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The Season After

Duke's shattered lacrosse team is back and ready to chase an NCAA title. But can anything help the players and the community find peace?

Posted: Tuesday February 20, 2007 11:00AM; Updated: Tuesday February 20, 2007 11:00AM
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Photo Illustration by John Ueland
Photo Illustration by John Ueland
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By S.L. Price

They started out of the Murray Athletic Building at 1:40 p.m. last Thursday, helmets strapped on, duke on their chests and lacrosse sticks in hand. A typical North Carolina winter afternoon, warm in the sun and cold in shadow, and they trotted single file, cleats crunching across a parking lot. No fans, no protesters, no frenzy: To the casual eye it seemed like the start of just another team's practice. Hard rubber balls whizzed through the air. Young men yelped and sprinted, powered by adrenaline and the surety that they'll be running like this forever. The Duke lacrosse team was preparing for the opening game of the 2007 season, this Saturday at home. But of course, there was nothing typical about any of it.

Nearly a year has passed since the notorious Duke lacrosse party of March 13, where racial slurs were allegedly exchanged and an African-American stripper originally claimed that she had been raped and sodomized by three white players (SI, June 26, 2006). The resulting explosion of media attention, seeming prosecutorial misconduct and academic finger-pointing made for an unprecedented town-gown scandal, leaving wreckage that will take years to comb through -- and no promise that there won't be more to come. The reputations of the accused -- graduated senior David Evans and sophomores Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty -- and the alleged victim have been irreparably savaged, and two careers have taken direct hits. Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, forced to resign last April 5 after 16 years, is now the head coach of Division II Bryant University in Rhode Island. Durham district attorney Mike Nifong, whose reckless pursuit of the case coincided all too neatly with his reelection campaign, dropped the rape charge (but left intact sexual offense and kidnapping charges) in December. Dogged by his early public statements about lacrosse "hooligans" and the recent revelation that he'd kept vital DNA evidence from the defense, Nifong removed himself from the case last month. He is now facing ethics charges from the North Carolina State Bar.

Indeed, the case's momentum -- and the tide of public sentiment -- has swung fully in the players' favor. Last month Duke president Richard Brodhead, citing Nifong's backpedaling, reinstated Finnerty and Seligmann as Duke students and cleared the way for them to play again. (Neither has made plans to return to campus, and both will wait until their cases are settled to decide whether to continue at Duke.) Also, 19 members of the school's economics department signed a letter of support in The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper. Unlike last spring, players have not felt compelled to walk out of classes after professors used them as examples of white privilege, as one team member said happened. "We feel that everyone knows now what we knew then," says senior defenseman Casey Carroll. "Anybody who was outwardly against us, whether it was on TV or in the newspapers or in our classrooms, we feel they've sufficiently eaten their words."

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