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Blue Wall Of Silence
Alexander Wolff
April 10, 2006
Whether Duke lacrosse players are guilty or innocent, the rape allegations that rocked the program exposed the sport's changing culture
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April 10, 2006

Blue Wall Of Silence

Whether Duke lacrosse players are guilty or innocent, the rape allegations that rocked the program exposed the sport's changing culture

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Sports fans admire in great teams a unity born of loyalty. When players stay close and refuse to point fingers during tough times, they exhibit values that seem timeless and unassailable--unless the teammates are hanging together out of fear, a feeling of superiority or whatever caused the Duke men's lacrosse team to fortify the wall around itself these past few weeks. The legal system will sort out what happened in the house at 610 North Buchanan Blvd., in Durham on the night of March 13. An African-American woman says that after she showed up to work as an exotic dancer at a party thrown by members of the team, three white males pushed her into a bathroom and beat, strangled, raped and sodomized her. The Blue Devils' captains, three of them leaseholders on the off-campus property, say that DNA tests will clear them and every other member of the team. (Forty-six players, all white, were tested; the one black player was not.)

Duke has suspended the team's season while the investigation goes on, but the players continue to practice. For days after the party they refused to cooperate with investigators (35 have hired the same lawyer), leaving the prosecutor so frustrated that he raised the possibility of bringing aiding-and-abetting charges. Even if every player is innocent--and on Monday rumors swirled that the DNA tests had exonerated the players--their behavior has brought an unwelcome brand of March Madness to Duke. Students, angered by what they see as elite athletes living by their own set of rules, marched in front of the "lacrosse house" while banging pots. Last Friday students received an e-mail from the vice president for student affairs warning of threats of a "drive-by shooting" in the neighborhood of the house. Earlier that day two Duke undergrads were harassed and allegedly assaulted outside a Durham restaurant by people yelling, "This is Central territory," a reference to North Carolina Central, the historically black college where the alleged rape victim is a student.

The players' silence seemed especially provocative in Durham, a racially tense community whose population is four times as black as Duke's. And the players' track record of boorishness made it hard to grant them the benefit of the doubt. Police had previously lodged charges against 15 current players for underage drinking, violations of open-container laws or noise regulations or public urination, none of which to date has led to a conviction. In an e-mail to Blue Devils lacrosse coach Mike Pressler that has made the rounds of the Internet, a Duke graduate tells of lacrosse players breaking bones, trying to urinate on furniture and shattering a window with a keg during his time at the school. (The alumnus declined SI's request for further comment. Pressler had no comment.) A resident who lives next to the lacrosse house said that on the evening in question, he heard someone in the house call to a black woman, "Hey, bitch, thank your grandpa for my nice cotton shirt!" And on March 25--after news of the alleged assault had broken--some 20 team members filed into a local bar and threw back shots, punctuating rounds by slamming down their glasses to a cry of " Duke lacrosse!" (Last week Duke athletics director Joe Alleva called the players "wonderful young men," adding, "Sometimes young men make bad decisions, bad judgments.")

Whatever the prosecutor chooses to do, the athletes' attitude struck many as coming from a sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability. "Athletics is a forgiving culture," says Todd Crosset, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of a 1995 study that examined 10 Division I schools and found that while athletes made up 3.3% of the male students, they accounted for 19% of reported sexual assaults. "Teammates don't check each other's behavior off the field as long as they show up and play."

The irony is that Duke attempts to integrate athletes into the student body by having no athletic dorms per se and by requiring students to live on campus for their first three years. Lacrosse also does more than most sports to cultivate its better side; its national governing body recently earmarked $4.5 million for programs to emphasize character and tradition. But enough of irony.

SI explored the lacrosse boom a year ago (April 25, 2005) and found a gathering culture war between the traditional, East Coast prep-school ethic, with its evocation of Etonian values and Native American rites of passage, and the gnarly, free-spirited attitude that has fueled the game's growing appeal as "the extreme team sport." There may now be a third party to that struggle: the libertine who wants the privilege without having to practice the values.

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