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From Bad to Worse at Duke

April 6, 2006

In a sign of how bad things have become for Duke University's lacrosse team, a lawyer for a majority of the players on Wednesday cited the extreme offensiveness of an e-mail message from one of them as evidence that they weren't trying to cover up a rape.

The e-mail message from a player to other players came shortly after a party at which a woman -- hired to appear at the party as a dancer -- says she was raped by three lacrosse players. In the e-mail message, the player said he would hire strippers for another party at which he planned "on killing the bitches as soon as the walk in and proceding to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke issue spandex." (Text is verbatim from the e-mail.)

The e-mail message became public Wednesday when a state court unsealed a warrant related to gathering evidence in the case. Duke has faced a growing scandal since the March 13 party. The accusations have set off nationwide discussions over the role of athletics, gender and race -- the woman who filed the complaint is black and the lacrosse team whose party she was hired to perform at is almost entirely white. The case has created tensions at Duke, where some have said that the administration has moved too slowly against the team, while others have stressed the importance of due process.

The university acted swiftly Wednesday after the warrant was released. President Richard H. Brodhead announced that he was canceling the lacrosse season -- which had previously been suspended, pending the outcome of legal inquiries. He also announced that Mike Pressler, the lacrosse coach and a highly successful one at that, was resigning.

In his previous statements about the situation, Brodhead had noted the importance of the principle of assuming innocence until someone is proven guilty. Wednesday's statement, in contrast, did not contain such references. It called the contents of the warrant "sickening and repulsive" and noted that the university is able to impose an interim suspension on students in some cases. The university did not indicate whether anyone had been suspended.

Later Wednesday, Brodhead released a letter to Duke students and faculty members in which he outlined a series of steps Duke would be taking:

  • An investigation of "reports of persistent problems involving the men's lacrosse team, including racist language and a pattern of alcohol abuse and disorderly behavior."
  • An investigation by non-Duke officials of the way Duke's administration responded to the scandal.
  • An examination of the judicial system for students at Duke.
  • A study to suggest ways to improve "campus culture" at Duke.
  • The creation of a special panel to advise the Duke president.

Lawyers for the lacrosse players -- and the athletes themselves -- have repeatedly denied that any sexual assault took place. And they have noted repeatedly that no charges have been filed. But the warrant provided more evidence backing the claims of the woman who brought the complaint -- a woman who is a student at North Carolina Central University. The warrant said, for example, that the woman was examined at a Duke emergency room after the incident by a physician and by a forensic sexual assault nurse and that the medical records indicated "signs, symptoms, and injuries consistent with being raped and sexually assaulted vaginally and anally."

The idea that the students might have planned another party infuriated many at Duke. But a lawyer representing a majority of the team members issued a statement saying that the e-mail message showed that the students committed no crime.

"While the language in the e-mail is vile, the e-mail itself is perfectly consistent with the boys' unequivocal assertion that no sexual assault took place that evening," said the statement from Robert Ekstrand. He noted that the e-mail was sent shortly after the party took place and shows that "its writer is completely unaware that any act or event remotely similar to what has been alleged ever occurred."

Whatever occurred there can be little doubt about the toll that the events are taking at Duke. But one sign of that toll can be seen in an exchange of letters -- before Wednesday's developments -- between Houston A. Baker Jr., who holds an endowed chair in English and is one of Duke's most prominent black faculty members, and Peter Lange, the provost.

In a scathing letter, Baker said that the administration's response to the incident had been based on "tepid and pious legalism" that ignored the fear and anger the incident created among many on the campus.

"There can be no confidence in an administration that believes suspending a lacrosse season and removing pictures of Duke lacrosse players from a Web page is a dutifully moral response to abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us," Baker wrote.

He added: "How many more people of color must fall victim to violent, white, male, athletic privilege before coaches who make Chevrolet and American Express commercials, athletic directors who engage in Miss Ophelia-styled 'perfectly horrible' rhetoric, higher administrators who are salaried at least in part to keep us safe, and publicists who are supposed not to praise Caesar but to damn the unconscionable ... how many? Before they demonstrate that they don't just write books, pay lip service, or boast of safe citizenship ... but actually do step up morally, intellectually, and bravely to assume responsibilities of leadership for such citizenship. How many?"

In his response, Lange said he was "disappointed, saddened and appalled" by Baker's letter.

Lange noted that the complete facts of what took place that night remain unknown and said that the university's leaders needed to focus on doing the right thing, even if that took time.

"That our pace will still disappoint some is undoubted, but we will not rush to judgment nor will we take precipitous actions which, symbolically satisfying as they may be, assuage passions but do little to remedy the deeper problems," Lange wrote. "These problems will certainly be easier, but not easy, to understand than they will be to repair. The latter will take less rhetoric and more hard work, less quick judgment and more reasoned intervention, less playing to the crowd, than entering the hearts and lives of those whose education we are charged to promote and who we must treat as an integral part of the community we wish to restore and heal."

 

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