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Lax Environment

Times Staff Writers

For a few hours on a balmy Friday evening, the people at Koskinen Stadium can forget. Fans wear Duke lacrosse caps and T-shirts that read “I Love Duke Lax” without a hint of irony, cheering as the women’s team faces top-ranked Northwestern. Players raise their sticks and whoop to celebrate a late goal.

Within minutes of the upset victory, however, Coach Kerstin Kimel finds herself talking to reporters about the university’s other lacrosse squad.

The nationally ranked men’s team was abruptly disbanded at midseason, the players under investigation after an exotic dancer told police she was gang-raped by three lacrosse players at a party. Because they are white and the accuser is African American, the case has stirred racial tensions in Durham and underscored the historically uneasy rapport between Duke and its less-affluent surrounding community.

“It’s been hard around here,” Kimel says.

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The coach speaks briskly, earnestly, saying there are so many people for whom she feels concern: The alleged victim. The players who, at the very least, put themselves in a bad situation that night. The men’s coach -- her colleague -- who resigned.

More than anything, Kimel predicts, what happened at Duke will send aftershocks beyond the school and the city.

She says, “I think there are a lot of coaches who looked at this and thought: ‘That could have been me.’ ”

Despite elements specific to time and place, the Duke case joins a growing list of scandals -- notably at Oklahoma, Miami, Nebraska and Colorado -- that share a common thread. One by one, they have reinforced a growing sense that college sports are spinning out of control, riddled with pampered athletes who consider themselves above the law.

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“I think it’s dangerous to see [Duke] as an isolated incident,” said Michael Messner, a USC professor who has written several books on gender issues in sport. “This is a really good opportunity for us to look at the culture of men’s sports and ask ourselves, ‘If the shoe fits, wear it.’ I think it’s a systemic problem.”

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In the aftermath of the party at Duke on March 13, prosecutors asked 46 lacrosse players to submit DNA samples. A 47th player, who is black, is not under investigation because the accuser told police her three attackers were white.

The players have denied the allegations and, through their attorneys, declined to comment further.

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Initial tests failed to link any of them to the alleged crime, and no one has been charged. Still, the district attorney said he was awaiting further results and has vowed to press forward. No matter the outcome, the incident remains troublesome.

Witnesses allege they heard players yelling racial slurs that evening, and local media have reported on the team’s previous run-ins with the law for misdemeanor offenses, all of which qualifies Duke lacrosse for a notorious list.

In the late 1980s, three Oklahoma football players were arrested for allegedly raping a woman in an athletic dormitory, another player shot a teammate and quarterback Charles Thompson was convicted of selling cocaine to an undercover agent. Reports of wild behavior in the team dorm helped persuade the NCAA to outlaw athletes-only housing.

Into the early 1990s, the Miami football program was plagued by player arrests and allegations of sexual misconduct, alcohol abuse and gunplay.

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Soon after, one Nebraska football player was arrested and later convicted of firing two shots into a car; another was charged with but acquitted of attempted second-degree murder. Running back Lawrence Phillips was arrested for beating his ex-girlfriend, suspended from the team for six games, then reinstated for end-of-the-season play, including the national championship game.

Scandal has visited local schools too. In recent years, then-USC lineman Winston Justice pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor after flashing a toy gun in an argument, and two other Trojan players were investigated for, but never charged with, sexual assault.

At UCLA in 1999, 19 current and former athletes -- among them quarterback Cade McNown -- pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges in a scheme to illegally obtain handicapped-parking placards so they could park on campus.

Most recently, in 2004, Colorado was rocked by allegations of excessive drinking, strippers and rape at recruiting parties. A female former kicker told Sports Illustrated she had been raped by a teammate. The university enacted reforms but, two weeks ago, it was reported that seven members of the men’s golf team had visited a strip club during a school-funded trip.

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“This sort of problem exists on every campus,” said Katherine Redmond, who claimed in a civil action that she had been sexually assaulted by former Nebraska football player Christian Peter and later founded the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes in Colorado. “Duke is just the latest. There will be more.”

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College athletes come in all personality types, experts say. Some exude an undue sense of entitlement, others are humble. Most probably exist between the extremes.

What makes athletes different from other students is this: Anyone predisposed to feeling special or above the law is in an environment that can reinforce this attitude.

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The dynamic begins early and is hardly mysterious, according to Jeff Benedict, a former research director at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. In 1995, he co-wrote a study of 30 schools, finding that male athletes made up 3.3% of all students but were implicated in 19% of reported sexual assaults.

“When you’re a very young athlete, a Little Leaguer or Pee Wee football player, if you’re exceptional you get away with more because you have talent and people like talent,” Benedict said. “Coaches like it because it helps win games. People in the community like it. As you advance to high school, more is afforded to you.”

The adulation that comes with playing college sports -- especially revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball -- only increases the sense of entitlement, experts say.

Kimel, Duke’s women’s coach, wonders whether athletes feel additional pressure because, in many cases, parents have spent lots of time and money developing their children’s skills, starting as young as 7 or 8. College, she says, is “when the investment is supposed to pay off with success, celebrity, all of that.”

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At the Northeastern center, director Peter Roby adds one more factor. He thinks it unfair to single out athletes when other experts say that excessive drinking, violence and sexual assault have been on the rise among all college students.

“We’ve got broader social issues that are contributing more than just entitlement,” Roby said, adding later: “Athletes are still part of society.”

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According to court documents in the Duke case, the alleged victim told police that on the night of March 13, she and another exotic dancer were hired to perform at an off-campus house shared by the lacrosse co-captains. When they began their routine, she said, the assembled team became “excited and aggressive.” The women left, but one of the players allegedly persuaded them to return.

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Shortly thereafter, the accuser said, she was pulled into a bathroom, held by her arms and legs, and raped and sodomized by three men for about 30 minutes.

The allegations were disturbing in themselves, but in the days afterward, there was equal outcry at media reports that the team had closed ranks and refused to cooperate with investigators -- interpreted as a clear indication of entitlement.

On the East Coast, lacrosse is a high-profile sport and Duke had reached the NCAA championship game last season. The players fit that entitled profile in additional ways.

A Durham property owner, who spoke to The Times anonymously, said that over the last decade, he’d had consistent troubles renting to lacrosse players who knocked holes in walls and tore off doors.

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“One of them got in the face of my 50-year-old, quiet, calm, female office manager,” the owner said. “He was pointing a finger in her face, saying threatening words. I was stunned.”

The team was a source of irritation to some residents in the Trinity Park area, where the assault allegedly occurred. In this neighborhood of tree-lined streets and aging houses, homeowners live beside student renters.

“We’re not naive,” said City Councilman Eugene Brown, who lives down the block. “If you buy a house across from a major university, you’re going to expect some parties, some noise, more cars.”

But Brown said the so-called lacrosse house -- it looks like a student house, drab white with tatty black shutters and a tin garage out back, neglected lawns -- generated complaints for loud parties and reports of players urinating in adjacent yards.

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He describes the situation in a folksy drawl, evoking a traditional image of the Southern politician: “To use an old phrase, they saw themselves as being cool cats, and they used my neighborhood as their sandbox.”

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In her quest to confront violence by athletes, Redmond expresses particular concern that the NCAA -- known for its hefty manual, containing myriad rules that cover issues ranging from uniforms to recruiting -- has no policy for criminal behavior.

Such matters are left to the school and law enforcement, an NCAA spokesman said. That means an athlete can, theoretically, face immediate suspension for improperly accepting a cheeseburger from a booster, yet continue playing while charged with a felony.

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“What we’re doing is feeding them fame, celebrity and entitlement, but we’re not feeding them consequences and character,” Redmond said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The rape allegation hit hard at Duke, a campus of stern Gothic architecture, buildings wrought of Hillsborough bluestone and stately courtyards, a school that has improved its academic reputation by leaps and bounds in the last two decades.

Administrators drew criticism for reacting slowly. That changed after police released an e-mail that one player, Ryan McFadyen, allegedly had sent to teammates, proposing to hire more strippers for another party, kill them and skin them.

University President Richard H. Brodhead quickly suspended McFadyen, canceled the rest of the season and accepted Coach Mike Pressler’s resignation. But in an office not far from the administration building, history professor Peter Wood worries about the manner in which universities -- not only his own -- might react to athlete misconduct.

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“What we see in American culture, whenever you have problems like this, you turn to your publicity person,” said Wood, who played lacrosse at Harvard.

Damage control, Wood says, can take the place of addressing what he and others consider a growing disconnect between academics and athletics.

The divide begins when a university recruits a young man or woman based on athletic skill, rather than academic prowess. Money is another component. College sports have become big business, generating tens of millions in revenue.

Messner, the USC professor, refers to the modern, big-time athletic department as “a semi-autonomous fiefdom. It takes a good, strong administration to make sure the athletic department doesn’t get treated that way.”

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This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Wood cites the University of Chicago in 1939, when, concerned about undue emphasis on sport, administrators shut down their prominent football program.

“That’s a real shift of direction by a very strong leadership,” he said.

At Duke, Brodhead has formed several committees to examine issues ranging from the specifics of the lacrosse team to larger questions about how the university promotes personal responsibility and responds to sexual-assault allegations.

In an open letter to the community, he wrote: “We all need to face up to the profoundly serious issues that recent events have brought to light and address them in a positive, substantive and ongoing way.”

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Those who have studied violence and criminal behavior among athletes say there do not appear to be racial, ethnic or social precursors.

“It doesn’t matter if they are black or white, whether they come from urban or suburban neighborhoods,” said Benedict, the researcher. “When they basically get what they want and there are less rules that apply to them, the potential for abusive situations ... is increased.”

Male athletes are far more likely to act improperly, but Redmond says that as women’s sports attract bigger crowds and more media exposure, female athletes show increasing signs of entitlement.

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Even ardent critics acknowledge that a paradigm shift, scaling back the money and emphasis around college sports, is unlikely. They wonder how many more incidents will occur before widespread reforms are seriously considered.

In the meantime, some voices are calling for smaller solutions.

Roby, at Northeastern, believes the effort to counteract a sense of entitlement needs to begin early.

“The Duke situation is much more a function of how we raise young men in our society,” he said. “You can act as parents to try to impart some boundaries, some limits so that kids know what’s acceptable. [When] they are no longer in our care, they will make good decisions.”

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In Durham, some people wonder about the role of coaching, if only because Duke’s other teams have caused less trouble. They insist that Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s highly successful basketball players would never have behaved this way.

“The man is a West Point graduate,” Councilman Brown said of Krzyzewski. “It’s just no-nonsense. It’s his way or the highway.”

Standing on the lacrosse field at Duke, lingering after her team’s big win, after most of the fans have gone home, Kimel talks about the need for athletes to make good decisions and walk away from potential problems.

“You have to stay on top of the kids about it,” she says. “They get annoyed.”

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If nothing else, she hopes that what happened at her school will scare coaches and players across the nation into getting the message.

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Wharton reported from Durham, Klein from Los Angeles.


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