For years, they had met over sandwiches and Bloody Marys at tailgate parties before their sons' games.
But yesterday, parents of the 2006 Duke lacrosse team gathered for a more somber purpose: to announce a federal court suit against the university and others for "tremendous suffering" endured after three players were falsely accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a party.
The suit, brought by 38 members of the 2006 team and nine family members, accuses Duke of abandoning the players and ignoring evidence that, according to the families, showed that the rape allegations were manufactured.
Duke, the suit says, "lent credibility to the rape allegations by capitulating to an angry mob's demands to condemn and punish the innocent players and their blameless coach."
The plaintiffs don't include the three players - David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann - who had faced sexual assault charges. They reached financial settlements with Duke last year. Finnerty has transferred to Loyola, and Seligmann transferred to Brown. Evans, who played at Bethesda's Landon School, has graduated.
The three former players were indicted in 2006 after a stripper alleged that she had been pulled into a bathroom and raped during an off-campus party. The case collapsed, and Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong was disbarred for violating rules of professional conduct. Last year, Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans filed their own suit against Nifong and police detectives for pursuing the case.
"It was a vile and shameful lie, and it caused the plaintiffs tremendous suffering and grievous, lasting injuries," Chuck Cooper, the families' lead attorney, said in announcing the suit at the National Press Club. He said the complaint, which seeks unspecified financial damages, was being filed yesterday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
About 20 percent of the 2006 team members are from Maryland. Among the handful of state residents present yesterday was Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, whose son, Gibbs, still plays on the team. "It's just sad," said Sally Fogarty, who has raised money for Duke and wore a diamond Duke pin to the news conference.
In a prepared statement, Duke said the lawsuit was "misdirected" because Nifong is the real culprit. Nifong could not be included as a defendant in yesterday's suit because he has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, Cooper said. Cooper also said Crystal Mangum - the woman who made the now-discredited allegations - was not included as a defendant.
Named as defendants were Duke, president Richard Brodhead, provost Peter Lange and various Durham, N.C., officials who are accused by the families of negligence and a "malicious investigation."
"We have now seen the lawsuit, and as we said before, if these plaintiffs have a complaint, it is with Mr. Nifong," said Pamela Bernard, Duke vice president and general counsel. "Their legal strategy - attacking Duke - is misdirected and without merit."
Cooper was joined yesterday by about 15 Duke parents who sat silently watching his presentation and did not take questions from reporters.
Cooper said the parents were torn between love for Duke and a desire to see it held accountable.
"Many of these families have deep and abiding multigenerational ties to this university," Cooper said. "They love it dearly."