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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."
Still, there's no denying that a bitter aftertaste lingers. The accused and their 43 teammates have maintained from the start that no rape, kidnapping or sexual assault occurred that night, and though the team apologized for the underage drinking, the players will always believe they were abandoned by the administration and stampeded by those looking for easy symbols to smash. Meanwhile, the North Carolina attorney general's assignment of two new prosecutors, James Coman and Mary Winstead, to review the evidence is no guarantee that the remaining charges will be dismissed, or that any or all of the other lacrosse players will not be called to testify.
"I think the odds are good that it will go to trial," says N.C. Central law professor Irving Joyner, noting that the less precise legal definition of sexual offense makes it easier to prove than rape. But, he adds, the alleged victim's ever-shifting version of events could well override any evidence. "I would not be surprised if the attorney general, after looking at everything, says, 'We can't convince a jury of their guilt,'" Joyner says. "But I think there is enough to go forward—and I think they will go forward."
So it is that—though Duke lacrosse has a new coach in John Danowski, who over 21 years built Hofstra into a national power, and every intention to make this season a new beginning—the program remains shaded by anger, doubt, even survivors' guilt. "Everybody feels almost helpless," Danowski says. The players' belief that the accuser's random finger could have landed on any of them makes it easy to view Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann as sacrificial lambs: The whole team wears blue bracelets emblazoned with the word INNOCENT! and the accused players' numbers—6, 13 and 45. When they come out for warmups against Dartmouth, the team will be divided into thirds, with each wearing a special shirt bearing the number of one of the accused. But any hope of turning the experience into motivational fodder "is jaded by the fact that three of our close friends are undergoing a horrible experience," says senior co-captain Ed Douglas. "For me to try to find a good thing in this whole process seems almost smug."
And the players know that many in the public believe their irresponsibility cost their coach his job. That's why they are keeping a lower social profile on campus this year, why the seniors have pledged themselves to what Douglas calls "a sober preseason." That's why, just minutes before they walked out to practice last Thursday, Sue Pressler, Mike's wife, addressed the team in the locker room, something she never did in all the years years her husband was coach. She spoke of the elephant still looming over the case—that the public still believes something happened that night—and that it's time for that elephant to die. She told the players that the Pressler family has never blamed them for what happened, told them she loved them, told them it was time to stop running and be proud again.
The players took all that onto the practice field. Amid inspirational songs—starting with Bonnie Raitt's I Will Not Be Broken—they began running drills. Junior Ryan McFadyen, whose horrific e-mail about skinning strippers helped ensure both Pressler's firing and the cancellation of last season, ran and sang along with Bryan Adams: "Those were the best days of my life...." But it sure didn't feel like it. Something was wrong. The players went through their paces, but after that spirited start, Danowski noticed it: everybody too subdued, not much chatter. He stopped them after about 20 minutes and tried to snap his team out of it. "You guys suck right now," he said.
Things got a bit better after that, but the tone for one of the strangest seasons in collegiate history had been set. Even with six All-Americas on the Duke roster, 2007 won't be about the quality of play. Even with the team ranked as high as No. 4 in preseason polls, it can't be about a national championship. Duke lacrosse has returned. The accused aren't even playing, but, as Douglas says, "the clock can never be set back," and any notion of fairness got lost somewhere last spring. Everyone knows: No matter the score, this year will play out in the shadow of one bad night that may never go away.
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