The game has just ended and I have to admit that there is a smug warmth in my gut as I watch the Johns Hopkins Men’s Lacrosse team celebrate a 12-11 victory over Duke in the NCAA Division I championship game. Yes. The charges against three of Duke’s former players were dropped. Yes. The nation seems to have moved on to bigger and more sensational news. Still, the media commentary surrounding Duke’s season and commendable return to the national championship game adds insult to a deep cultural injury inflicted by last year’s events.
One phrase in particular stings each time I hear it endlessly and effortlessly uttered by commentators and reporters alike. A phrase continuously used to exculpate and lionize not only the current team of athletes, but those who were accused of sexual assault last year. Over and over a nation of sports spectators are asked to sympathize by considering “what the Duke Lacrosse team has been through” this past year. Sadly this line of commentary is a reminder that, as a nation, we are thinkers in black and white.
The bizarre and abruptly ended legal process surrounding this case makes it wrong to consider Collin Finnerty, David Evans, and Reade Seligmann rapists. However, logic and even the most vaguely defined sense of moral decency makes it just as wrong to consider these men innocents.
We know that the Duke Men’s Lax team threw a party at the home of three team captains and as anyone who has ever been to college knows, parties full of college men are frequently frenzied, alcohol-soaked occasions. We know that an entire team of young men spent $800 to procure the services of two exotic dancers for two hours, lying to the women saying there would be only a handful of men in attendance. We know that the men specifically asked for one White and one Hispanic dancer and when faced with the disappointing reality of two Black women, one player thanked one of the dancer’s grandfather for his “fine cotton shirt.” We know that “tempers flared” as the dancers tried to leave the party after discovering that near 40 and not 4 drunk (not to mention racist) men would be watching them dance. We know that in an email written just after the night in question, Duke Lax player Ryan McFadyen spoke of killing and skinning strippers while he was “cumming in [his] duke issue spandex.”
With all that we do know, it is remarkable that we have allowed the questionable character of the accuser to release these men of all accountability. In this situation there are no winners, there should be no black and white – simply two sides marred in gray. While the media asks us “What kind of woman would take off her clothes for money?”, lets also ask ourselves, What kind of team leadership hosts a party involving alcohol, strippers, and underage team members that breaks any number of team, University, and State laws? What kind of men use deception to bring two women into a house where they are outnumbered 20 to 1 by big, strong, drunk, sexually expectant men? What kind of team culture fosters outward expressions of hate-motivated violence (as evidenced by McFadyen’s email and Finnerty’s earlier conviction in a gay-bashing assault in the Washington D.C. area)?
Do we really have to prove that there was penile penetration to see that this event clearly involved reprehensible sexual aggression, lies, and intimidation? Do we really have to color this event by pitting a tragic, misguided, disadvantaged black woman against the gleaming upper-class white men of Duke University? Can we honestly say this would have played out the same way if we were dealing with a group of young black football players and a white woman from an upper-middle class family?
The media should not be asking audiences to consider what the Duke Men’s Lacrosse team has been through. We need to hold this team accountable for their actions, considering what the team has put THEMSELVES through. Let’s not make heroes of these men, rather use their self-inflicted struggle as a lesson. Violence and deceit will have consequences (sometimes more than what is deserved) – so don’t ask for them by conducting yourselves in despicable ways.
Finally, I propose an answer to one of the aforementioned questions…What kind of woman takes her clothes off for money? Perhaps the type who has not been groomed by a life of privilege, as is so common among the ranks of the players on the Duke Lacrosse team. The type who is not afforded the benefit of the doubt because of the color of her skin or the size of her trust fund. The type who has no chance of being lionized in the national media, held up as a testament to enduring the hardship of “what she has been through” over the last year.