The View of a Lacrosse Parent

June 1, 2006

Duke University is a huge source of pride in our family. I went to Duke and have a son, Robert, who graduated in 2004, and a daughter, Lane, a past member of the women’s lacrosse team, who graduated in 2005. I have had the privilege of serving on the executive board of the Annual Giving Fund for the past six years and chaired our 30th reunion last year. I have enjoyed the many opportunities to know Duke administrators, faculty members, and students through my children and frequent visits to Duke for meetings, ice hockey, lacrosse, and basketball games. I treasure the opportunities to reconnect with “old” friends and classmates. Our lives have revolved around Duke in the past eight years.

We were thrilled when our third child, Gibbs, was recruited by Mike Pressler to come to Duke to study and to play lacrosse. Gibbs, like many members of this talented team, could have gone to a number of schools, and we are proud that he chose Duke without a moment of hesitation. He was well aware that he was undertaking a heavy, difficult commitment to academic and athletic excellence and he looked forward to the challenge with healthy trepidation. I will always remember coach Pressler’s words to the freshmen at their lacrosse orientation. These words sent a shiver through me last August and have echoed repeatedly through my mind in the past two months. “Boys, remember you have one chance in life to ruin your reputation. Every step you take represents you, Duke University, Duke alumnae, and your families. And you have one chance in life to make a first impression. Don’t blow it.”

I have to admit that this group of skilled, capable individuals joined by their love for, and talent in, lacrosse blew it. They had a party over Spring Break and briefly let two strangers into their lives. It is still impossible for me to believe that this decision could so damage this group, Duke University, and Durham and resurrect emotions and fears that were considered if not buried, at the least dormant. Issues of race, class, and gender collided and formed what has been called “the perfect storm” and thrust this team and Duke University into the national limelight. On a smaller scale, this horrific incident also exposed a known problem at Duke-many students feel that there is no social life on campus. As ironic as Coach Pressler’s words to the freshmen lacrosse players was my encounter with our dear friend, Sterly Wilder, in the Duke Forest, the morning before the Georgetown—Duke lacrosse game. That day, almost a full two weeks after the infamous party, I still had no idea of its repercussions. But I was aware of the dangers lurking in that neighborhood, and I interrupted Sterly’s run with concerns about the social scene at Duke. Our older son lived a few doors down from the house imprinted on our minds, and I know that many Duke kids flock to off campus parties in that neighborhood. When I attended Duke, the drinking age was eighteen and keg parties in sections, on the quad, and Wannamaker terrace were weekly events. Now alcohol consumption by college students is considered one of the biggest problems facing college administrations, and Duke like many other campuses has become essentially a dry campus. Consequentially, the Duke social scene is driven into the surrounding neighborhoods where it is unsupervised and less safe, and where neighbors, understandably so, are fed up with antics of college students.

In the Duke Magazine article, “A Spring of Sorrows,” Robert Bliwise uses “the lacrosse episode” as a spring board to focus on “issues that have been of concern on this campus and this town for some time” (President Brodhead’s words). I completely agree that the tragic sequence of events ignited by that evening has highlighted problems that exist at many colleges and universities and in society as a whole. What I do not agree with because it is not true is that this Duke lacrosse team is a microcosm of these problems. It is not the behavior or culture of this team that exposed issues of race, class and gender. These issues were thrust to the forefront because of a black woman’s false allegations against white men. I was not aware that the hiring of strippers is a popular occurrence at college parties and that there had been over twenty parties with strippers given by Duke student groups this year. I am quite sure that there will be a lot more caution in the future when students are considering their party entertainment. I am also positive that the Duke lacrosse players did not hire these strippers because of any lack of respect for women and for race.

The Coleman Report commissioned by President Brodhead to study the culture and behavior of Duke lacrosse teams refutes the generalizations that are promoted by the quotations of journalists and faculty members in the article. Alcohol violations among the lacrosse team are comparable to other groups on campus. There are more general citations attributed to this Duke team than other teams because lacrosse players are the only athletic group that lives in two of the houses off East where the neighbors are most bothered by Duke students. In fact, there are fewer citations attributed to this team than there are to other Duke groups who live in this neighborhood. The Coleman Report found no incidents of racism among this team—it states, “The current as well as former African-American members of the men’s team have been extremely positive about the support the team provided them.” There are no incidents involving lacrosse players that in any way show a disrespect for women-in fact quite the opposite. Kerstin Kimel, the coach of the women’s team, attests to the comraderie and mutual respect between the boys and girls and points out that the smart, savvy young women on her team would not hang out with “arrogant jocks.”

It’s sad that I feel compelled to continue to justify, explain, and prove this team’s innocence of the damning charges brought forth by the media. They are not arrogant, swaggering, privileged, surly, violent hooligans and “jocks out of control” to quote the journalists. What a different picture the Coleman Report paints of these young men after a lengthy, thorough investigation. “By all accounts, the -lacrosse players are a cohesive, hard working, disciplined, and respectful athletic team. Their behavior on trips is described as exemplary. Airline personnel complimented them for their behavior…..Both the groundskeeper and the equipment manager spoke about the players’ respect for and appreciation of efforts for the team. They described the members of the team as the best or among the best group of athletes they served in their long tenures with Duke athletics. Although they give coach Pressler credit for instilling these values, they emphasize that the players are a ‘special group of young men.’ The female manager for the last three seasons, a Duke senior, echoed these sentiments.”

“Lacrosse players also have performed well academically. In 2005, twenty seven members of the lacrosse team, more than half, made the ACC Honor Roll. The lacrosse team’s academic performance generally is one of the best among all Duke athletic teams,” according to the Coleman Report. The team also has an impressive, lengthy community service record both on campus and off.

And finally, one more truthful, factual explanation of lacrosse team behavior. The “vile” email is a direct quote from the movie American Psycho, examined and discussed in three Duke psych classes as an example of today’s pop culture.

The lacrosse team had no intentions of malice and no idea of the “perfect storm” that would envelop them and their university. This group of boys is changed forever, and, though I’m sorry for my son’s loss of faith and trust, his newly found maturity and disillusionment will ultimately serve him and his teammates well as they cautiously proceed through life. And because I am the ultimate “cup half full” person, I know that good will come out of this horrendous experience. I know truth will prevail and that we will eventually heal. I know that these boys and the whole Duke community will be stronger and more aware. I know that this team will play again, will represent Duke with honor and pride, and will serve as an example of excellence for all teams in the country. I know that the insecurities and realities stirred up that evening will continue to prompt a continuous, internal investigation and that Duke will change and adapt in its constant mission to be the best it can be. I would not expect any less of this team and our university.

I am from a Duke family. My wife and I graduated from Trinity in 1980. My parents, mother-in-law, sister, four brothers-in-law, cousins, aunts, and uncles all went to Duke. When my second son arrives as a freshman in the fall, he will be the 18th member of my family to attend Duke. I have always been very proud of my family's ties to Duke University. However, the most defining point in my connection to Duke may be that my oldest son is a rising junior and a member of the men’s lacrosse team.

My son made the team as a walk-on his freshman year. I was very proud that his years of athletics had enabled him to become a NCAA Division 1 athlete and especially a Duke athlete! The first time I met Mike Pressler, the former head coach of the men’s lacrosse team, he talked about the team’s GPA and the number of players who were named to the ACC academic honor roll. It became clear to me that he cared very much about academics, and I wondered if my son would live up to the standard. Mike’s nickname is “Iron Mike”, earned because of his belief in hard work. My son’s experience on the lacrosse team was very positive for him and gave his life at Duke discipline, direction, and led him to academic success. I was and continue to be proud of my son because of his hard work, dedication, and connection to Duke Lacrosse.

The last few months have been painful since the fateful party on the evening of March 13th. The article in the last issue of Duke Magazine, “A Spring of Sorrows” did little to ease that pain because it didn't tell the full story of the young men on the team. That Monday night in the middle of March, these young men ignited a debate in the Duke and Durham communities, the basis of which was laid by many generations before them.

This pain has often resulted from the characterizations of the young men on the team. All the members of the team were vilified and found immediately guilty by the press and many in the Duke community as well. This story is one that lends itself to extreme depictions. The story of young rich white men raping a young poor black mother was an easier sell than the complex truth. Given the media frenzy led by the likes of Nancy Grace and others, it is amazing that there was not riot in Durham. One of the great successes of the last few months was the dialogue of cooperation between NCCU and Duke in the wake of the often-polarized press coverage. Full credit goes to NCCU Chancellor James Ammons and Duke President Dick Brodhead for this accomplishment.

One editorial writer, Kathleen Parker, asked her readers to identify a college group. She went on to say, “The group has a 100 percent college graduation rate. Sixty percent have a 3.0 grade point average or above. During the last four years, 80 percent have made a national honor roll. Members regularly volunteer at more than a dozen community agencies, building houses for the homeless and serving in soup kitchens, while raising more money than any other group for the Katrina Relief Fund.” She pointed out that, although no one would know it from the press coverage, this group was the Duke men's lacrosse team.

More pain followed from watching some people use this event as a platform for their causes. Rush Limbaugh and Jesse Jackson weighed in, although on different sides. Houston Baker, then a Duke professor, used it to further his ideological agenda on racism and sexism at Duke. He was part of a group of 88 professors who bought a full-page ad in the Duke Chronicle to discuss the current “Social Disaster.” Much of this dialogue was and is important. However, it is difficult for those of us so close to the center of the storm because it often used caricatures to make a point with less regard for the truth than normal. The pain peaked when the New Black Panther Party, an extremist group known to protest while carrying guns, appeared in the media telling us that they would “interview the players individually” to ensure that the “prosecution” was carried out. As a parent, and one who has trusted our system of justice, this terrified me. That weekend, it puzzled me that no one at Duke thought to call and let the lacrosse parents know what was being done to protect their sons.

In the case of the Duke Magazine article, the pain was not caused by the author’s desire to discuss the culture at Duke, nor was it due to a retelling of the story. Rather it was the result of a total void of any positive statements about the young men on the team. This was another example of the whole story not being told. Clearly these young men displayed behavior unbecoming to a member of the Duke community. However, they were also good students, athletes, and volunteers, and worked tireless hours each day at a sport for which they held great passion. The Coleman Committee, created by Dr. Brodhead to examine the culture of the men's lacrosse team, stated in their report, "The lacrosse team's academic performance generally is one of the best among all Duke athletic teams.” They went on to say, "In 2005, twenty seven members of the lacrosse team, more than half, made the Atlantic Coast Conference's Academic Honor Roll, more than any other ACC lacrosse team. Between 2001 and 2005, 146 members of the lacrosse team made the Academic Honor Roll, twice as many as the next ACC lacrosse team."

The Duke men's lacrosse team was a very tight group brought together by the amount of time they spent together during the season and off-season. Regarding this, the Coleman Report said, "The committee has not heard evidence that the cohesiveness of this group is either racist or sexist. On the contrary, the coach of the Duke women's lacrosse team has expressed her sense of camaraderie that exists between the men's and women's team; members of the men's team, for example, consistently come to the women's games. The current as well as former African-American members of the team have been extremely positive about the support the team provided them.” However, these are young men growing up, and they are not perfect.

I have learned many lessons, some of which are the following: Don’t pay too much attention to press coverage, because they are selling newspapers and not always reporting the truth. Don’t ever prejudge anyone regardless of what one reads in the press. Free speech is good, but the down-side is having a public that can say anything and a press that can print anything. Beware of the 24-hour news cycle and reporters claiming to be your friend. An independent justice system is good, but it doesn’t always work perfectly.

My son has learned lessons as well, and I know there will be many more. Early after the allegations became public, when responding to a message from his uncle, he said, “Never again, regardless of the information presented, will I pass judgment on any other person or group, before I know the facts.” The week following the news of the allegations, my son was in class and was subjected to a professor's personal editorial barrage regarding the guilt of the entire team. He left the class rather than be subjected to assertions that he knew were not true. During his next class, two hours later, another professor led his class through a balanced discussion of the racial issues surrounding the news of the party and allegations. My son learned much from both professors that day; some that he will emulate and some that he will not.

As I think about the future, I hope and pray that my son is better as a result of this situation and the ensuing chaos, dialogue, and healing. I hope he emerges less judgmental than many who have participated in the debate. I hope that he is less naïve. I hope that he has a better understanding of the power of unintended consequences. I hope that he is able to believe in our system of justice, as I always have, until now. Finally, I hope that the caricatures of the team which have been painted in the press are realized by all to be untrue. David Brooks, in a May 29th New York Times editorial said, "Maybe the saddest part of the whole reaction is not the rush to judgment at the start, but the unwillingness by so many to face the truth now that the more complicated reality has emerged."

Some poignant moments come to mind from the last few months. One was a few days after the news of this event became public, when I had to explain to my 11 year-old daughter the definition of rape. That day my wife and I discussed with our five daughters that sexual assault was wrong in any form, but that false accusation was as well. Watching my other children all find ways to support their oldest brother has been touching. One wore a Duke Lacrosse hat to school each day; another talked proudly about her brother; and one prayed for the team in youth group at church before the story became a fixture in the press.

With time the pain will subside, and, while this may shock you, I believe my son and family will be better off. I hope the Duke community will be as well. In the meantime, I pray for the three young men who have been indicted. While my son looks forward to the school year and season ahead, these young men fight for their reputations at the hands of false accusers. What we have encountered is a sliver of what they live each day amid a university that has turned its back. On April 1, Dean Wells’ gave a sermon in Duke Chapel about “naming our silences.” I only wish we now would debate the university’s silence as these young men have gone home to fight their battle alone.