New book examines Duke lacrosse case, sexual assault at colleges

Friday May 16th, 2014

Former Durham (N.C) DA Mike Nifong was disbarred for his mishandling of the Duke lacrosse rape case.
Jenny Warburg

In the last six months, there have been charges of sexual assault against prominent athletes at Florida State, Michigan, Vanderbilt and now Oregon. Are you seeing the pattern? And that's not even the full list. Even as the White House addresses the crippling problem of sexual violence on campuses nationwide, college athletics is awash with sexual assault scandals. The charges keep reappearing, and each case produces delayed, cryptic responses from university administrations, leaving the public with no clarity or solutions, only cynicism and outrage.

All of this makes the release of William D. Cohan's book, The Price of Silence: Scandal, The Power of the Elite and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, even more timely. Cohan documents the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal, one of the most polarizing legal cases of the decade.

Though it occurred nearly a decade ago, the Duke scandal -- with its swirl of hot-button issues such as sex, sports, money, class and cover-up -- can still ignite furious public debates. Cohan's book rekindles the topic with a meticulously researched work that addresses a number of our nation's most troublesome and enduring societal issues. Of particular interest to sports fans: The fragile and often uncomfortable symbiosis between college academics and athletics. Published six years after the conclusion of a case that gripped and divided the nation, The Price of Silence explores the toxic fallout and long-term ramifications of the alleged rape that took place at a Duke off-campus party in March 2006.

TIME VIDEO: Investigating sexual assault in the Ivy League

The purported victim in the case was Crystal Gail Mangum, a black woman studying at North Carolina Central University and working as an exotic dancer. Mangum claimed that three Duke lacrosse players, Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty and David Evans, had forcibly assaulted then raped her in the bathroom of the North Buchannan Street residence where she and fellow dancer Kim Roberts were hired to perform. Further raising tensions was Roberts and Mangum's claim that unidentified attendees at the party baited them with racial insults (which were later corroborated by fellow attendees).

Once accusations surfaced, damage control was swift. Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler was dismissed and the remainder of the team's promising 2006 season was abruptly canceled. Durham district attorney Mike Nifong fed the media circus by calling the lacrosse team "hooligans" and memorably declaring, "I am not going to allow Durham's view in the minds of the world to be a bunch of lacrosse players at Duke raping a black girl from Durham." After a prolonged and contentious media frenzy that lasted more than a year, all three players were declared innocent before the case ever went to trial. Nifong, whose pursuit of the case helped him get elected as Durham's DA in '06, was disbarred for ethics violations.

Spolier alert: If readers are looking for a feel-good sports tale, Cohan's book will disappoint. There are no heroes or rooting interests, and no character is inspirational. Readable -- though often plodding -- this 600-page tome documents one of the more sordid chapters in college sports history. No one emerges untainted, and memories of the wreckage are still fresh. Cohan's work doesn't offer much new evidence and the book has been derided by many for its seeming vindication of Nifong and Magnum. Yet, to judge this book based on the guilt or innocence of individuals is to miss the broader point. How did a single legal (and moral) crisis manage to encompass so many deep-seated societal divisions (racial animus, sexual assault, campus party culture)? Why was an athletic scandal at the center of the controversy? Any college sports fan should examine the case to further understand the tenuous relationship between a university and its athletic department.

One of the violations that led to Nifong's dismissal -- and the resignations of Durham police officers Ben Himan and Mark Gottlieb -- was the lineup of suspects originally shown to Mangum. Instead of presenting a random sampling of faces, Nifong showed Mangum 45 photos of individuals comprising the entire Duke lacrosse team except for its lone African-American player. This type of shoddy, irresponsible police work is difficult to believe, but the "lineup" exemplifies a more pertinent issue regarding the perception of college athletics.

To judge this book based on the guilt or innocence of individuals is to miss the broader point. How did a single legal (and moral) crisis manage to encompass so many deep-seated societal divisions?Why was an athletic scandal at the center of the controversy?

Duke lacrosse was a monolithic unit -- a mostly white, mostly privileged group (which many professors and opponents used as ammunition against the players when the allegations surfaced). While the group boasted excellent graduation rates and routinely sent players to top Wall Street firms, it also had the lesser distinction of racking up a significant number of alcohol infractions on campus.

Faculty hostility was further fueled by the lacrosse team's celebrity status on campus. While lacrosse is popular throughout the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic, it remains a fringe sport nationally steeped more in tradition than marketability. The average Duke lacrosse player doesn't fit the public's perception of the prototypical college athlete, yet Duke's players enjoyed an elevated status on campus by contending for national titles in a regionally popular game. In order to field a championship-caliber roster with more than 40 players, some academic concessions had to be made.

Many members of the faculty saw the lacrosse players as a boorish, anti-intellectual group who diluted the academic campus culture and used their networks and privilege to skate into financially lucrative jobs. Duke brands itself as an elite academic institution capable of maintaining top-flight sports programs, a position of pride for many, but not for certain professors.

That attitude helped spawn the Group of 88, all Duke professors, who signed a stinging open letter publicly implicating the players (many of the signatories would eventually recant or attempt to clarify their reasoning for participating). The allegations created an opportunity to vocally protest the inflation of university athletics, campus racial troubles and the debauchery associated with party culture. The focus wasn't on the three attackers, it was on Duke lacrosse: Root out these white males who hire strippers for parties, hurl racial epithets and routinely skip classes. It was a stark, vitriolic and sweeping indictment not only of the team, but also of the entire culture surrounding college athletics.

Their arguments weren't (all) unfounded, but as Cohan suggests, the faculty chose the wrong case to prejudge. The Group of 88 letter helped contribute to three phony indictments and a national media maelstrom. By latching on to Nifong's "hooligan" narrative, the group embarrassed the campus community, even as it confronted legitimate questions plaguing the university. This could have been a noble pursuit had there been any shred of evidence.

College athletics owes much of its enduring aura to its ability to mobilize large swaths of fans, whether students, faculty, alumni or community members. We are! Penn State! Rock Chalk Jayhawk! Boomer! Sooner! It's a small but critical contributing factor in creating the robust market demand that fuels a multi-billion dollar industry. Lacrosse doesn't generate a large market share of either enthusiasm or revenue, but it is an integral part of Duke's athletic identity.

When scandal -- academic or criminal -- touches prominent athletic programs, that sense of university identity often splits into warring factions. Recent history tells us that athletics may not win every time, but they are a formidable opponent. The Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal revealed that Joe Paterno wielded substantially more power and public influence than the university president. Most recently, The New York Times published a stinging exposé of Florida State's tepid investigation of the rape allegations against Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. Cohan argues that Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, not Richard Brodhead, is the de facto "president" of Duke.

Academic fraud and sexual assault problems, highlighted recently by the issuing of a White House task force, are not limited to college athletic departments. But when scandal strikes, college athletics become a convenient scapegoat because of the money involved. The Winston case proved that a football-crazed town can intimidate a police department into inaction. The Group of 88 and the initial public response to the case proved that knee-jerk reactions are just as damaging.

By scrupulously detailing this sordid story (often to the book's detriment), Cohan focuses on the case and addresses broader questions about its implications. Unsavory as the facts are, The Price of Silence reminds us that the relationship between the university and athletics goes beyond big television contracts, payment of players and academic standards. It questions how, and if, the two can properly coexist.

DOHRMANN: Details in Michigan rape case leave many unanswered questions

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