Bill” but its real name was the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The bill amended state law to preempt any anti-discrimination ordinances passed by local communities and, controversially, compelled schools and state and local government facilities containing single-gender bathrooms to only allow people of the corresponding sex as listed on their birth certificate to use them.
As a private school, Marist wasn’t in the same position in Albany. It could play the game if it wanted.
That was the question. Did the Marist administration want to say yes to playing a game in a state where homophobic legislation was in place?
“I get the call and it’s not like we’re overly excited to play the game,” said Tim Murray, Marist’s director of athletics. “We didn’t commit right away. I remember reaching out to Mike Maker (the coach at the time) who was out on the road recruiting to see what he thought.”
The decision ultimately came from higher up the ladder. David Yellen was Marist’s president at the time and allowed the game to go forward.
“Yellen was such a quick study,” Murray said. “He didn’t deliberate very long on a decision. I thought he would. We framed it for him and he listened to what he had to say. He says, ‘I’d like to play Duke. I think it’d be good for our kids to go to Duke.’ Then, it was Geoff Brackett who talked about turning it more into an educational experience.”
Marist waited until Aug. 16 to announce the game, unveiling it as part of men’s basketball’s non-conference schedule. As you can imagine, it raised some eyebrows.
“One of the things that I certainly remember was the mail that I got from alumni,” said Brandon Heard, who served as president of Marist’s student government for the 2016-17 school year. “E-mails, physical mail I got from all sides you can think of from those that are part of the LGBTQ community who were advocating for Marist to not attend and those that were not LGBTQ who were advocating for the opportunity for the players.”
Michael Brosseau ‘14 was an alumnus who wrote an open letter to Yellen to make his voice heard. Here are a few excerpts from the letter.
“Your decision to allow our Men’s Basketball program to travel to North Carolina despite the current presence of House Bill 2 is incredibly disheartening to a community of people that embraced not just me as an openly gay man, but fellow classmates, faculty, staff, student-athletes, donors and more. HB2, as it is referred, is a law that essentially mandates that transgender people must use the bathroom corresponding with the birth gender in government buildings and publicly funded schools. Additionally, this law bans state municipalities from enacting anti-discrimination policies impacting LGBT residents.
“By approving this athletic event, Marist College is failing to live up to both its Mission and Values Statement, which calls for intellect and character in its students, and the fulfillment of three ideals: excellence in education, a sense of community, and a commitment to service. These come from the founders of the College, the Marist Brothers. As President, I ask that you reconsider the decision to allow our Men’s Basketball Program to travel to North Carolina and Duke University, or risk an indelible stain on the proud tradition of Marist College.“
Brosseau and many other alumni were upset with the decision, but Yellen and Marist were not going to change their collective mind. The game was on.
There are other smaller Division I schools that regularly schedule games against much bigger teams in exchange for a loss and a big paycheck. At Marist, the past few coaches have been very careful about who they played, usually sticking to teams of a similar caliber.
In other words, the Marist players were unlikely to see an opportunity like this one come their way again.
“From my perspective, it was like, you know, giving the kids an opportunity to play Duke was awesome,” Murray said. “So from the player’s perspective, I felt really good about it, because we talked to the kids who were here working camps and stuff. I asked them what they would think about playing Duke in Cameron. They said, ‘oh, yeah, let’s play at Cameron.’”
Now that Marist was locked into playing at Duke, efforts began to make the best of a not-ideal situation.
“I remember thinking ‘how do we make this opportunity to make it a win-win?’” Heard said. “And so that was sort of our rationale behind our perspective on the situation, right? I always say like everything in life is a negotiation and sometimes that means compromising in areas where you may not want to compromise.”
It started with Marist SGA reaching out to Duke’s student government. Heard and a few other members of SGA were able to make the trip to Durham and held a meeting with Blue Devils United, Duke’s undergraduate organization for LGBTQ+ affairs.
The sides had a meaningful conversation and produced a video documenting the experience.
There was also an effort to set up a watch party for students in the Cabaret Lounge. The viewing party included brochures on every seat and the distribution of rainbow-colored wristbands to spread awareness of the context of the game.
“The idea was that we would use that as a touch point to educate the students on what’s going on and what we could do to kind of drive the conversation forward,” Heard said. “And so students, whether they were part of the LGBTQ community or not, were able to attend.”
“I think the students really were the driving force behind a lot of things,” added director of student-athlete enhancement Alyssa Gates. “That happened, and they really had the strongest voices, as they should situations.”
Then, there were the socks.
“We looked at the policies and rules that were associated with sort of wearing your image like a badge on the court,” Heard said. “And we weren’t allowed to do much because the uniforms are heavily regulated in that regard. What we were able to do were customized socks that displayed our allied ship towards the LGBTQ community. And so players were given an opportunity to wear those socks during the game.”
It’s pretty easy to find rainbow socks today, but in 2016 they proved elusive. In the end, the team’s director of operations pulled together a tie-dying effort that did the trick.
It was important that wearing the socks wasn’t the action of several individuals.
“I remember going to the team and getting in front of them and I had spoken to several players, one-on-one,” Gates said. “I had spoken to the coaching staff at the time. And their decision was we’re only doing this if the entire team is on board.”
The team needed to understand that it wasn’t just them playing against Duke.
“This wasn’t about them,” Gates said. “It was about a bigger issue. And it was something happening, not just in that game. This was happening, not just in the state of North Carolina. This was something that other states and areas were considering.”
So the team played the game, garnering national attention. Several outlets, including ESPN, picked up the story.
The players and coaches went back to campus and debriefed on the issue. Men’s basketball is a hyper-masculine sport. In some circles, wearing the rainbow socks could have been perceived as the players themselves coming out as gay or bisexual. To their credit, the team put any fears aside.
“One of the things that I always would say to them and anyone who kind of expresses that fear and insecurity is, ‘imagine what someone in the LGBTQ population has to go through all the time,’” Gates said. “Talk about fear, insecurity, not being able to be yourself, talk about being worried about what other people may think about you or how you’re treated every single day.
“So you put on those socks, and you went out there and you play the game. And if you were worried about it for a little while, it dissipated as soon as you realize you’re playing.”
While it was a successful experience, Gates saw it as one of the very first steps Marist and the athletic department could take toward becoming a more inclusive place. It is clear that there is still more work to do.
“I don’t think that this is a place where a lot of our LGBTQ students feel safe to be themselves,” she said. “I think the presence generally for students have been better with some of the support from Fox Pride. But in athletics, we really haven’t kind of ever taken off in that area with regard to students being open and out.
To go or not to go.
That was the question. For some people, the answer was a clear no, and for others, it was an obvious yes. The truth is that the situation was a lot more complex than that. It’s true that by going, Marist drew the ire of the perpetually underrepresented LGBTQ+ population on campus.
It’s also true that for the athletes on the team, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play on one of the biggest stages in college basketball. Without this chance, the team and other members of the community would not have had a chance to raise awareness and spread a message of inclusion.
“I thought gosh, going back to Duke, it’s like, what is this message say like, if we go and do this, it doesn’t mean those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” Gates said. “Maybe there’s something bigger that can come out of this.”
Marist still has a ways to go on the issue of diversity and inclusion. Stories like this should inspire hope and confidence that people from marginalized communities can make their voices heard.
Edited by Ricardo Martinez and Isabella Cicinelli
Photos from Andy Mead