The Lingering Effects of the Duke Lacrosse Case

R. B. ParrishContributor IMay 11, 2010

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 23:  Jordan Hall playing for East passes the ball 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

Before the attempted frame-up of innocent lacrosse players in Durham, lacrosse had a good reputation. It may have been seen as an elite sport (or, more truly, a regionally delineated sport); but it was also seen as honest, fun, exciting, and one of the few “sports” remaining which still concerned itself with “sportsmanship”. 

Then came the lies and the false accusations, and a university which was more concerned with the immediate PR fallout than with standing behind its falsely-accused students. And since it fit the convenient narrative which was being constructed, lacrosse was also lambasted.

In Durham, three lacrosse players (curiously, from the wealthiest families on the team) were accused of gang raping a stripper (who had a history of making false charges about gang-rape and other assaults). The entire lacrosse team was cleared of the charges by DNA testing two weeks before anyone was arrested.

But that was not the desired outcome.

The case divided immediately into “us” vs. “them”: rich vs. poor; male vs. female; black vs. white; student vs. townie; athlete vs. scholar. So many activists sought to use the charges to campaign for their own niche agendas that the case became one of those which was “too important for innocence to be allowed as a defense."

Duke university raced to condemn its own students. Fearful of community backlash and anxious to avoid accusations that it was using its gorilla-like presence in Durham to protect its “outsider rich kids," it took the opposite course and publicly pilloried them—and with them, their sport.

The more they were portrayed as out-of-control louts, the quicker they might fold under the pressure and the story (and the bad PR) be gotten off the front pages.  Duke also had a half-billion dollar construction project—the future of the university—needing approval from the city.

(In a town like Durham, where preachers were saying that God struck CBS reporter Ed Bradley dead because his 60 Minutes program—the same program which later won a Peabody Award for its journalistic integrity—suggested the players were innocent; and where militant leaders and gangs were making threats of drive-bys and other kinds of “justice," Duke also clearly feared any incidents that would nationally paint the campus as unsafe.)

Those who might have spoken up for the truth chose either to remain silent or run for cover. Coach K, perhaps the only figure of sufficient stature capable of single-handedly reversing the tide, was nowhere to be seen. Sports writers must have interpreted his silence as indicating that he thought the players were guilty. (Surely he would have found some way to indicate his disagreement, if he had one?). His own team hired strippers shortly before the lacrosse team—yet his season was not canceled and he was not fired.

Had he not a public word for coach Pressler?

It is alleged in the current civil suits against the university that the Chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees, Robert K. Steel, instructed the faculty to harass the lacrosse team and ordered university police to falsify their records and lie in support of Nifong’s charges. It might not be fair, but, “sometimes good people have to suffer for the good of the organization,” as he is alleged to have explained.

President Brodhead of Duke also took to the fore, denouncing the players even if they were not guilty of the rape, because “what they did was bad enough." This mantra was repeated all over town: Duke was washing its hands of those players, and letting all the community see it.

Even the mayor half-apologized (but no more), by saying that he acted as he did "to keep tensions in check." (It seems everyone in Durham was reading from the Pontius Pilate playbook).

The media had a field day; what better tabloid story is there than the twisted lives of the rich and famous, and their sport of choice (insert here polo, or tennis, or—in this instance—lacrosse). “Raunchy," “strutting,” “rowdiness," “entitled," and “thugs” were all words used by Newsweek in describing the lacrosse team. Other news outlets were worse.

No mention was made of the team’s high academic status; its mentoring of inner-city youth in both reading and sports programs; its support for Katrina relief. For most of the general public, their first in-depth introduction to lacrosse were the reports in the media about the Duke case.

Full disclosure of the truth has been stalled. The present civil suits—designed to force that truth to the surface—have been endlessly delayed. First there was Nifong’s declaration of bankruptcy. He had (and has) no civil judgments against him, but he claimed debts of $180 million (in the event that he lost his civil case).

The promise of future debts has never before, to my knowledge, been included in a bankruptcy proceeding; but his separate case was permitted to crawl its way through the courts for a year, effectively stalling all other progress. 

It is now more than 1,000 days since the initial civil suits were filed, begging for testimony to be taken under oath. And as of this writing, the judge has yet to decide even if the suits will be allowed to continue. No testimony has been taken, no truths uncovered (or not).

The years pass on, memories fade, a witness has committed suicide—but Justice, which couldn’t wait to implicate the lacrosse players in the most heinous of crimes (“First the verdict, then the trial!”), now can’t seem to find the time to give them their reputations back. And along with them, that of a sport which was convicted with them.

The lies told in Durham are continuing to damage innocent persons; this is evident in the converge of the Virginia incident, in which lacrosse is prominently featured; and in which, in my not-so-humble opining, it would have featured only as a curiosity were it not for the previous slanders in North Carolina.

It’s time—past time—to end the cover-up of what took place in Durham and get full explanations for how falsely accused persons, whose innocence was proven even before their arrests, could be prosecuted for year on no evidence. (“This is America, not Spain!," as Cromwell might have put it).

When the players were first accused, demonstrators paraded outside their house carrying signs, “Time to confess!" It’s also past time for Duke University to confess. Confession is said to be good for the soul. It would also help restore the reputations of innocent people, as well as an innocent sport.