Being a Duke grad in sports media was quite uncomfortable during the days of the Duke lacrosse saga, in which a stripper wrongly accused three players of rape and the media tore Duke one way, then the other. (I’d say my employer was fairer than most.)
Early on, I had the sense that the accusations were flawed. Brendan Nyhan, the blogger behind the terrific rhetoric-busting blog Spinsanity and then a grad student at Duke, cataloged some of the problems, even as the talking-head media ranted itself silly about the culture at Duke. Didn’t matter that the talking-head media didn’t know a damn thing about Duke.
Of course, neither did KC Johnson, a then-unknown history professor, but he got a good head start delving deeper into the problems with the case. The Chronicle, my proud student paper, did a fine job with it. (Johnson, much to his credit, acknowledges their fairness.) Eventually, the accusations were doubted. Then dismissed. Not just “not guilty,” but “innocent.” Simply put: They did not do it. No one did.
The irony about Johnson’s blog was this: Johnson was exposing the dangers of groupthink, yet simultaneously demonstrating them. He showed that rape accusations that get a lot of play in the media can lead many to a rush to judgment. Absolutely. And then his commenters, a band with various grudges against Duke, urged him to take it further and turn the screws on Duke itself. They weren’t entirely wrong — a group of 88 faculty members, including a classmate and a former professor of mine but no one else I knew, took out an ad that didn’t explicitly say, “Yay, let’s go get the lacrosse players,” but it could’ve been more tactful. (I did show the ad once to a neutral party, who wondered what the fuss was all about.)
Johnson did his best to distance himself from the most extreme elements in his comments. A black accuser against a mostly white team can bring out the worst in a lot of anonymous people, and Johnson rightfully wanted no part of that. But after one howling mob departed Duke, exhausting its tired stereotypes of a rich white school in a poor black state, Johnson had another mob on his blog. (And the comments on any Chronicle story that had anything to do with lacrosse. Or sports. Or nearly anything.) The mob wanted to paint Duke as anti-jock, incompetent, arrogant and so on.
Duke was in an impossible situation. A rogue prosecutor, Mike Nifong, had indicted three lacrosse players on rape charges stemming from a party that made the whole team look awful. Keeping the whole team away from anyone who was about to rush to judgment was an impossible task. Imagine if the lacrosse season had gone forward and the team had been attacked at an away game.
Johnson and company had little sympathy. They kept the pressure on Duke. Even after the three accused players were exonerated and settled out of court with Duke before any accusations could be stated in court, even after everyone justifiably sued Nifong back to the Stone Age, the remaining players and parents sued Duke and Durham for anything and everything. Repeat: These are NOT the players who were accused of rape. (A separate lawsuit by those three against many people in Durham had several counts survive summary judgment this week.)
That led to the unusual sight last spring, when Duke won the NCAA lacrosse title led by a band of seniors who still had an active lawsuit against the school.
After nearly two years, the court has ruled on motions to dismiss. The headline: Motion denied; suits go forward. The details: Not so fast …
Read through the 150-plus pages of the ruling in Carrington v Duke, and you’ll see lot of the phrase “the motion to dismiss is granted.” As far as Duke officials are concerned, most of it is gone. The people you’d typically meet as an undergraduate have little left to face in court other than Count 11, a tricky legal argument over school administrators’ fiduciary responsibilities. It could be an interesting test case.
The rest of it has been tossed aside. And as if the message wasn’t clear, the court included this message:
Having undertaken this comprehensive review of the claims asserted in this case, the Court is compelled to note that while § 1983 cases are often complex and involve multiple Defendants, Plaintiffs in this case have exceeded all reasonable bounds with respect to the length of their Complaint and the breadth of claims and assertions contained therein.
So my alma mater can be somewhat relieved that much of this awful matter can be laid to rest. I’ve actually wondered if Duke could sue Nifong for putting the school in a position in which they were going to get taken to court and defamed in the media no matter what school administrators did, but I’m saying that as a philosopher/journalist/alumnus rather than as a lawyer (which I’m not).
And still, the school loses. If you want to think of Duke as a place that attracts people with entitlement mentalities, the judge’s comments support your case. So will golfer Andrew Giuliani’s since-dismissed lawsuit.
So when it comes to national championships worth celebrating, I’ll stick with the basketball team. And Becca Ward.
(HT: The excellent Sports Law Blog)