Just sports: Duke does right thing amidst scandal: The Cheap Seats

By Joe Katz

At long last, we’ve seen the light. Everyone understands that what happened on March 13 at 610 North Buchanan Boulevard in Durham is not a sports story.

It could have been, of course. We’ve seen it happen too many times. It happened when allegations of rape, sexual assault, and widespread recruiting misdeeds threatened to tear apart the University of Colorado football program. It happened when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant went through pre-trial hearings for his rape case as he attempted to carry his team to yet another NBA championship. We’re seeing it right now as Barry Bonds grinds toward the all-time home run record while simultaneously being investigated for steroid use. The pattern is always the same. The chaos begins with a stomach-churning allegation, grows with the emergence of legitimate proof, and explodes as the media catches the scent. Then, finally, the inevitable: the story stops being about the victims and starts being about how the mayhem will affect the playoff picture in the Western Conference.

This time, it’s different. In response to allegations of rape levied at three as-yet-unidentified members of the Duke lacrosse team, university President Richard Brodhead decided to cancel the remainder of their competitive schedule. Coverage of the accusation has subsequently been almost exclusively from a hard news perspective. The focus has been on questions of guilt or innocence and on the deeper roots of the alleged incident rather than on how the case will play into the squad’s drive for a return trip to the national title game.

The season is over. The coach is searching the classifieds. The lights are dark, and the stands are empty. Where fans once spoke of great saves and bad calls, they now muse on DNA evidence and demagogue district attorneys.

Thank goodness.

We shouldn’t have to celebrate the fact that truth is being given preeminence over wins and losses. But fans everywhere know that this is not how these morality tales typically pan out. When a sports figure is accused of violations of law and common decency that would land any average Joe in lockup, they are invariably allowed to quite literally play through it. Witness the experience of Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis after being busted for trying to set up a drug deal. Although he was suspended by the NFL, Lewis only missed two games and was able to arrange his four-month prison sentence so as not to miss any of the next season. He was also granted a request to delay his surrender to authorities to give him time to get a cast removed from his surgically-repaired foot.

Just to be clear, that’s how a young black man arrested for attempting to purchase cocaine is usually treated by the authorities.

Lewis was the beneficiary of multiple heartstring-tugging features in the media, and seemed to win the sympathy of the sports world for doing hard time for such a “meager crime.” While the specifics of his particular plight happened to add some nuance, one saw a similar begrudging admiration for Bryant as he shuttled back and forth between two very different courts during the 2003–2004 NBA season: “Imagine the stress he must be feeling, and he just doesn’t let it affect him!” There was a horrifying amount of focus on whether Bryant could elevate his game under pressure, and how he would handle the taunts on the road. The angle was pure basketball, ratherthan justice.

We’ve been spared having to go through this monstrous cycle by the commendable conduct of the Duke administration. As early as March 25, athletic director Joe Alleva ordered the team to forfeit its next two games as a response to team members’ admission that they had hired private dancers for the party and that alcohol had been served to the underaged. Three days later, Brodhead, reportedly upon the request of the team captains, effectively ended their season. On April 5, veteran head coach Mike Pressler resigned, with Alleva commenting that the move was “in the best interests of the program.” Anytime Duke lacrosse makes headlines this spring, it will be for the right wrong reasons.

The decision is so clearly the correct one that it has been almost uncommented upon. Yet the prioritizing of appropriate behavior over a possible Final Four appearance in quite this fashion is almost unprecedented. The university has chosen to retain as much dignity as it can in trying circumstances and deserves credit for it. Brodhead and his colleagues have set a wonderful new standard for responding to sports scandals.

There are certainly sports-related elements to this story. Whether or not anything illegal took place on the night of the alleged incident, there are pervasive signs that the very subculture of permissive treatment toward athletes that Duke has long prided itself on avoiding has in fact developed. We need to examine how this happened at a school noted for finding balance between excellence on and off the field from its athletes—especially those of us on a campus like ours, where we similarly pride ourselves on that balance. The Duke lacrosse players, guilty or not, have given us yet another opportunity to remind each other that at the end of the day, there are more important things that what’s happening on the field.

But the true significance of this story goes far beyond that. The details of the case are still emerging, but it is clear that the incident and its reverberations in the Durham community will touch on a veritable holy trinity of inflammatory issues—race, class, and, above all, gender. It’s about the presumptions of privilege, the arrogance of academia, and as ESPN.com columnist Jason Whitlock put it, “men behaving badly.” It should not and cannot be about what will happen on the field.

In all likelihood, Duke will be in the spotlight for months. You can guarantee that many nasty things will be said about the administration, athletic department, and athletes before it’s all over. Given that, the university community merits some praise for what they’re doing right. When the sheltered bubble of athletics is permeated by the darker elements of the outside world, it’s far too easy to hide behind “innocent until proven guilty” and pretend that the standings are still all that matters. This time, there will be no red herrings for the world in general and sports fans in particular to distract us from what really matters.

The next time sports meets scandal, let us hope that we can pick up the gauntlet laid down by the Duke administration and keep the story where it belongs.

On the front page.