Duke LAX

I never planned to comment on the Duke Lacrosse rape case, but one observation keeps running through my head and it’s probably best to get it out.

Back when I was in high school, I remember being told that, in a Shakespearean sense, tragedies were uplifting and comedies were depressing. That struck me as backwards for a while until I had watched/read more plays and understood that the tragedies, where the protagonist dies, often display the best elements of human character. There is nobility or love or honor in the characters as they face a universe that is, not hostile, but merely indifferent to the concerns of mankind. On the other hand, a comedy, where the main characters survive the play, often shows the pettiness of people: the bitterness, the backstabbing, the prejudice, the lying, etc.

With those two definitions in mind, I don’t think that you can call the Duke Lacrosse rape case anything but a comedy (again, in the Shakespearean sense). The key thing to remember when you see any of the coverage is that there were no good guys in the case. There were no heroes you could root for. The best you could do was to hope that justice would be served. Consider the participants:

  • Duke Lacrosse team. These are not the good clean cut boys that show up on television every few months. On campus, they are among the rowdiest of the athletes. They believe that they own the campus. They are generally the privileged children of parents in the north east. They grew up expecting everything and often got it. On the night the alleged event occurred, they were having a loud party that involved strippers and, probably, under aged drinking. According to public records, after the party one of the athletes composed an email to the rest which, while not illegal, was crude and disgusting and gives you a sense of what they might consider humorous.
  • The accuser. A woman who has been in and out (okay, mostly in) trouble with the law for well over a decade. Multiple arrests. Stolen property. False allegations in the past. Drug use. etc.
  • The police. For the most part, the police have gotten a pass in this one, but they are among the worst offenders. The investigating officers held a grudge against Duke students. One or both had arrest rates of Duke students that were much higher than the average. They generally went in with an attitude that the students must be guilty. They created a photographic lineup that was guaranteed to identify one or more Duke students as the alleged rapists, in violation of their own procedures. They accused staff of the university of being willing to destroy evidence – at times, they refused to actually tell staff what they were looking for in fear of the staff willfully destroying evidence.
  • The DA. The DA has gotten a lot of flack in the media and it is justly deserved. Nifong was running for re-election in a city with a large black population. He was running against a popular female attorney (whom had successfully prosecuted a very public murder trial) and a very well qualified black candidate. Nifong was concerned that if he didn’t score some points with the black community, he would lose the election. So he made horribly prejudiced statements to the media, he ignored exculpatory evidence and generally railroaded the students.
  • Duke Athletics. Here are a bunch of folks that knew the lacrosse (and other teams) were a problem waiting to happen. They had heard reports of general “bad behavior.” They knew about the drinking and the loud parties and never chose to do much about it.
  • Duke Administration. There were a number of ways the administration could have gone. The smart one would have been to: remind the public that these are allegations and not facts; tackle the general issue of the behavior of athletes; take no disciplinary action against the students for the alleged rape until after the prosecution was finished. This would have upset a large number of people, but it would have been a principled stand. Instead, the administration chose a middle course and upset everyone. They suspended the students, essentially presuming guilt. That upset all of the supporters of the athletes, but didn’t go far enough for those that wanted them expelled.
  • Group of 88. These were the faculty that came out against the students, assuming guilt based on the allegations. They endorsed a statement published as an ad in the Chronicle. These are faculty, they should know better than to presume guilt.
  • Other Supporters of the Alleged Victim. While not in the same position of responsibility at Duke as the group of 88, a number of people in the local community and nationally treated the allegations as fact. They assumed that just because a woman made an allegation, it must be true. After all, why would she make something like that up. Never mind that from the beginning, it was clear that all of the facts didn’t add up. They seemed to say that she was an underprivileged black woman, they were overly privileged white boys, of course they raped her. Other supporters harassed the students. They put up web pages with their names, pictures, home addresses and parents. Another person or group of people sent forged email to the students, the police or NCCU, trying to get the students in more trouble.
  • Supporters of the Lacrosse Players. If the supporters of the alleged victim and the group of 88 were bad, then you could at least hope that the supporters of the athletes were the good guys. You would be disappointed. While there were principled people saying that these are allegations and we should wait for the trial (if the case is brought forward), many of the supporters launched personal attacks against the accuser or the group of 88. Some of the more harassing and racist messages I’ve seen in a long time came from supporters of the players and was directed at the accuser and the group of 88.
  • The Media. The media, of course, did what it has been doing for years now – not just in Durham, but all over the country. They were quite happy to report what the participants said, but seemed disinclined to actually investigate what happened. Since Nifong was the person making the most statements at the beginning, it was the Nifong show. When Nifong finally realized he should stop making speeches to the press, the defense attorneys had the press to themselves. I recall very little real investigation by the media. Certainly none by the local television stations.

In short, the closest thing we got to a “good guy” in the whole mess was attorney general Roy Cooper. After Nifong recused himself, the AG’s office took over the case. They did their jobs. They spent three months quietly looking into the evidence and came to the conclusion that there was nothing to prosecute. If this had been a Shakespearean comedy, Cooper would have played the beneficent king that comes in at the end and makes everything right. And, as with any comedy, I’m left a little more depressed with the nature of mankind.


  1. Celeste said,

    April 17, 2007 @ 9:00 am

    That’s an interesting point about comedy vs. tragedy. Having taken a course at Duke with Professor Gopen called Shakespeare after 1600, and having played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I think I would have found that point very useful if I’d heard it earlier. I honestly didn’t like AMND, and at the time I couldn’t tell you why, but I think your point explains a lot of it. I didn’t even like the character I was playing – she had no real redeeming qualities.

    Your point about Roy Cooper is well taken – his speech declaring the players’ innocence had a deus ex machina quality to it. But aside from being the only “good guy”, he is also the only person who benefited from this whole scenario. He comes out looking squeaky clean, and his own career has been promoted. I wonder if that didn’t play some part in his strong speech and declaration of “innocence.”

    I’m not saying that he distorted facts or that his final decision was wrong in any way, but it certainly didn’t hurt him any.

  2. cec said,

    April 17, 2007 @ 10:59 am

    I’m sure that looking like the only good guy did play a part in his speech. Note that even though he declared the players innocent, he is not going to prosecute the accuser and on “60 Minutes” said that he basically felt sorry for her.

    In terms of Cooper’s longer term political aspirations, I’m sure NC’s recent history of electing AGs as governor was something he considered. Not saying that he made the wrong decision, but you are definitely right, it’s going to help him.

  3. Swanno said,

    April 21, 2007 @ 6:36 pm


    Thanks for posting this. My wife and I have been wearied by this whole ordeal, by which the nation got to know a Duke that–for us–wasn’t much part of our lives as undergrads. Of course, this Duke, the one where overprivileged jerks do whatever the hell they want and reap few consequences on their way to making partner in Daddy’s firm, was always just around the corner for us. But the Duke we know and love, the one where fun-loving geeks study their asses off on their way to grad school, got lost in the shuffle.

    As you note, the whole situation is so complex that it defies easy understanding or explication. There is no one person or group to blame, but rather a whole constellation of semi-bad actors. If I were a cynic, this would indeed be a revealing allegory for the human condition, but I like to think that things don’t have to be like this. Those with power have a duty to understand that the fact that they “have things” doesn’t mean they “deserve them”; a little humility goes a long way toward creating a civil community.

    Dan Swanwick

  4. Barry Porter said,

    May 4, 2007 @ 11:10 am

    Rush to judgment is a key issue in our society today! Please let me introduce myself; my name is Barry Porter and I am the Director of Marketing, Adult Publishing Group at Simon & Schuster.

    I don’t know if you are aware but Pocket Book/Threshold Editions is about to publish It’s Not About the Truth: The Untold Story of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case and the Lives It Shattered by Don Yaeger, with Mike Pressler. I have attached the cover image and the press release of our upcoming publication. I would love to send you copies of the book when it becomes available; I just finished it and still cannot believe what I have read! There is so much more to this case then has been released, that is covered in this book.

    At this time our pub date for It’s Not About the Truth is 6/12. All marketing, online, and publicity efforts will kick off that week. I just thought you would like a “heads up” about our publication. If you have any questions feel free to e-mail me back.



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