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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE | CAMPUS INTELLIGENCE

Spoiled sports

April 15, 2006

THE ONLY ONES WHO KNOW what happened at a Duke University lacrosse team party that went awry last month are the people who were there. Clearly, it wasn't something that should make the team or the university proud. And that, really, is where matters should rest until authorities complete their investigation into the incident, in which a woman hired to dance at the party claims she was raped and brutalized by three team members.

Instead, the grandstanding district attorney (who's campaigning for reelection) insists he'll get one of the athletes charged, even though DNA testing so far has come up negative for all the possible suspects. Townspeople and the NAACP accuse the legal system of foot dragging, while defense attorneys already are attacking the young woman's credibility.

With everyone knowing nothing but prejudging everything, the case resembles something out of a Tom Wolfe novel, with anger about the treatment of black women in U.S. society and generic town-and-gown resentment of more privileged classes. The accuser, a local student and mother, is black, and she says all of her attackers were white.

Though its members may or may not be innocent, the lacrosse team certainly makes an unsympathetic crew -- poster children for the stereotype of spoiled, vulgar jocks. From other witness accounts, the March 13 party was lewd, drunken and laced with racial slurs. Not long after the party, one of the team members wrote a vile e-mail in which he suggested holding more parties in which the players would skin and kill exotic dancers. In the months before the party, various team members got into trouble with the law over allegations large and small, from public urination to the assault of a gay man.

Now that the matter has landed in the court of public opinion, the lacrosse team has a public relations specialist -- a high-powered lawyer who once represented President Clinton, hired by Duke alums and boosters to "protect Duke's reputation." Much as the team could use an image makeover, this could be perceived as further evidence that the case is about the white and connected vs. the poor and vulnerable.

The university itself is handling things without spinmeisters. President Richard H. Brodhead took Duke out of lacrosse competition for the season, suspended the writer of the e-mail and accepted the resignation of the lacrosse coach, who clearly couldn't control his players. Other than that, administrators are waiting without apparent prejudgment for the legal system to do its job. It may not be the attention-grabbing thing to do. But it's the right thing to do.

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