Looking Back On The Duke Lacrosse Scandal On Its Ten Year Anniversary
Everyone wants their college experience to be memorable. We want our time spent on the campus of our choosing to be the highlight of our lives. The members of the 2006 Duke University Men’s Lacrosse team were no different. Coming off a 17-3 season in 2005 which included a trip to the national championship, they were slated to have a repeat performance. Possibly even better. Little did they know, one party thrown at a captain’s house would derail their entire season. On March 13th, 2006, one of the strippers hired to perform at the party, Crystal Mangum, went to the Durham police and accused three players – Reade Seligmann, David Evans, and Collin Finnerty – of sexually assaulting her. The year-long media circus than ensued was captured in a production that aired on the ten-year anniversary of the incident as part of ESPN’s popular 30 for 30 series called “Fantastic Lies.” The incident had a long lasting effect on the university, the community, and the game of lacrosse.
On March 14th, the day after the party, the Durham police began their investigation into the sexual assault allegations that Crystal Mangum had made against the Duke lacrosse team. What began with a few whispers of “rapist” on campus developed into a full blown assault on the Duke lacrosse program at a national level. Perhaps the most remarkable facet of this ordeal was the speed at which the events unfolded after Mangum’s allegations became public. Only 9 days after Mangum went to the police, the entire team submitted to a court-ordered DNA test. The day before Duke announced the suspension of the season, March 27th, the case had reached the desk of district attorney Mike Nifong. Over the next 48 hours, it is estimated that Nifong have between fifty and seventy interviews to reporters. The exclamation point on that two-day period came on March 29th, with Nifong releasing a public statement referring to the Duke lacrosse team as “a bunch of hooligans.” If the media circus surrounding this rape case needed a ringleader, it was Nifong. In less than a month’s time after the party, visions of a championship season had become a smoldering dumpster fire.
Even with what we know now, it’s understandable that we ask ourselves why out of all campus controversies, this particular one erupted like it did. But how? Let’s rewind here. It began with Duke’s reputation. In a community where there was already a wide gap between the “haves” and “have-nots,” Duke represented everything about the upper class. They were the sniveling, Brooks Brothers-clad douchebags sitting atop a gigantic pile of money; “untouchable” in every sense of the word. In fact, the cost of attending Duke for one year ($67,000) is more than twice the average per capita income of a family in Durham. I don’t think any university that refers to itself as the “Harvard of the South” offers classes on humility. Had this controversy occurred with any other athletic program it might’ve turned out to be equally destructive, but the fact that the lacrosse team was involved was the worst case scenario. In terms of relative campus stardom among athletes, if the basketball team was Bon Jovi, the lacrosse team was Bret Michaels. The “bad boy” stereotype has long plagued lacrosse as a whole, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the Duke team was an exception. It’s pretty difficult to defend the stereotype when we’re talking about the same team that referenced American Psycho jokes about murdering a stripper on email threads. I doubt very highly that most of the student body was able to relate to the Duke lacrosse team on a personal level. Top Division I lacrosse schools give much higher precedence to recruits that meet the academic standards of their respective school. Not only were they intelligent and affluent, they were also athletic! Fuck those kids. They were just so easy to hate.
Taken separately, Duke’s reputation and the “lax bro” stereotype garner varying levels of hate from different groups of people. However, the media combined them and weaponized their common ground in order to incite unequivocal hate towards the whole program. The director of “Fantastic Lies” showcased how quickly an entire community, armed with only what the media had told them, turned on 46 of their own. Over the next six months, the trial continued to garner steady media coverage. But on December 15th, 2006, the director of a DNA lab testified that he had made a deal with district attorney Nifong to omit that genetic material found on Mangum’s clothes did not match the DNA of any player on the lacrosse team. Nifong dropped the rape charges a week later, leaving the sexual offense and kidnapping charges on the table. On December 28th, The North Carolina bar filed ethics charges against Nifong. Although having won the election to continue as district attorney only two months previous, Nifong asked to be removed from the case in January of 2007. On April 12th 2007, over a year after the party, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all charges against the players. Nifong was eventually disbarred. It was over.
In totality, underneath the stereotypes, the trial, and the pain, there is the game of lacrosse itself. Native American legend tells us the game was given to us by The Creator, an almighty deity who wished for us to play the game for his enjoyment and as a medicine game for the people. In a time where the game of lacrosse was still in its infancy outside of the “hotbed” areas of the Northeast, the high profile nature of the trial brought the public perception of lacrosse players as entitled brats to a national level. Even though the truth within some stereotypes has already been shown, the same game that carried the shadow of misguided perception also kept the young men of the Duke lacrosse team together. The showed us that this was something that is not reflective of the lacrosse community as a whole, and that it was about more than just the game. It’s why I won’t let the players I coach leave the field without picking up trash. It’s about developing lifelong bonds with teammates whom you once didn’t even know exist. More than anything else, it is about healing. The wounds, however deep and lasting, would slowly be healed over time.
Anyone who has played lacrosse or is close to the lacrosse community can tell you how sensitive of a subject the Duke trial is. The failure of the American justice system to protect its citizens is often underplayed and glossed over due to how embarrassing it was. An entire university turned on 47 of its own, urged by media hysterics and a judgment leveled by the Durham community that was not based in facts. While many intend to forget the Duke rape case, I ask you never to forget. Never forget that the media intends to sway opinion by drawing on our emotions. Never forget that the game of lacrosse is more than just a bunch of bros tossing around a ball with some sticks on the frat house front lawn. And if you do forget everything else, remember one thing – no matter what you are told about another group of people, we are all human beings who contribute to the cycle of life and should be treated as such.
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