At Duke, hard questions about lacrosse culture

In the wake of an allegation of assault, the university has vowed a deep 'self-study' into a privileged group.

On any given day, one might find students from Duke debating social responsibility for the Darfur genocide, hammering nails for Habitat for Humanity, or learning how to conduct ethical business at the Fuqua School.

It's all part of the Southern university's charm and respect, wrapped in the warmth of the Sarah Duke Gardens and the volcanic stone facade of Duke Chapel.

But that image was tattered last month when allegations emerged that members of the school's elite, and almost entirely white, lacrosse team had been involved in a sexual assault on a black exotic dancer hired to come to a house off campus.

To some, it's a story of power and entitlement gone awry - a perfect storm of race, class, and sex, where racial taunts and other boorish behavior turned brutish, even brutal.

The university is vowing a deep "self-study" into the lacrosse culture. This may point, some hope, a direct spotlight on the pitfalls of privilege, power, and excess that are often envied, not criticized, in the upper echelons of American campuses - and society.

"All of the imagery, all of the symbolism of American hierarchy of what's viewed as powerful and desirable, really finds its most immediate symbol, in this case, in lacrosse players," says Chris Johnson, a 2001 Duke graduate who now works on Capitol Hill.

The incident has exacerbated tensions between Duke and Durham, but at the same time both students and townspeople have come together for near-daily protests over the incident and the university's handling of it.

The details of what happened on March 13 are still emerging. A party at the captain's university-owned house was to feature two hired African-American exotic dancers, one of whom turned out to be a student at historically black North Carolina Central University, across town.

The women have told police they were confronted by "aggressive" men hurling racial insults and insinuations. They left once but were coaxed back into the house, at which point one of the women was allegedly assaulted by three players.

No charges have been filed, but District Attorney Mike Nifong lined up 46 players for DNA tests. He has said the woman's injuries indicate an assault took place.

The team says no attack occurred. Bill Thomas, an attorney for one of the players, told the Associated Press that the men have been wrongfully vilified. On Sunday, Mr. Thomas said he had time-stamped photographs that show the woman was already injured when she arrived at the party.

Neighbors have told police that they heard one of the men yell to the women, "Thank your grandpa for this nice cotton shirt." Even if the attack didn't take place, students and faculty say such comments are part of a long litany of boorish, rude, and racist slurs uttered by what some deem untouchable princes of the campus.

"They've gone to private schools where they've had little contact with minority students and, probably all their life, they haven't been disciplined or punished for these kinds of things," says Robert Korstad, a Duke professor.

Critics say that instead of opening up players' minds, Duke's atmosphere may actually fuel a sense of entitlement. Former students describe Duke as a "kind of Oz," where even after a hurricane, when nearby towns lie dark, the campus is lit and quickly cleared. And in this at-times magical place, the lacrosse team is at the social apex, say Mr. Johnson and others.

"It's the power aspect that you can't help but notice," he says. "I think that these guys know they have it, I think the university knows it, and that's why people are upset."

Critics say the university has moved too slowly. President Richard Brodhead first suspended, then canceled, the lacrosse season. Last week, the coach, who was said to facilitate a particularly aggressive style and esprit de corps on the field, resigned under pressure.

For many, it is not enough. "A lot of staff would have liked to have seen the headline, 'Lacrosse coach fired' instead of 'Lacrosse coach resigns,' " says Professor Korstad.

None of this is new to the surrounding community, says James Coleman, another Duke professor. Though a major biomedical center, Durham's city center is awash in poverty, much of it African-American, and it has a high murder rate.

"Some locals say that, if this happened, it's more extreme, but still consistent with behavior they see every day, that these kids live here for three or four years. They don't act as if they're part of the community," says Professor Coleman, who is heading up a university committee to investigate the lacrosse culture.

The task for the university is to decide whether the team members were simply incorrigible, or "whether we're harboring a rapist among us," says Coleman.

"The question is: Did anyone in the university know about it and, if they didn't know, was it because they were sort of willfully blind or was it because we don't have a system in place to make sure that we can learn about this behavior?" he says.

Such questions are quite familiar to some members of the campus community, after a female student reported she was sexually assaulted in a dormitory bathroom in 2002. After the same student claimed she was assaulted again in 2004, however, it was determined that neither incident took place, according to Duke's student newspaper, The Chronicle.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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