June 1, 2006
DURHAM -- The Duke lacrosse case continues to hover like a dark cloud over the school's campus, a dark cloud that won't be going away anytime soon.
Duke, a school that long has prided itself for doing things "the right way" (basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski first uttered that phrase publicly in this context at the 1986 Final Four), has become the national symbol for out-of-control college athletes. Worse -- for out-of-control, rich, privileged, white athletes.
Amazingly, this body blow to the school's image was delivered by the men's lacrosse team, a sport so obscure that its matches rarely rate coverage in even the local newspapers.
But since a wild party on the night of March 13 that resulted in rape charges by a 27-year-old exotic dancer exploded into the news, Duke lacrosse has become a frequent topic for such diverse television personalities as Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, Dan Abrams (a Duke grad), Tucker Carlson, Chris Matthews and even Larry King. It's been the subject of a Newsweek cover story and of major articles in Time, the Washington Post, the New York Times and almost every other major newspaper in the country.
Duke lacrosse has received more attention outside the sports world than Krzyzewski's basketball program has even dreamed of getting for its success, and that includes all of the coach's American Express and Chevy commercials.
Three lacrosse players have been charged in the alleged rape. The case already has been tried by many in the media, albeit with mixed results. CNN's Nancy Grace has convicted the Duke players. MSNBC's Tucker Carlson not only has acquitted them, he also has called for charges to be brought against Durham prosecutor Mike Nifong for misconduct. Most reasonable people will wait for the trial, tentatively scheduled for next spring (2007), before judging the guilt or innocence of the accused.
That means that dark cloud is likely to remain above the Duke campus for another year, if not longer. And while the ultimate outcome of the case is vital to the people involved, the larger question is how the scandal will impact the school's athletic program. The men's lacrosse team, a national contender that spent much of the pre-party season ranked No. 1 nationally, is dead for the foreseeable future, but will that fate extend to the school's more visible sports?
During a recent meeting of a Duke athletic fundraising group, one donor raised the specter of Maryland athletics in the aftermath of Len Bias' tragic cocaine death in 1986. The publicity that ensued -- and the school's reaction (some would say over-reaction) to that publicity -- set the Maryland athletic program back a decade.
The contrasts between the Terps' two revenue sports, in the years before and after Bias' death, are striking. Just before Bias died, Maryland basketball had averaged 20.2 wins per season and had reached the NCAA Tournament in six of seven years. The controversy surrounding the case cost coach Lefty Driesell his job and led to a seven-year drought that saw the Terps average 14.1 wins per season and miss the NCAA in six of seven years. Football also suffered, as fundraising dwindled and the school enforced some draconian internal policies. Maryland football averaged 7.5 wins per season in the decade before Bias' death, then just 4.0 in the decade after.
A similar process haunted N.C. State's major sports in the decade immediately after basketball coach Jim Valvano was forced out in 1990, after well-publicized issues were raised about academic and oversight issues. Basketball suffered worse, enduring 10 straight seasons without an NCAA bid. But football, strapped by fundraising difficulties and some temporarily restrictive academic standards, also suffered, especially after the unexpected retirement of Valvano's friend Dick Sheridan.
Will something similar haunt Duke?
Krzyzewski's program appears to have the stature to weather the storm, provided the school doesn't do something drastic internally. His program has -- on balance -- enjoyed a run of good news since suffering an upset loss to LSU in the Sweet 16 on March 24 (11 days after the infamous lacrosse party). True, little-used (but promising) freshman center Eric Boateng transferred to Arizona State. But that was more than offset by the decision by freshman standout Josh McRoberts to turn down the NBA, and by the late decision (just as the lacrosse news reached a crescendo) by New Jersey prep All-American forward Lance Thomas to sign with the Blue Devils.
The decision by Thomas was significant in that the African-American standout ignored the well-publicized charges of racism underlying the lacrosse case and the frequent characterizations of Duke as a haven for elite, privileged white students.
KRZYZEWSKI'S SILENCE STANDS OUT
Still, it will take more than one recruit to determine the long-term impact of the scandal. And while Krzyzewski's program might be strong enough to withstand the school's new negative image in the national media, what is it going to do to Ted Roof's efforts to raise Duke football out of the muck? His recruiting has been surprisingly strong over the last two years, but will the lacrosse scandal haunt him when he next walks into the living room of an African-American prospect?
A lot may depend on how the Duke administration ultimately responds to the crisis. University president Richard Brodhead ordered a number of studies into the underlying causes of the situation and Duke's response to it. The school's student newspaper called for the ouster of athletic director Joe Alleva, who was handpicked by Krzyzewski to replace the respected Tom Butters.
Surprisingly, Krzyzewski has remained silent on the lacrosse crisis. Actually, the Duke administration has asked all of its coaches to avoid comment on the case, allowing Brodhead and his official spokesman to speak for the school. As the case percolated during the women's Final Four in Boston, not only did coach Gail Goestenkors avoid commenting on the case, but reporters were asked not to question the players about it. At Duke's spring football game, Roof declined to comment when he was asked if the scandal would impact his program.
But while Krzyzewski's silence is in line with the rest of Duke's coaching fraternity, he's not just another coach at Duke. He's been the spokesman for the school and the athletic program and often for college basketball as a whole. Coach K is the school's biggest celebrity and could be a powerful weapon to use in the on-going publicity war.
Right now, it is a war Duke is losing. The administration has been hammered by both sides for its response to the scandal. Critics claim that the athletic department responded too slowly to the crisis (Duke actually played two matches after the party) and then didn't act strongly enough. The school suspended and ultimately canceled the season, but allowed the accused players to remain in school until three actually were charged. On the other hand, defenders of the players claimed that the school violated the principal of "innocent until proven guilty" by shutting down the team and accepting (forcing?) the resignation of veteran coach Mike Pressler before anybody's guilt was proven.
But while it's fair to raise questions about Duke's laggardly response to the crisis, the administration is not guilty of prejudging the case. The actions taken against the team and against Pressler were appropriate responses to what we know happened -- a long pattern of underage drinking and rowdy behavior by the lacrosse team.
Coaches constantly remind their players that they represent the university and warn their players not to put themselves into positions where they may embarrass themselves, their team and their school. Two decades ago, State's Sheridan suspended Naz Worthen, his best receiver at the time, for an entire season essentially for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reportedly, on a bus ride back to campus just 24 hours before the infamous party, Pressler had warned his players not to do anything stupid over spring break.
Whether or not a rape occurred that next night, the Duke lacrosse team did do something stupid -- something that embarrassed the school, the Duke lacrosse program and themselves. For that, the program was shut down, and Pressler lost his job.
It remains to be seen how long the thoughtless behavior will cloud the image of Duke and Duke athletics.