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The Durham heat burned through Devon Sherwood’s jersey as he waited for the lacrosse team he longed to join to come from the locker room. It was his eighteenth birthday, September 16, 2005. Shifting his feet on the green turf, he pondered the challenge ahead.
The lanky freshman had been a good high school goalie in Freeport, Long Island—good enough to be recruited by five small colleges and offered a probable starting position by prestigious Williams.
Duke had been a different story. A lacrosse powerhouse, it had come within a goal of winning the national championship in May 2005. This year’s team was even more loaded with talent, and widely seen as the one to beat in 2006. Mike Pressler, the 2005 NCAA lacrosse coach of the year, could fill his twelve scholarship slots with high school all-Americans and near all-Americans. Devon had not made that cut.
He chose Duke anyway. His father, Chuck, had played lacrosse for Duke. And when Devon and his parents had toured the campus, Pressler had greeted them warmly, encouraging Devon to try out as a walk-on.
Few walk-ons make the roster in big-time college sports. Even fewer get playing time. And Duke was as big-time as lacrosse gets. So Devon’s excitement was tinged with apprehension as the forty-five blue-helmeted figures came jogging onto the field. They formed two perfect lines, in full battle array, down to the fierce-looking face masks that in a few months would—along with charges of gang rape and racism—fix the team’s image on the nation’s television screens.
Showtime, Devon thought. Will I win their respect? Will they accept me?
One by one, the forty-five figures came up to the rookie, shook hands, introduced themselves, wished him luck. They didn’t have to do that, he thought.
Two weeks and dozens of saves later, Coach Pressler called Devon into his office. Was he having a good time? Was he ready for the commitment and hard work expected of a Division I athlete? Devon was ready. He would be the third-string goalie. But he was sure he had to be the happiest person alive. Happy, and eager to improve. He had big shoes to fill. Chuck Sherwood, Duke’s first African-American lacrosse player, had set goalkeeping records, including most saves in a game.
Now Devon would be the only black guy on a team with forty-six white guys. His contributions to team culture included a rap song incorporating every teammate’s name or nickname, depending on which rhymed better. Everyone had at least one nickname. Devon’s was “D-Wood.”
The practices were grueling: at least fifteen hours a week in the fall and twenty-two hours in the spring of lacrosse drills, scrimmages, running, and weight lifting. Plus a full course load. Plus, for Devon, getting to know as many of Duke’s other six hundred black undergraduates as he could.
Many of the other lacrosse players hung together off as well as on the field, acquiring a reputation for clannishness, in part because there were so many of them, and for going around in large, sometimes loud, often conspicuous groups, and for drunken revelry that stood out even at a legendary party school. In fact, aside from their visibility, their behavior was not atypical of many other Duke students, but it made the lacrosse players an unusually inviting target for those displeased with the Duke status quo.
One of the nation’s ten top academic institutions, Duke could fill most seats in every entering class with high school valedictorians. It had also earned a national reputation as a hedonistic scene of wild antics and rampant sexual “hookups”—mostly one-night stands—marinated in oceans of alcohol.
Fraternities and sororities, informally ranked, dominated the social scene, which was mostly off campus because of Duke’s strict drinking rules. With the young women as eager for sexual conquests as the guys, the female-male ratio and the balance of sexual power favored the alpha males, especially at Duke. Indeed, more than one sorority hired male strippers for its own initiation, a fact that became public in 2006 but was all but ignored by the media.
Inevitably the most extreme parties worked their way into the media as if they reflected normal affairs. A January 2005 bacchanal, for instance, brought national publicity. Police raiding an off-campus rental house jammed with two hundred students found coeds in bikinis, emulating the movie Old School by wrestling in a kiddie pool full of baby oil while beer-swilling boys watched and cheered. The scene was reminiscent of the raucous Saint Ray fraternity parties in Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Set at fictional Dupont University, which Wolfe modeled largely on Duke, the novel tells the story of a sheltered but extraordinarily bright student from a small North Carolina town who arrives in search of intellectual challenge and emotional growth. What she finds is a place where star athletes outrank star students and the route to social acceptance is a booze- and sex-obsessed culture of hard partying male athletes and scantily clad sorority girls. Charlotte dutifully, if unhappily, takes that route.
At Duke, as at Wolfe’s Dupont, it was not all fun. Some women brought impressive academic and other credentials, only to become “unhappy, insecure girls all fighting to get rammed by someone of status,” wrote Dukeobsrvr, an anonymous student blogger. All this provoked much gnashing of teeth and agonizing among Duke faculty and administrators, especially those concerned about equality and dignity for women.
“Men and women agree the double standard persists: men gain status through sexual activity while women lose status,” complained a high-level, female-dominated group chaired by then-president Nannerl O. Keohane, a major 2003 report by the Steering Committee for the Women’s Initiative at Duke University on the lives of women at Duke. “Fraternities control the mainstream social scene to such an extent that women feel like they play by the men’s rules. Social life is further complicated by a number of embedded hierarchies, from the widely understood ranking of Greek organizations to the opposite trajectories women and men take over four years, with women losing status.”
Most students took a less jaundiced view. What feminist professors and some others saw as hedonistic excess, many female students saw as being liberated and proud. “Duke was best summarized by a ‘Work hard, play hard’ mentality,” recalled a 2006 grad. “While some burned the candle too close, others were able to handle successfully all of their responsibilities and took pride in doing so.”
The party scene—or what was left of it after various purges by the Duke administration in recent years—was only one of Duke’s many parts. Most students either stayed away from the wild parties to focus on academics and extracurricular activities or worked as hard as they played.
Most—but hardly all—of the forty-seven lacrosse players were in the latter category, and something like a bunch of big-man-on-campus fraternity brothers. “In the order of the social universe of Duke undergraduates,” Peter Boyer wrote in The New Yorker, “the lacrosse players ranked at the top of the dominance hierarchy.”
Whether this reflected unhealthy arrogance or a healthy self-confidence was in the eye of the beholder. “‘Laxers,’ as lacrosse players are universally known, tend to be the most desired and most confident guys on campus,” wrote Janet Reitman in Rolling Stone. “They’re fun. And they’re hot.” A more jaundiced view of some of the players came from Carly Knight, a third-year student. After the gang-rape allegations against the team broke, she told the Chronicle, the school’s newspaper, that they exuded “an extreme amount of arrogance,” urinated out their windows, kicked in the door of a friend several times, and were generally disruptive during frequent parties in a room near hers. To such caricatures, Chris Kennedy, an associate athletic director and the administrator closest to the team, had an obvious retort, if one often ignored in the spring and summer of 2006: “The lacrosse players didn’t become among the most popular students on campus because they treated people boorishly.”
The laxers, together with the baseball team, were the leaders of the pack at the most spectacular, and notorious, regular party scene of all—a Saturday morning, pre-football-game festival of keg parties, binge drinking, beer bonging, outrageous costume wearing, and other hijinks known as Tailgate, held in a parking lot near the stadium. The laxers “are credited with helping to transform tailgate from a small pre-game gathering to a campus-wide drinking event in the last several years,” reported The Chronicle. One highlight was a foam machine and pit for collective, booze-soaked dancing. But the lacrosse station at Tailgate attracted the most attention because of the players’ habit of colorful, often wild, costumes and the obvious fun the players had at the affair.
This was the main opportunity for the laxers to cut loose; they began rigorous training for the spring season in early February and were busy playing games and practicing during the spring break and post-exam Myrtle Beach bashes enjoyed by many other Duke students.
Much of what went on at these parties would strike most people—if not left-wing professors or right-wing Christian conservatives—as good clean fun.
A student later recalled the tradition with fondness:
Some tailgates had every [lacrosse team] member dress like a WWF wrestler from the eighties and each person mock-wrestled in front of close to a hundred or more tailgaters. The last tailgate party was amazing. About ten guys from the team stayed up all night and built a foam pit that probably measured twenty feet by ten feet and had blue tarp on the sides so that the foam could rise almost three to four feet. The deans, including Dean Sue [Wasiolek], were amazed. There are countless letters from people to coach Pressler saying how amazing our tailgates were. Our tailgates were positive. One alum wrote that since he had overcome cancer it was the best part of his new life.
But there was an uglier side to Tailgate. The liability-shy university had pushed the inevitable student drinkathons off campus, and as a foreseeable consequence many students were falling-down drunk by early afternoon. (No lacrosse players were cited for such behavior.) There was some fighting. And with Duke’s football team expected to take a drubbing most of the time—it was the weakest of the major Duke teams, and in the 2004, 2005, and 2006 seasons defeated only one Division I opponent—many students treated Tailgate as the main event, showing up at the football games late or not at all.
Things got so out of hand that the new baseball coach made a show of banning his team—whose image had been tarnished by a recent steroid scandal—from Tailgate. At the request of the administration, Mike Pressler let his team attend but laid down a rule requiring all lacrosse players at Tailgate to leave as a group fifteen minutes before game time and watch at least the first half. They had to check in with the coach before entering the stadium, so he could see whether any had had too much to drink; on a few occasions, several players recall seeing Duke president Richard Brodhead as they went in to watch the football game. He was, they said, always cheery, telling them it looked like they were having a good time.
Players complied with Pressler’s dictate and went in to the game, but they were virtually alone in doing so. Administration hopes that other students would follow were dashed. So the university forced those who stayed at Tailgate to leave at halftime, perhaps adding to the incidence of drunk driving.
Overall, despite the laxers’ “reputation for some drunken, boorish behavior,” Donna Lisker, director of Duke’s Women’s Center, told Sports Illustrated, “fraternities are a bigger problem.” Still, administrators and faculty tended to associate the laxers with the worst excesses of Tailgate and of the party scene as whole.
The lacrosse players also symbolized Duke’s large investment of resources in having nationally competitive Division I athletic teams. This emphasis was rare among the nation’s the top academic institutions. “We bond over athletics,” explained Seyward Darby, a nonathlete who was editor in chief of The Chronicle in 2005–2006. “It gives me a sense of pride in my university.” The policy also helped Duke attract some quality students who could have gone to Ivy League schools.
But the emphasis on sports gave many Duke professors a sense of shame about their university. Especially those who were still infected with Ivy League envy even after Duke had soared to the fifth ranking for overall quality in the U.S. News & World Report annual college issue. These academics deeply resented what they perceived as Duke’s bending of admissions standards and use of scholarship funds to build a championship-caliber lacrosse team. That the lacrosse players by and large compiled academic records indistinguishable from a typical group of fifty Duke nonathletes passed without notice from faculty members who resented their status.
Bending admissions and hiring standards and targeting scholarship money to attract more black and Hispanic students and professors was one thing. The Ivies and all other major universities did that, too. And most academics support racial and ethnic diversity (although not intellectual diversity) with the fervor of religious believers.
Bending admissions standards to build a lacrosse team was something else, especially since most team members were the kind of prosperous white boys whom many professors considered overrepresented already.
On campus, this position was championed with particular ferocity by cultural anthropology professor Orin Starn, who wanted Duke to drop “to Division III in the longer term or even just have club sports teams. Students could just as well learn the lessons of leadership, competition, and teamwork competing at the Division III or club level.” Money now spent on athletics could then be transferred to “deserving African-American and other applicants from underrepresented groups to strengthen Duke diversity and excellence.” Leaving aside the probable unconstitutionality of race-based scholarships under recent Supreme Court precedents, neither Starn nor any of his faculty supporters ever supplied evidence that funding for athletics had taken away from Duke offering academic merit scholarships.
Other professors, meanwhile, objected to the idea of athletics—especially male athletics—altogether. They saw sports as reinforcing ideas such as competitiveness and merit-based success that are out of favor in the contemporary academy. “The ‘culture’ of sports seems for some a reasonable displacement for the cultures of moral conduct, ethical citizenship and personal integrity,” wrote Karla F. C. Holloway, a professor of English who would emerge as a vehement critic of the lacrosse players, in the journal Scholar and Feminist Online. Such attitudes, she hyperbolically claimed, reinforced “exactly those behaviors of entitlement which have been and can be so abusive to women and girls and those ‘othered’ by their sports’ history of membership.” Holloway cited no evidence for any of these crude, contempt-filled stereotypes of athletes.
Many professors and some students also harbored deep resentment of the affluent social class into which a majority of the lacrosse players were born. More than half of the players came from rich or near-rich families and had gone to northeastern prep schools where lacrosse is big. Many planned to make big bucks in fields like investment banking. Assisted by the influential lacrosse network, eight of the ten seniors on the 2005–2006 team planned to begin careers on Wall Street after graduating. Pressler put together a dossier of the job offers to distribute to parents of recruits, pointing out that his players had great success after graduation.
These tensions reflected two tranformations of Duke’s culture over the previous two decades that put athletes—and many other students—on a collision course with thier increasingly radical professors. First, Duke joined schools such as Stanford, the University of Texas, and the University of Michigan as a perennial contender for the Sears Cup, awarded for the cumulative performance of all of a school’s NCAA sports teams. Like Stanford, Duke wrote off football and focused instead on men’s and women’s basketball along with sports perceived as bastions of the upper class—such as golf, tennis, and lacrosse. To attract better athletes, the institution spent more on sports and athletics facilities. The number of student athletes on financial aid increased from 194 in 1984 to 308 in 2001. And the Athletics Department as a whole, led by men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, became more autonomous after Coach K forced the administration to hire his friend, Joe Alleva, as athletics director.
At the same time, more important, Duke sought to join the Ivies, Stanford, and MIT among the nation’s leading academic institutions. It chose to do so, however, on the cheap: bypassing the sciences (where the combination of salary and lab costs for a new hire ran around $400,000), the school focused on bringing in big-name humanities professors, for whom the only start-up cost was salary. Politically correct leftist professors were in vogue nationwide, and the leftward slant of Duke’s humanities and social sciences faculty accelerated in 1995, when President Nannerl Overholser “Nan” Keohane named History professor William Chafe as her new dean of faculty. As he explained in a 2002 “State of Arts and Sciences Address,” Chafe focused on using new faculty hires to eliminate the “tendency to think of Duke as a place of wealth, whiteness and privilege.” Diversity, rather than traditional conceptions of academic excellence, would be the prime criterion in choosing new professors for Duke. In a 2002 column, Economics professor E. Roy Weintraub pointed out the obvious flaw in this approach, which abandoned “the development of an ever-more distinguished faculty.” “Have we,” Weintraub wondered, “chosen to settle for using our resources to achieve a more diverse faculty instead of a more intellectually distinguished one? The record of the past decade seems to indicate that the answer is ‘yes.’” In this, as we, shall see, Duke was hardly alone.
In a 2007 blog posting, former Duke professor Stuart Rojstaczer accurately described Duke’s two-track path to excellence as a looming train wreck. “The humanities,” he wrote, “are dominated by far left politics and many of these star faculty members were very much on the political left. Duke had never had this level of leftist slant before. . . . Many could care less about college athletics and some were openly dismissive. They were different. They tended to be urban. They tended to be Eastern. They tended to fit into the culture of the South and Durham poorly. Duke was an oasis for them.” Coupled with Chafe’s emphasis on far-left diversity hires, by early 2006 Duke’s faculty had grown well out of step with mainstream student opinion.
Meanwhile, the men’s lacrosse team was seen as symbolic of a way of life despised by many left-leaning Duke professors and administrators and a much smaller group of students. This resentment was fed by the preexisting stereotype—up and down the East Coast—of lacrosse players as a privileged, conceited, drunken, boorish, even thuggish mix of rich-kid entitlement and big-jock swagger.
This stereotype was to pervade the media coverage once gang-rape charges placed the Duke team in the spotlight. Explained Newsweek: “Strutting lacrosse players are a distinctive and familiar breed on elite campuses along the Eastern Seaboard. Because the game until recently was played mostly at prep schools and in the upper-middle-class communities on New York’s Long Island and outside Baltimore, the players tend to be at once macho and entitled, a sometimes unfortunate combination.” The same article also suggested, without specifics, that they “sometimes behave like thugs.”
Among those who read such stuff with mounting disgust was Stefanie Williams, who went to high school with three of the Duke players in Long Island and managed the University of Maryland men’s lacrosse team. “I watched kids I grew up with get labeled racists, misogynists, white supremacists and hooligans,” she later wrote in The Diamondback, Maryland’s student newspaper. “I defended the guys on our team who had often walked me home from a bar, let me crash on their couch, hung out with me on away trips, picked me up when I needed rides, grabbed lunch with me, helped me in my classes and stuck up for me when other guys got too rowdy. . . . While . . . race-baiting journalists continuously commented on the ‘white culture’ behind lacrosse, no one seemed to mention the hours of community service that ‘culture’ encouraged teams to give back.”
Whatever validity the lacrosse-thug stereotype might have as to some players, at some colleges, in some years, the 2005—2006 Duke team was branded with it by dozens of journalists and thousands of others who had never met a Duke lacrosse player. People who properly shunned racial and gender stereotypes had no hesitation asserting that the Duke team had it coming because lacrosse players were a bad bunch, and probably racists to boot.
That’s not how they seemed to Devon Sherwood. “I received nothing but love and appreciation and thoughtfulness from my teammates,” he reflected after the tumultuous 2005–2006 academic year had passed. “People were looking out for me. They never treated me differently from the all-Americans, Matt Zash and Matt Danowski. I felt more accepted by this team than ever before in my lacrosse career. It was like a big family.”
The lacrosse players were also like family to Sue Pressler, Mike’s wife. She helped recruit them. They played with the Presslers’ two girls, fourteen-year-old Janet Lynn and eight-year-old Maggie. And she shared their hopes and dreams for a national championship and happy, productive lives. “This class of 2006 seniors, they were always special,” Sue later reflected. “They were cohesive. There was something magical about this group. I had knee surgery when they were freshmen, and along with the flowers the team sent me, the freshmen sent their own flowers. I thought, ‘My gosh, I love these kids.’”
A more mixed but on balance highly positive verdict came from a seven-member faculty committee that investigated the culture of the lacrosse team and Coach Pressler’s leadership from 2001 to the spring of 2006. The gist: Even more than most Duke students and athletes, lacrosse players drank much too much. They were much too loud when drunk. Those living and partying off campus often disturbed the neighbors. They were often cited by Durham police for noise and open-container violations. And those shy of twenty-one often got caught drinking illegally.
But apart from the disputed rape charge, the lacrosse players’ infractions, though numerous, ranged from minor down to trivial. They had been involved in no serious misconduct. They had no record of racism, sexism, violence, or bullying. They studied hard. They got good grades, among the best of any Duke athletic squad, and better than any other lacrosse team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Every member of the Class of 2006 graduated with a grade point average above 3.0. They enrolled in the same kinds of classes as most other Duke students. Of the seniors, two majored in economics, two in engineering, one in public policy, and five in history. Five of the squad’s ten seniors made the honor roll in each of their four years at Duke: captains Dave Evans, Matt Zash, and Bret Thompson, and Erik Henkelman and Glenn Nick. The team’s graduation rate was 100 percent.
Because many lacrosse players planned careers in business, banking, and consulting, they often supplemented their academic majors with a seven-course “markets and management” cluster. Given their career aims and the need to avoid conflicts with their practice schedule, it was common for several players to enroll in the same class. Such situations often foster academic-integrity problems, as when fraternity brothers or sorority sisters “share” papers from previous years. But the 2006 Duke lacrosse team’s academic-integrity record was impeccable.
The team also had a good record of community service, especially with a reading program that targeted black and Hispanic children in the Durham public schools. They showed respect and consideration for the people who did menial jobs for the team, minorities, and women. And even more than past Duke teams, the 2005–2006 team had formed a tight bond with the women’s lacrosse team. The two teams practiced side by side.
When the legal case against the players collapsed, defenders of the rush to judgment would fall back on the new mantra that the Duke lacrosse players were “no choirboys” or “no angels.” The implication seemed to be that traits shared by the vast majority of college students nationwide could justify the selective public trashing of the lacrosse players’ character by the authorities, the media, and many Duke professors and administrators.
Some Duke administrators and others continued to float innuendos, despite the evidence, suggesting that members of the 2005–2006 lacrosse team had been involved in boorish or even thuggish conduct that the committee had somehow missed. But when pressed for examples, these detractors had little to offer. Two Duke grads did cite a case in which lacrosse players broke up a party at a local restaurant by getting into a brawl, with people smashing beer bottles on each other’s heads. “I remember seeing a guy who I somehow knew to be a lacrosse player, on top of someone else, pounding them with his fist,” one grad recalled. But that occurred in the spring of 1997, years before any member of the 2005–2006 team had arrived at Duke.
More recent data from Duke’s Judicial Affairs Office are telling: In the six academic years ending in 2006, there were a total of 377 reported incidents of academic dishonesty (such as cheating and plagiarism) by Duke students; 46 reported incidents of physical abuse, fighting and endangerment; 20 incidents of alleged sexual misconduct; 171 alcohol-related medical calls; and 96 incidents of drug-related misconduct. None of these involved lacrosse players, excepting one accused of smoking pot in his room in 2001.
Not that all was idyllic. Not all the younger players always loved all the seniors, any more than kids always love older siblings. There were tensions inherent in the need for the seniors to step up to leadership roles, the arrival of a new group of freshmen, the competition for scarce playing time, the annual ritual of any team that Sue Pressler called “herding to get everyone on the same page to achieve the goal.” And while both men’s and women’s teams were loaded with talent and were contenders for national championships, the high expectations brought pressure. “The spirit for both teams at times seemed forced, trying to find a new identity from the previous year’s team,” reflected an assistant coach for the women’s team much later. “The girls’ team found that identity as their season went on.” The boys’ team never got the chance.
As the season began in February 2006, they dreamed of winning the national championship that had barely eluded Duke the previous spring. “Duke is loaded this year,” the 2006 Yearbook edition of Face-Off reported. “Just about everybody’s back and the [Blue] Devils are ready to run and gun their way back for another crack at the title.” Then senior Casey Carroll, one of the best defenseman in the country, tore his ACL during practice on March 6. He was out for the season. “That was devastating, just devastating,” Sue Pressler recalled later. It was not the same team without Casey. They struggled to beat Loyola of Baltimore on March 12, in San Diego. After the game the team had a ceremony to give Casey the game ball. But a game ball was no compensation for an end to his college lacrosse career.
“It’s not unlike a death when your sport ends,” Sue Pressler explained. A tall, athletic woman who was captain of the swimming team at the University of Michigan, a swimming coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, and a tenured faculty member in Physical Education, teaching Exercise Physiology and Kinesiology, Sue understood the passion of young athletes for their sport. “These lacrosse players are some of the most elite student athletes in the country,” she explained, at a time when they were being reviled as the shame of the country. “These kids are driven. They have a passion for their sport. They have a passion for the classroom—okay, a few not as much, but many do. They do things that you can’t teach. It’s beautiful, and part of it is that they would die for each other. I understand ‘work hard, play hard.’ Did they ever let the door slam in your face? I doubt it. They were everything you’d want your kid to be—polite, courteous young men who are diligent and stick to task.”
Casey Carroll had one chance of coming back the next year and finishing out his Duke lacrosse career. If they made it to the finals of the national championship, as it happened, they would have played enough games for him to qualify under the arcane rules for such matters. All his teammates would have to do for him to qualify would be to run the table against all of the best lacrosse teams in the country.
Copyright © 2007 by Stuart Taylor Jr. All rights reserved.