Christian Laettner, Monica Lewinsky and America’s Hero Problem

By Heather Wilhelm Published on March 27, 2015

Recently, two controversial public figures from the 1990s reappeared on the American stage. One, a relentless winner, was reviled for his prestigious school, fabulous hair, and cocky attitude on the basketball court; the other was widely mocked for fellating a married President, refusing to dry clean a certain blue dress, and, yes, wearing a beret.

Christian Laettner and Monica Lewinsky might not have much in common. Yet, here they are in 2015, elbowing their way back into the national consciousness. In mid-March, just in time for the wildly popular NCAA tournament, ESPN films released I Hate Christian Laettner, a documentary exploring the Duke star’s “polarizing persona” and revealing “the complete story behind this lightning rod of college basketball.” Last week, meanwhile, Ms. Lewinsky made headlines with her very own TED talk, “The Price of Shame,” dedicated to fighting “cyber-bullying” and other callous public humiliations.

The reactions to each say a lot about modern American culture, as well as our choice of heroes. We’ll start with Laettner, who, perhaps symbolically, faced down a shark on a fishing show this week. (I probably don’t need to add this, but Laettner won.)

From 1988-1992, Laettner starred on a powerhouse Duke basketball team that won two national championships and made four consecutive Final Fours. Duke is a team that people love to hate; it’s a fancy school that wins a lot. “If there is a Blue Devil loathed above all others,” Reeves Wiedeman wrote in the New Yorker last week, “it is Christian Laettner.” In the 1990s, Laettner-hating practically became a sport of its own, with official t-shirts and all. He’s almost as divisive today.1basketball

A small part of this animosity was earned: In a legendary game against Kentucky, Laettner “stomped ”— personally, I’d argue it was more of a “foot bump”—on the chest of Aminu Timberlake, in response to a perceived push earlier in the game. (Laettner was indeed pushed, it turns out, but by forward Deron Feldhaus, not Timberlake.)

But much of the widespread Laettner hate was, as ESPN’s documentary shows, a social construct. “Laettner might have looked the part of prepster—floppy hair, an aura of invincibility—but he grew up in a middle-class family outside Buffalo,” Weideman notes. “He personified what everyone thought they hated about Duke” — entitlement and privilege, to name two — “even if he didn’t actually embody it.”

Does it sound like I’m defending Laettner? That’s probably because I am. Not the foot bump, of course; that was a dumb move, and Laettner apologized for it earlier this month. But I’ll go ahead and say it: I like Christian Laettner. I like Duke basketball. I even have a soft spot for those ever-present winners, the Yankees, who first intrigued me in the 1980’s with the debut of Don Mattingly’s glorious and bewitching mustache. (Before you start to hate me, too, please note that I also like the Chicago Cubs. This is the year, guys!)

In short, despite the hate, Laettner wasn’t handed anything outside of his talent. (And, OK, his looks.) He was excellent at what he did; he embraced winning and didn’t apologize for that. With that said, let’s move on to Ms. Lewinsky.

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk is worth watching, if also traumatizing. If you don’t feel bad for “that woman,” now 41, you might have a heart of coal dust. Clearly, her life has been a train wreck. For seventeen years, she has been raked over the media coals: “I was Patient Zero,” she says, “of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.” Her calls for empathy and against public cruelty, the centerpieces of her public rebranding, are certainly not objectionable.

Or are they? In certain circles, Lewinsky has emerged as a “feminist” heroine, making a convenient fit into the movement’s modern ideology. Upon Lewinsky’s public re-emergence, the New York Times noted last week, “feminists who had stayed silent on the first go-round were suddenly defending her, using terms like ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘media gender bias’ to do it.” Last month, Lewinsky appeared at SLUT, a feminist play about a victim of sexual assault, where she thanked the audience for “standing up against the sexual scapegoating of women and girls.”

It makes one wonder: Does Lewinsky believe she was “scapegoated?” Is she poised to become a walking embodiment of the modern feminist tenet that if you’re a woman, you can do no sexual wrong — and that you’re almost always a victim? In Lewinsky’s TED talk, she expresses regret for her “mistake.” Yet, moments later, she asks the audience this: “Can I see a show of hands of anyone who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?”

Well, geez. A lot of people make mistakes at 22 — visiting tanning booths, investing tens of thousands of dollars in meaningless graduate degrees, thinking it’s a good idea to set up a Slip N’ Slide at a party on a steep hill with a hidden pile of gravel at the end — but most of us did not conduct a blatant affair with a married man who was also the president of the United States. Doesn’t it seem like this is a bit of a dodge? A lack of proportion? Apparently not: At TED, Monica earned a standing ovation.

Certainly, Monica Lewinsky deserves the chance to move on with her life. She also deserves empathy. But, beyond that, what does it say about our culture that, in certain circles, Lewinsky is now elevated to a mythical “victim” status, a prototype of “slut-shaming,” and potentially even a new feminist champion?

Please forgive me if, in the battle of 1990s icons, I choose Team Laettner. In an age of increasing whining, claims of traumatizing “triggers,” and a growing embrace of victimhood, there’s something refreshing about fully-owned excellence and unapologetic winning. Haters, bring it on.


Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. This article originally appeared at

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