Why has the Duke lacrosse scandal remained such a hot story? We are well into June and the situation–which began in March when an African-American stripper first alleged that three white Duke players raped her at a team party–continues to make headlines and draw media attention.
The answer is simple: the Duke situation intrigues because it raises submerged questions of race, class disparity, campus cultural and sexual mores, and the workings of our criminal justice system. There's more, as well, as the story has also highlighted the sensationalizing role of the 24×7 media.
All told, it's a tale that calls out for an interpreter like Tom Wolfe (as I have written before), keenly sensitive to the social and cultural context, and the ironies, of the sordid episode.
This past week more holes appeared in District Attorney Mike Nifong's already shaky case. It turns out that the second stripper at the party had called the rape allegations "a crock"; defense lawyers for Reade Seligmann, one of the accused players, claim that Nifong's office omitted that statement in getting a judge to let them obtain photographs and DNA samples from team members. Then, a motion filed Friday by defense attorneys for Collin Finnerty, another of the accused Duke players, said the accuser went through at least six photo sessions with Durham police, trying to point out her attackers.
Nifong has gone silent on the case, so it is impossible to tell if there is "smoking gun" evidence against Seligmann, Finnerty and the third player, David Evans, that hasn't been revealed. Without any public rebuttal, the defense has done a masterful job of demolishing the prosecution case in the "court of public opinion." Some are asking whether Nifong's political ambition produced rushed indictments (in time for the local primary for District Attorney, which he won).
Meanwhile, Duke's President Richard Brodhead announced that he had decided to reinstate the Blue Devils lacrosse program for next season, albeit keeping it on a very tight leash.
There are five interesting aspects to this part of the story.
1. In his June 5th letter to the Duke community, Brodhead directly confronted the out-of-control Alpha male jock behavior of the lacrosse team, noting that "whether or not the felony charges are upheld against the three indicted students, the fact is that members of the team engaged in irresponsible and dishonorable behavior on the evening of March 13, and those who were involved bear responsibility for their actions." A Washington Post story on the parents of the Duke players recapped the unsavory details:
The party at the lacrosse house had been no cotillion. Besides the drinking and hiring of strippers, a player reportedly held up a broomstick when one of the dancers asked for a sex toy. There was the now-infamous comment a neighbor heard, "Hey bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt." And there was the e-mail, sent by a player after the party saying that "after tonights show," he planned on killing and skinning some strippers while sexually fulfilling himself in his Duke shorts.
The committee Brodhead asked to review the team's general behavior, chaired by law professor James E. Coleman, "documented a history of irresponsible conduct that this university cannot allow to continue." Brodhead somewhat overstated the committee's conclusions; it also found that team members "were 'academically and athletically responsible students,' but too many have been irresponsible in their use of alcohol and engaged in 'repetitive misconduct.'"
2. The new Duke lacrosse team standards, established as a condition for restarting the program, are quite strict: no gambling, underage drinking, disorderly conduct, etc. In contrast, the informal "48 hour rule" adopted by many Division 1 teams simply bars players drinking two days before a game. One irony is that the Duke lacrosse players will now be held to a much higher standard than Duke undergraduates at large.
3. Brodhead referred to the underlying cultural and social issues the incident had surfaced–what could be called "raunch culture,"–and promised that Duke would address them through a committee that will "clarify the standards of behavior that will be expected of all Duke students on and off-campus" and a Campus Culture Initiative that will look at more global issues.
One observer, Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone magazine, visited Duke and wrote a story that couldn't have pleased Brodhead or any other university administrator. Reitman's piece, entitled "Sex & Scandal at Duke: Lacrosse players, sorority girls and the booze-fueled culture of the never-ending hookup on the nation's most embattled college campus," paints a sorry portrait:
…But in talking to women at Duke, particularly those who know or run in the same social circles as the lacrosse team, I've begun to see the story as not a ''he said/she said'' tale, nor a story about sexual violence, but rather a story about sex itself. Not sex in its nitty-gritty, anatomical sense, but more in the collective sense: sex as a sport, as a way of life, as a source of constant self-scrutiny and self-analysis.
Reitman reports general support for the lacrosse team from the women she talked to, ("They are not overly concerned for the victim, who, many girls point out, was a stripper."), and also describes an environment where few are looking for "meaningful relationships."
The vagaries of sex on campus have created a specific ''hookup culture'' at Duke, one that Charlotte Simmons fans might quickly recognize. As one male student describes it, it ''exists in a whirlwind of drunkenness and horniness that lacks definition — which is what everyone likes about it [because] it's just an environment of craziness and you don't have to worry about it until the next morning.''
It's doubtful any committee, or Campus Culture Initiative, no matter how well meaning, will be able to address these issues. On American campuses it appears that the sexual Genie is out of the bottle and the accompanying emotionally detached couplings and objectification of women (including the fascination with strippers) is a reflection of cultural trends it may take a decade to reverse.
4. There are few university presidents in America who wouldn't concede that "there but for the grace of God, go I" when it comes to out-of-bounds student behavior, especially when alcohol, aggressive athletes and young women are involved. (Look at the allegations surrounding the football program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example).
It will be fascinating to see whether college administrators and athletic directors around the country follow Duke's example and adopt tough team standards. I'd bet that they will–if only for CYA purposes in the event of a scandal.
5. This story is not going away. While Nifong should move for an expedited trial (he has been saying the trial will not be held until spring 2007), he probably won't; it's unlikely that a judge will throw out the charges in the meantime. It appears that the defense team will continue to file motions that attack the prosecution's case, meaning that the Duke scandal will continue to turn up on Fox, CNN and MSNBC.
Duke as an institution will struggle until the case is concluded, one way or the other. Even if the players are found not guilty of the rape allegations, it may take years to undo the public relations damage.
That consideration does not take into account the human cost in this case. If the accuser is telling the truth, she has been through a horrific experience. If she is not, then three innocent men have been vilified. Either way, there are no winners.
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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