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The Damage Done
S.L. Price
June 26, 2006
DUKE LACROSSE, the 46 white players, a black dancer and the reputation of the university are forever changed. But is the case solid? Was the coach made a scapegoat? Exclusive sources describe three months of fear, disbelief and confusion over what the future holds--in and out of court
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June 26, 2006

The Damage Done

DUKE LACROSSE, the 46 white players, a black dancer and the reputation of the university are forever changed. But is the case solid? Was the coach made a scapegoat? Exclusive sources describe three months of fear, disbelief and confusion over what the future holds--in and out of court

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Despite the team's near-monochromatic composition and the fact that he spends most off-field time with black students, Sherwood--whose father, Charles, was the school's first black lacrosse player--says that he is the only Blue Devil who has ever brought up the subject of his race. "When I was in high school, I was accepted on the [predominantly white] team but always felt something was a little weird," he says. "But as soon as I got to Duke, I'm out there on the field getting ready, and the whole team comes out and each guy introduces himself, shakes my hand, says where they grew up. This is before I even made it.

"I was being recruited on campus to go into a black fraternity, and they were trying to convince me with the idea of brotherhood. I'm like, 'I already have a brotherhood. I have 46 guys I'm really cool with.'"

In the days leading up to his meeting with Alleva, Pressler said repeatedly that he was "willing to fall on his sword" if it gave the team a better chance of survival. When he decided to resign, neither Alleva nor Brodhead made a move to stop him.

Alleva declined interview requests, but the administration's response since Pressler's resignation has been oddly supportive of the coach. That his team had discipline problems no one disputes: Fifteen players have been cited by Durham police for mostly noise- and alcohol-related offenses over the last three years (three were acquitted), and Coleman's report found an increase in on-campus disciplinary problems since 2003 that outpaced that of any other Duke team. There was, however, no history of assaults or bigotry, with one vivid exception; Finnerty has been charged with assaulting a man outside a bar in Washington, D.C., last November after taunting him with gay epithets. (He agreed to a deal that allowed him to avoid trial, but his arrest in the Duke lacrosse case violated that agreement; he's now tentatively scheduled to stand trial in Washington on July 10.) "They had a reputation for some drunken, boorish behavior, vandalism, absolutely," says Lisker, the women's center director, of Pressler's players. "But to tell you the truth, at Duke, fraternities are a bigger problem."

Of course, frat boys don't represent the school in a high-profile manner, and it's clear that Duke's system of responding to athletes' misbehavior was badly flawed. It seems unconscionable that Brodhead didn't know the players were under investigation for rape until he read it in the school paper a week later. Until a year ago Pressler wasn't privy to police reports and wasn't regularly notified about on-campus incidents if they weren't suspendible transgressions. In May 2005 the team was banned from living in one set of dorms after players' misbehavior damaged the Southgate Residence Hall, but despite repeated signals from a housing dean and some faculty members, neither Alleva nor Duke vice president Tallman Trask nor dean of students Sue Wasiolek pressed the matter urgently within the administration. Instead, just a month after the dorm trouble, Pressler was given the ultimate positive job evaluation: a three-year contract extension. Meanwhile, Coleman's report states that Pressler punished players whenever he knew of a problem; during last year's run to the NCAA finals, he banished two players for violating team rules. "Other than the Dean for Judicial Affairs and Coach Pressler," the report states, "no other administrator appears to have treated the lacrosse team's disciplinary record as a matter of serious concern."

Wasiolek disputes that, saying she and others "did clearly express the frustration we were feeling with the team." But, she says, the individual violations were "not serious. It was that they continued to happen." That points up a strange disconnect: Why, when Pressler's wrath was by all accounts feared by his players, would 56 of them be involved in 36 on-campus incidents since 2003? "Do you think [ Duke basketball coach] Mike Krzyzewski would've put up with this s--- for five seconds?" says one university official. "The answer is no."

Coleman concedes that, yes, lacrosse players "were out of control. As long as they thought [ Pressler] wasn't finding out about it, they didn't have enough respect for him or enough self-discipline not to do it. But it wasn't as if they were doing this underground. It was the responsibility of the university to take effective disciplinary action, to make sure the athletic department knew about it and instructed them they wanted it to stop. If they had done that, my judgment is, Pressler would have responded."

Brodhead has announced that the athletic department will now be his responsibility, a clear rebuke to Alleva and vice president Trask. Asked, in early June, if the Coleman report didn't prove Pressler's history of responsiveness to known misdeeds, if not fully exonerate him, Brodhead said, "I would be happy for the world to take note of that fact."

But that's not the same thing as giving back to Pressler his job or the life he'd made. "I felt if I was allowed to continue, I could solve any 'problems,'" Pressler says. "It's on the record: Anytime I'd been aware of something, I took care of it. But the administration felt that wasn't going to be the case. For me to buck that would not be in the best interests of those 47 kids and all the alumni. Take a bullet? I'd do it again.

"I'm certainly not proud of this moment. I'm certainly not proud of the situation we're in. I'm certainly not proud of what happened on March 13. But in the end you're not judged by one game or one season. You're judged by the body of your work. And in the end I think the body of our work has been very positive for a lot of people."

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