FRED WOLFERMAN: Mess at Duke Could Have Been Avoided
I have heard Duke University called the Harvard of the South. I've never heard Harvard called the Duke of the North, but that may be because Harvard doesn't merit a comparison.
In any event, you know Duke is a big-time place, because Tom Wolfe used it as the model for the setting of his novel "I am Charlotte Simmons," in which numbers of young people, mostly jocks and their groupies, behave badly.
It may be that "I am Charlotte Simmons" was required reading for the Duke lacrosse team, which decided en masse to attempt to behave even more badly by several increments than the characters in its literary model. Or maybe the whole fiasco was self-inspired.
Now that Mike Nifong, the inept, grandstanding district attorney prosecuting the three lacrosse players for the consequences of their stupidity, is back on front pages around the country, his case in a shambles, everybody wants his scalp. Fine. He evidently has no case, should drop the rest of the charges, be disbarred, and vanish to wherever everyone else who abused his 15 minutes of fame has gone -- waiting for Paris Hilton.
But however inept Nifong is, however wrongfully the Duke lacrosse players have been accused of the particular crimes with which they are charged, where is the evidence of even the slightest discomfort on the part of the lacrosse team, its parents, its coach, or the university with regard to the behavior that got them into this mess in the first place?
What, exactly, would reasonable administrators, or even coaches, expect to happen when a few dozen hormone-riddled young men, drinking liberally, if illegally, party into the wee small hours in a rented house off-campus with hired strippers? I suppose everybody thought they would just toddle quietly back to their dorms and leap up the next (same) morning in time for their 8 o'clock classes.
Granted, college kids do stupid things. They are not always very good at evaluating risk and consequences. That is why there are administrators and coaches.
The first duty of these arbiters of collegiate behavior is to try to keep the kids out of trouble. This requires a bit more than a friendly "See ya" as they head out the door, six-packs in hand.
Having failed the first duty, the second is to demonstrate to the malfeasants that they have erred significantly, and that there will be consequences. This squares with the larger notion that college is supposed to teach you something, to prepare you for real life.
What, exactly, did Duke do? First, it did what everyone does when something bad happens to any team: It fired the coach. It was all low-key, with mumblings of inappropriate behavior and such, and, while it was certainly a reasonable action, there was considerable sentiment to keep him because the team was ranked No. 2 in the country.
Next, it suspended the players charged with rape. This is hair-splitting of the first order. What about the innocent-until-proven-guilty thing? The correct course would have been to suspend the whole team.
Then Duke went back to business as usual, trying to stay out of the news while the three accused players twisted in the wind.
Now that one of the accused has been allowed to graduate and Nifong has dropped the rape charges against all three, the other two have been invited to return to Duke, even though further charges, however unfounded, are still pending. Duke's president has even called upon Nifong to drop these remaining charges.
The message here is pretty clear: These boys are heroes for not raping someone.
The central problem in the handling of this whole situation by everyone involved is confusion between legal and academic consequences.
From a legal standpoint, there was or was not a crime, and that will be adjudicated in a court if the cases ever get there, which is looking extremely doubtful.
The academic side is another matter. Duke has the unilateral power to be judge, jury and, if warranted, executioner. The lacrosse team, by all accounts, has had a reputation for behaving badly for years. Action should have been taken by the university long before even the appearance of criminal activity was reached.
What do you suppose would have happened if an English class had made a big scene with strippers, even without allegations of rape?
Could this whole episode have been avoided? I think so. If Duke had laid out some ground rules and enforced them all along, the lacrosse players would at least have thought twice before their big night out.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at fwolferman@
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