Slaying The Lacrosse Monster

R. B. ParrishContributor IMay 5, 2010

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 23:  Jacob Egan playing for East shoots for goal during the National Lacrosse League All Star Series at Hisense Arena on October 23, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

     As we all know,  lacrosse payers are uniformly oversized brutes, usually from privileged backgrounds of wealth and power, callous in their disregard for lesser beings, and certain that their rich daddies will buy them out of any trouble.

     If we didn’t realize that we soon would, once we started following the general press accounts.

     This distorted image has yet to be rectified; but lies piled up over time accumulate in layers, as Solzhenitsyn noted, and harden like sediment on the sea floor; and any fresh disturbance  can stir them up again and muddy the waters afresh. 

     Back in 2006 the media first seized on lacrosse as “the sport of thugs”, following blatantly false accusations made against members of the Duke lacrosse team by a serial accuser (she had made claims of have been gang raped before). The entire team was cleared by DNA testing two weeks before anyone was arrested, but no matter--a good story was a good story; good enough for a rogue prosecutor to ride it out for the next year and an election win and for the media to slander a team and a sport as part of the fun.

     For seasoning the media stampeded after one of the Duke accused, Collin Finnerty, when he was placed on trial on a curious charge of assault, in Washington, D.C. Finnerty had tried to act as a peacemaker, stepping between a friend and another person who were quarrelling; but for his efforts was himself struck from behind and knocked down. When he got up, he (perhaps not unnaturally) shouted a few epithets and waved his fists at his assailant in a threatening manner (but did not actually strike him).

     This was the stuff of which a prosecutor dreams. Nifong, the prosecutor in Durham, had already arrested the police chief’s daughter there (the chief suddenly disappeared from the biggest case in his department’s  history, and was gone for months); a major defense witness (the cabbie Elmostafa, who was later awarded a Readers Digest hero of the year award for withstanding Nifong’s pressure to lie for him); the Duke accuser’s ex-husband, boyfriend, and another friend--all of whom were jailed, with the disposition of their cases in Nifong’s hands; threatened the entire lacrosse team with being charged as accomplices to rape; threatened another player that unless he ’cooperated’, an email he had written as a spoof of “American Psycho” would be released to the public as if genuine (he wouldn’t, and it was); and convicted a player on a noise violation (with the help of a hand-picked judge), after another player cited in the same incident had his case thrown out of court by a different judge as a waste of time. 

     And now he must have thought he had a gift from the gods.

     Justice, as the Greek philosopher Thraysmachus bewailed, is sometimes simply the advantage of the stronger.

     For the Finnerty trial, seventeen federal attorneys and staff were assembled. (By way of comparison, the OJ prosecution generally ran well enough with about 13 prosecutors and staff, in a much more complex and lengthy case).  The chief defense witness--an employee of a nearby eatery--was not permitted to testify and was ordered to step down from the stand. Police, who are trained to put down everything in their notes, including squiggles to represent the facial quirks and tone of voice a witness uses while talking, suddenly  “remembered” things about that incident which were not in their notes. The asserted “victims” of the assault changed their initial stories. And so Finnerty was convicted;  given a suspended sentence; 6 months’ probation; 6 months’ banning from Georgetown; a fine; alcohol classes; and ordered to be at work or at school (although Duke had cut him as a student). Then with an appropriately powerful jolt from reporting columnists, the lacrosse Frankenstein was given life--lacrosse players were said to be on the prowl in DC, spending their spare time cruising for targets to bash.

     After the Durham charges were dismissed, and it was bandied about that perhaps the “victims” in the case ought to be charged with perjury, the Justice Department added their names to a list of witnesses who were being commended for having stepped forward to testify about difficult cases. Thus, they were included with those who had braved mob and gang violence  and other threats of physical harm; this was, in the jaundiced opinion of some observers, a way for the Dept. to indicate to them that it was still watching their backs.

     Thereafter Finnerty was hounded by the judge with constant threats of being jailed for minor and even non-existent infractions of his probation (such as being absent--albeit with the court’s permission--from his home, in order to be in Durham preparing for his defense in the lacrosse case). Again it was the impression of some observers that had he agreed to “cooperate” with Nifong, the threat of being incarcerated would have been miraculously lifted.

     (In 2000 in Georgetown a drunken student landed a punch on another student, David Shick, and Shick hit his head on the pavement and subsequently died. The police declined to prosecute and the puncher ended up with only having to write a ten page paper about the incident for Georgetown. Acceptably, though, he was not a lacrosse player.)

     Now that a tragedy has unfolded in Virginia, we will undoubtedly be hearing once again about the brutish nature of a phenomenal sport. The sediments will be stirred up and the waters muddied. But all of it began with lie (several lies, really); ambition; cowardice on the part of university administrators fearful for their PR; and a lapdog press which never seemed to bestir itself to seek out the real facts.  Maybe, for once, it’s time to drain the pool, turn on the zappy vac, and get back to where we can see clearly all the way down to the bottom.