Duke women not innocent

By wearing sweatbands saying "innocent," Duke's women's lacrosse team is displaying a pack mentality -- and disrespecting women.

Kevin Sweeney
May 26, 2006 3:45PM (UTC)


That's the word written on sweatbands the Duke University women's lacrosse team will wear when they take the field Friday at the start of their sport's premier event. (The women's lacrosse Final Four, which determines the NCAA championship, takes place this weekend at Boston University's Nickerson Field.) With the bands, the women are apparently suggesting that the Duke men's lacrosse team, and the three members charged with sexual assault, are innocent.


In court, the specific term lawyers seek from the jury is "not guilty." I don't know enough of the facts to opine on whether that phrase will be read aloud by jury foremen. I do know enough to say it is a stretch to use the term "innocent" to describe the men of Duke lacrosse. Hiring strippers, excessive alcohol use, disorderly public conduct -- those aren't activities one generally describes as innocent.

With a daughter at Duke, I've followed this case closely, and have read the allotment of notes and press releases sent out by the university. I know enough to conclude that the university's administration is failing utterly at one of its stated goals: extracting lessons from this incident.

Duke officials repeatedly told observers to withhold judgment of the players and the university. When a third player was indicted on May 15, senior vice president John Burness said, "It is worth repeating again today that these latest charges do not mean the accused are guilty. That is for a jury to decide." That lesson didn't quite take: The women's lacrosse team decided they are the ones who should determine guilt or innocence.


So much for a teachable moment.

President Richard Brodhead called for reasonable dialogue. I find it hard to believe these wristbands support that call. Consider what it might look like if another team decided to make its own statement by writing the word "guilty" on their wristbands. It would be every bit as presumptuous -- and every bit as inflammatory -- as those that say "innocent." It is not a step toward reasonable dialogue. It continues the blunt use of divisive rhetoric.

Reports commissioned by the Duke administration noted the men's team's pack mentality. In fact, the incident became a national scandal largely because of this attitude. A serious allegation was made, and an investigation commenced. Rather than taking all steps to help reveal the truth, the Duke men's lacrosse team chose to act as one. The district attorney was confronted with a Blue Devil Wall of Silence, built by a team that apparently placed greater emphasis on unity than on surfacing the facts. In the weeks since the scandal broke, lawyers for the accused (and one of the accused and his father) have spent full days working out of the offices of lawyers hired to protect other players who have not been charged.


Here, we see the beauty of team sports, Duke style.

Lawyers of players who have not been accused are offering a steady stream of challenges to the accuser's credibility -- it's the equivalent of "checking" in a lacrosse game. And what lesson has the women's team taken? They apparently have learned that pack behavior is a good thing. They are speaking as one, and are proclaiming the entire men's team, as one, to be innocent. Team unity trumps all.


They also appear to be learning an interesting lesson about symbols and messages. On April 5, the men's coach, Mike Pressler, submitted his resignation. At the time, Brodhead was quoted very simply as saying, "When it was offered, I thought it was highly appropriate." The women's team apparently believes otherwise -- they chose to invite Pressler to a recent team function, asking him to give an inspirational talk.

Finally, there is another element to this story, one that I find heartbreaking. For women who step forward to file an accusation of rape, it is often the hardest thing they will ever do in their lives. By making such a public stand of unity before the facts come out, by saying so clearly that the accused is a liar, the women of Duke's lacrosse team won't make it any easier for other women to step forward. I can only hope that none of them will ever be in such a position -- where they may be a victim, want to step forward, but sense ultimately that it just isn't worth it.

I'm not opposed to team sports -- I loved playing them as a kid and I love coaching them as an adult. It's just that I see sports as a way to develop character, not defend it. Team sports can help reveal the best in all of us -- I've seen this happen countless times. Sadly, there are occasions when team sports reveal an individual's flaws. In those instances, hopefully, there are lessons.


I think it's fine to make statements as a team. For the Duke women, I'd like to suggest a different term: "Respect." It would likely mean different things to different people, and that wouldn't be so horrible. Some might take it to mean respect for the men's team. Others might see it as a request for women to be treated with respect. Others still might see it as a plea to respect the process. I'd look at it with a bit of hope, and a sense that, finally, lessons might actually be learned.

Kevin Sweeney

Kevin J. Sweeney, an environmental consultant in Piedmont, Calif., served as press secretary to former Sen. Gary Hart.

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