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The Duke Blue Devil

April 8, 2006

Groups are often the chosen means for achieving our goals, but they can go awry–as we all know. For every Palo Alto Research Center there is a road crew jackhammering (slowly) a hole in the wrong spot. For every Dave Matthews Band there are hundreds of bands playing something that can only generously be called music. For every sensational class there are others where little teaching, and even less learning, occur. And for every team of honorable, hardworking players in sports there are teams of selfish miscreants who play only for victory at all costs.

What kind of group, then, is the Duke Lacrosse team of 2006? In case you have been REALLY distracted by the end of the semester rush or have just gotten back from some other planet, members of the team and basic the team as a whole–has been accused of a great wrong. The evidence is far from complete, but what is clear is that conflict and possibly rape occured on March 13 at a house rented (from the university, no less) by several players. Someone at the house hired two women to dance at the party. The women thought they were attending a small bachelor’s party, and they would be performing for 2 hours. But, and here stories vary a great deal, one of the women reports that she was attacked and raped by three of the men. She called the police from a nearby grocery story, and was taken to the hospital.

The incident unfolds over the next several weeks. The house is searched, and police report finding evidence that supports the woman’s story. On March 23 a judge orders 46 of the lacrosse team’s 47 members to report to a lab for DNA testing. The Lacrosse team’s games that week are cancelled and then on March 28 the President of Duke, Dr. Brodhead, announces the team’s season has been suspended pending resolution of the rape allegations. But the team maintains its innocence. The captains admit that they showed bad judgment for hosting such a party, but that “that any allegation that a sexual assault or rape occurred is totally and transparently false.” Indeed, when all is said and done, the team is exhonorated of wrong doing–at least, of legal wrong doing.

Then, during the first week in April, coach Mike Pressler resigns from Duke, and the situation is made more complicated by the report of lewd email sent by one of the players. The email does not directly implicate either the student or the team, but its content is so disgusting that it serves as a smoking gun for many in the community. The email is also a violation of Duke email rules, and so the student is suspended. (The other students, although under investigation by the local police, have not yet been suspended by the university.)

This incident is complex, raising questions of race, sex, and socioeconomic justice. Since much of the information is filtered through the media we must not rush to any conclusions, but even when viewed through the ambiguities of emotion and misinformation, we must consider what the incident says about groups and communities. From the perspective of social psychology and leadership, we have to wonder about the team; the nature of its cohesion, the norms of the group, and its values. We must wonder about the leadership of the team, which includes the captains, the coach, and even administration of Duke. We must consider the community where the alleged attack took place, and how that community is responding to the crisis.

Duke Student Reactions

The Duke Lacrosse team presented a strongly united front, and was eventually vidicated by the courts. However, in the early weeks of the incident the Duke administration and many in the community feel that the team is hiding the truth. Although many individuals outside of Duke University have reacted to the incident with generalizations that stereotype the students at Duke, the students themselves have reacted to express dismay with the students on the team who were not cooperating fully with the policy and the university. The university’s scheduled “take back the night” walk focused on the Lacrosse team.

Duke President’s Actions

The incident has triggered the Duke President to call for a series of reforms at the university. He discusses the incident in an open letter to the university and community (http://dukenews.duke.edu/2006/04/rhbletter.html

Mike Eruzione’s Reaction

In an article at USAToday, Christine Brennan discusses the importance of team unity and cohesion, but notes that in this case this cohesion is working to discredit the team. She reports the analysis of Mike Eruzione, who we know well as the team captain of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Mike was asked what he thought about the Blue Devil’s sticking together in the crisis, and he expressed his concerns clearly: “There are degrees of protecting your teammates, but this crosses the line.” He explained:

Put it this way: I wouldn’t want to be associated with a teammate who possibly committed a crime like this. Why would you want someone like that as a teammate? Why aren’t kids speaking up right now? I’m surprised with something of this magnitude that they’re not. It’s one thing to have a code of honor with teammates, but that code of honor goes out the window with something like this. The team has to separate itself and say, ‘Hey … you did it. We can’t protect you in something like this.’ (Source of quotation: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/columnist/brennan/2006-03-29-duke-lacrosse_x.htm).

The team’s silence and unity may reflect the intervention of defense attorneys who have become the official voices for the young men and Duke University officials report that the men are cooperating with law enforcement officials (all agreed to testing, for example). However, some have likened the group’s united front to a protective code of silence, a “blue wall” like the well-known “thin blue wall” that symbolizes the code of unity of police officers. Others, though, have suggested that the unity is more closely akin to the relatively recent “no-snitch” movement that has further reduced community members cooperation with police when investigating crimes.

Neighbors/Community reaction

The house where the incident occured was rented by 3 of the leading members of the Lacrosse team, and several neighbors witnessed the women arriving at the party.

Are Sports Teams Known for Violence?

What does the research say about sports teams and violence? Sociologists Earl Smith and Angela Hattery at Wake Forest note that gang rapes on college campuses can, in nearly all cases, be traced back to two types of groups/organizations: fraternities and sports teams. According to research by Smith and Hattery, 55% of gang rapes involve fraternities and 40% men’s sports teams. Smith noted, when interviewed, “We do not assume the men at Duke lacrosse are guilty,” Smith says. “Yet we are not surprised they find themselves in this predicament.”

Their work is described, only very briefly, in a USA Today article.

This incident is not an isolated case, either. A number of highschool and college sports teams have had their entire seasons cancelled due to inappropriate actions. For example, in 2004, the Lacrosse team at Glenbrook (Ill.) South High School was cancelled when following an investigation of hazing and alcohol abuse. In 2001, the leading lacrosse high school team, St. Paul’s School of Maryland, ended its season when players watched a videotape of one player having sex with an underage girl. For details see Mike Zhe’s article in the Portsmouth Herald.

The Disturbing Email

A member of the team, who has been suspended, wrote an email to the team that evening, describing in graphic terms his desire to harm woman. A search warrant, which describes the incident in graphic terms, is located at the Smoking Gun website. The Smoking Gun posts the actual legal documents from various high-profile cases, and has posted the entire request for the search warrant for Duke Player #41, who sent the malicious email. The site contains the verbatim email.

The Leader: Coach Pressler

Parents and former players have waded into the blogsphere with supportive comments about Coach Pressler. One family sent three of their sons to play for Duke, and they report that the experience was very positive–the young men learned sportsmanship, integrity, and personal responsibility. Pressler’s attorney, Edward J. Falcone, said that Pressler’s resignation is not an indicator of any guilt or wrong doing: “His resignation should not be construed as an indication that he has done anything wrong,” Falcone said. “He has done nothing wrong.”

The source of this information is a site called gambling911, because–oddly enough–people are literally gambling on the incident, with odds being taken on the results of the DNA evidence currently being processed.

Biased Perceptions and Intergroup Conflict

The conflict is putting community relations in Durham, NC., to the test. Residents have taken sides on the issue, with some calling for arrests in the case and others warning against “rushing to judgment.” Students and faculty at Duke University (home of the Lacrosse Team) are seeking to insulate their school’s good name from the publicity damage, while North Carolina Central University (where the dancer who reported she was attacked at the party attended school) has asked that justice be done. This incident is one that can break down a community’s unity, for it activates self-conceptions based on membership in gender, racial, education, and economic categories. Once these category-based social identities are activated, they can cause individuals to see the situation from a less-than-objective vantage point. There are those that seek to blame the woman who reported being attacked, suggesting she fabricated the incident, exaggerated her harm, or brought it on herself by agreeing to work the party without an escort. Others have “tried the Lacrosse team in the court of public opinion,” and have found them guilty. A few blogs with widely divergent postings on the incident include Talk Left , Alas (which wonders why the term “wilding” has not been used to describe the incident), and No Confidence

One professor at Duke University, Houston A. Baker, Jr., responded by writing his own “no confidence” letter, stating

“It is virtually inconceivable that representatives of Duke University’s Athletic Department would allow its lacrosse team to engage in regular underage drinking and out-of-control bacchanalia. It is difficult to imagine a competently managed corporate setting in which such behavior would be tolerated (and swept under the rug), or where such a “team” would survive for more than a day before being tossed out on its ears by security. Moreover, in a forthrightly ethical setting with an avowed commitment to life-enhancing citizenship, such a violent and irresponsible group would scarcely be spirited away, or sheltered under the protection of pious sentiments such as “deplorable” — a judgment that reminds us of Miss Opehlia in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, saying that slavery was “perfectly horrible.” Such timorous piety and sentimental legalism, in the opinion of the author James Baldwin, constitutes duck-and-cover cowardice of the first order.”

The full letter was posted by NBC.

Categories: Social Processes
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