Something ugly happened at party held by members of Duke University's lacrosse team March 13. Whether a gang rape took place, as a woman has charged, isn't clear. But even without that allegation, it would be a disturbing picture:
At a gathering in an off-campus home, some members of the highly ranked team were gathered -- and drinking. Lacrosse is a sport largely played by white athletes -- 46 of the Duke squad's 47 members are white. Those at the party called an escort service to provide two "private dancers," who arrived to put on a show for the students. One of the women was also a college student -- at North Carolina Central University, a historically black institution also in Durham, Duke's home.
This woman, a mother of two, was helping to finance her education by working for the service.
According to the woman, she thought she was going to a small gathering, and was shocked to find herself and her fellow dancer surrounded by more than 40 college men, who shouted racial slurs at them. She also says that three members of the team raped her in a bathroom at the house.
No charges have been filed and team members have told the university that no rape took place. But in the last week, as word of the charges has become public, Duke has faced daily protests on campus, anger in the local community, and shock from faculty members and fans. Last night, Duke announced that it was suspending the lacrosse season, pending the outcome of investigations into the party. A statement from President Richard H. Brodhead said that the suspension comes at the request of the team members and with the backing of Duke's board. In his statement, he stressed both his concern about the seriousness of the charges and the importance of letting the legal process play out -- at a time that facts about the party are in dispute.
"In this painful period of uncertainty, it is clear to me, as it was to the players, that it would be inappropriate to resume the normal schedule of play," Brodhead said. "Sports have their time and place, but when an issue of this gravity is in question, it is not the time to be playing games."
Experts on athletes, gender, race and violence were generally not shocked by the reports of the March 13 party. They said that all campuses with big-time athletics programs are vulnerable -- and need to pay attention to what's going on at Duke right now.
Earl Smith, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University who has written and taught extensively about athletes, race and gender, said that whenever he talks about these subjects on a campus, he gets visits from women later -- women who lower their voices and then say, "I need to tell you about something that happened to me" or "I need to tell you about something I saw last night." And their stories usually involve athletes, alcohol and behavior that runs the gamut from rudeness to racism to rape.
He had such a visit Tuesday morning from a woman, he said. "This is always a small fire waiting to explode."
The Duke lacrosse incident has all the elements: race, gender, class and athletics. To Smith, this situation is about the lack of respect that male athletes have for women, and about the sense of freedom they have to do things that disrespect women. Even leaving aside the issue of rape, he said, it's infuriating that many college athletes accept the idea of hiring strippers as normal college behavior. For starters, he said, educators need to loudly say that the practice is degrading.
"When college students hire strippers, they are saying that these people aren't valued," Smith said. "When you stick a dollar bill up a woman's crotch, you are doing something you wouldn't do with a girlfriend or wife or sister. This is about saying that these people have no value."
Michael A. Messner, author of Taking the Field: Women, Men and Sports, said that this incident reflects a culture prevalent on many teams that needs more attention. Even if elements of this culture are not surprising, people don't like to think about it until there is an incident, he said.
"Groups of men bond together through sexually aggressive activities. Sometimes it's just verbal boasting or joking. Sometimes it's watching porno, or creating porno by hiring strippers, and sometimes it might go to sexual assault or rape, and the line from one to the other can get real fuzzy when alcohol is involved," said Messner, chair of sociology at the University of Southern California.
Team culture needs to be monitored and in some cases changed, said Todd Crosset, who was an all-American swimmer as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, has been a coach and assistant athletics director at the college level, and currently studies the sociology of sports at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"The first thing you have to ask is, 'Why did these guys think it was OK to hire a stripper?'" he said. "Why is that OK? What are you telling the team about conduct?"
He also said that coaches and colleges need to get more comfortable talking with male athletes about masculinity because the failure to do so -- especially when dealing with sports where aggressive, physical play is the norm -- leaves players with potentially bad ways to express their feelings. "A group party is a demonstration of masculinity. That's what's going on there."
Then there is the issue of race. The public image of college athletics is one of integration, and on many campuses, teams are well integrated -- often with more cross-racial friendships than may be found elsewhere on campus. Indeed, many point to colleges' success attracting black athletes and ask why colleges can't be more successful at diversifying their student bodies as a whole.
But experts note that this incident has drawn attention to another, less integrated side of race and sports. The reason the racial make-up of the lacrosse team is known is that the woman who filed the rape complaint said that her attackers were white team members -- so the authorities collecting DNA were able to exclude any non-white members of the team. That was 1 of 47. In campus discussions of the incident, and with Durham's black community, that ratio has been the noted repeatedly, as has lacrosse's association with wealth -- and those facts certainly contrast with the diverse image colleges like to portray of athletics.
"A lot of American sports are pretty apartheid-like," said Donna A. Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation. But that's an issue people don't like to talk about, she said, and so they normally don't (at least not in public ways).
The flip side of the fact that this party was organized by white athletes is that it counters the stereotype of the black athlete as the source of campus problems.
"What these allegations show is that bad behavior is bad behavior. There is no particular group or race that can be excused," said Charlotte Westerhaus, vice president of diversity and inclusion at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. She also said that the NCAA did not like the idea that some sports are seen as "white" (or any other racial category). "We don't accept that," she said. "We think everyone should have opportunity in every sport."
So what more can colleges do to prevent the kinds of situations that can escalate as the party did at Duke (and has happened at numerous other campuses before)?
Messner, of Southern California, urged more attention to educating the people who may be bystanders to an incident or potential incident. It's too easy for athletes to zone out when they are getting a lecture about not sexually assaulting women by just saying to themselves that they wouldn't do that. But in many incidents involving teams, he said, it's clear that there is an audience or others in the vicinity. A few players hired strippers, while many others -- some of whom never would have done so -- didn't say anything. If a rape took place, and in past incidents where rapes did take place elsewhere, team members would know what was going on.
"When these things happen, two or three guys do it, and a lot of other guys are there -- doing nothing," Messner said. So he urges colleges to focus more of their educational efforts not on lectures against violence against women, but on lectures about not ignoring violence against women. "In these group situations, the most effective interventions are other members of the group."
Messner said that team loyalty can also work in favor of educators. In the Duke case, many of the students who have been calling for tougher action against the team have said that team members are protecting one another. Messner said that athletes do take the idea of protecting a friend's back into judicial situations, but that instead, colleges need to promote the idea -- prevalent on the field -- that all team members are responsible for one another. So preventing an incident is a team obligation. "You can take values they think about on the field, and apply them," he said.
Crosset of UMass said that the Duke incident pointed to an end run by some athletes around an important NCAA reform in the 1990s, when the association barred "athletic dormitories" in which teams lived together. Proponents of the reform said that the dorms separated athletes from the college experience and the student body -- and may have given some athletes a sense that they were "above" other students.
The reform was a very important one, Crosset said. But noting that the Duke party took place at an off-campus house rented by the lacrosse team's three captains, he said, "if athletes just do off campus what they once did in athletic dorms, is [the reform] working?"
At Duke, while students have been protesting, many faculty members feel dismayed, said Paul H. Haagen, a professor of law and head of Duke's Academic Council. Haagen said that he believes Duke is doing all it can to help the police investigations -- while not doing things that could result in students being denied due process. (Duke released an FAQ on the entire situation Tuesday night.)
But Haagen, whose academic specialty is sports law, said, "one of the realities here is that there is substantial public distrust of the ability of higher education to regulate its affairs related to athletes."
Any list of colleges that manage to balance commitment to academic ideals while also having high athletic ambitions would include Duke, a basketball powerhouse. So the lacrosse incident -- even without a rape -- is terrible, Haagen said. And Duke officials have said that their actions Tuesday night and earlier in forfeiting two games were based only on knowledge that underage drinking and the hiring of dancers had taken place. "Without regard to what comes in the criminal case, we're all disappointed," Haagen said.
Some observers have suggested that this incident shows that colleges that have long played close attention to the athletes on their "showcase teams" -- most often high visibility sports like basketball and football -- need to extend that scrutiny more broadly. Haagen, who played lacrosse as an undergraduate at Haverford College, has mixed feelings about such an approach.
Basketball players, he said, "are on a shorter leash" than other students. But if closer monitoring is needed, he said, what does that say about the students?
"I get really uneasy when we have special rules for athletes," he said. "We're not monitoring the orchestra. If these kinds of things are part of the culture, if watching for this needs to be part of the way we are operating, then we have to think real seriously about why we are doing this."
Particularly upsetting to Haagen and others at Duke is the impact this incident is having on the university's image in Durham. Over the last decade, Duke has invested considerable time and money in helping its home town -- financially, through service programs, and through generally changing an attitude that had once been quite ivory tower. Durham has a large minority population and many people in the city think of Duke as a wealthy institution compared to their own means.
"I suspect that whatever happens in this investigation, even if the DNA testing comes back negative, people are going to think there was a cover-up. This will become a reality," Haagen said.
And that reality of course looks different at North Carolina Central than at Duke. Most of the public attention has been about Duke, but there are also issues raised by the fact that a college student felt she needed to support herself by working for an escort service.
Roland Gaines, vice chancellor for student affairs at North Carolina Central, said that officials there don't know who the student is. Students and educators at the university are "upset and outraged" by what happened, but are trying to "be measured and calm" and that discussions are going on about how to respond.
He said that many students at the college are indeed "financially challenged" and that he regularly receives visits from students who can't make ends meet and are desperate for some sort of help or another job. The student told The Raleigh News & Observer that she typically took three assignments a week from the service, and that while she did not like the work, it paid well and fit her schedule.
"It's obviously a real concern that we have a student who feels she needs to go to an escort service for additional income," Gaines said. "It never, ever crossed my mind that we would have students do that."
While Duke and other colleges consider the larger ramifications of what has happened, Gaines said there was one thing he would like to do: If the student comes to see him, he said, he will help her find a different job.