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Lax Environment

Duke lacrosse scandal reinforces a growing sense that college sports are out of control, fueled by pampered athletes with a sense of entitlement

April 16, 2006|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

DURHAM, N.C. — 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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"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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