By Robin Givhan
Friday, April 13, 2007
This was a week in which college students endured the kind of public spotlight and personal pressures that can reduce mature adults to tears, screaming fits and worse. Instead, these young men and women admitted their anger, expressed their frustration, maintained their composure. And dressed to make their point.
In Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, the three former Duke University lacrosse team members who last year had been indicted for rape had all remaining charges against them dropped and the North Carolina attorney general proclaimed them "innocent." The three young men faced photographers and television cameras dressed in dark jackets and ties.
On Tuesday, members of the women's basketball team at Rutgers University appeared before the media to respond to the crude remarks that talk radio host Don Imus had made about them on the air. In New Brunswick, N.J., members of the Scarlet Knights noted their frustration and sadness over words that were racially and sexually coarse and insensitive. CBS, which syndicated Imus's radio show, fired him yesterday. The first thing one noticed at the Rutgers news conference was a sea of scarlet facing the cameras. The 10 team members showed their unity by wearing matching red and black warm-ups instead of street clothes. In his opening remarks, Athletic Director Bob Mulcahy mentioned that the student-athletes would not be lingering at the news conference because they had classes to attend. They wore their uniforms, it seems, to make a point, not because they were racing off to the gym. (Besides, their basketball season is finished. It was their surprising success in the NCAA tournament that put them in Imus's crosshairs in the first place.)
The young women had been insulted as a team and they would respond as such. No player, not even the white members of the team, or Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer, tried to delineate herself as an individual -- to perhaps separate herself from Imus's disparaging remarks that reached a nadir when he declared the team members "nappy-headed ho's."
A few of the young women wore earrings. Others had on a bit of lip gloss. And while they wore their hair in a variety of styles from buns to bobs, none of it appeared to be nappy. (And if it was, so what? Nappy should not be mistaken for unkempt. )
There were no heels, no trendy Juicy Couture, Seven jeans or any other expression of sophistication or cool that one might expect to see on a college student. They weren't dressed to look more grown up than their years would suggest. They were wearing nothing but play clothes and sneakers.
The clothes hid their athletic physiques, so there was no hint of muscular arms or strong legs. They appeared smaller than one might expect of such successful athletes. They looked like kids, and they seemed vulnerable, like a chain of fold-and-cut paper dolls. They only needed to hold hands to complete the image.
It seemed that the Scarlet Knights took to the stage not only intending to declare that Imus's words had been unconscionable lies but also to prove their inaccuracy. The coach even went so far as to list a few off-the-court accomplishments of her players: valedictorians, musical prodigies, Girl Scouts.
It was the kind of vigorous defense that left one a little queasy. It was a bit like listening to the victim list all the reasons why she didn't deserve to get sucker-punched.
A day later, the former Duke players were attending their news conference dressed in tailored jackets and trousers, looking polished and formal. David Evans's suit was a gray pinstripe and he wore it with a geranium-colored paisley tie. Collin Finnerty was wearing a navy blazer with chinos and a preppy striped tie. Reade Seligmann wore a blue button-down shirt with his suit and tie.
In March 2006, an African American stripper, who had been hired to dance at a team off-campus party, accused the three of raping her. From the beginning, some described them as being a specific type of miscreant: white, privileged and entitled. Out of that description, other inferences were made -- that they had little regard for those less fortunate, demeaned others for sport and were racially insensitive.
Now they have been declared innocent. They have been transformed from assailants to victims.
As they sat before the cameras, one's eye paused on Finnerty, in his checked button-down shirt and his blazer with gold buttons. Evans, the only one of the three to have graduated from Duke, wore a gray suit -- with the conservative lines of something that could easily be worn by a banker -- a signet ring and a substantial watch. Along with Seligmann, the young men looked confident and comfortable. They weren't wearing their clothes with the uneasiness that is often detected among those who don them only for weddings and funerals.
Their advantages were underscored by Evans when he noted that he was exonerated in large part because his family had the financial resources to hire top-notch defense attorneys and experts. What, he wondered, happens to those who aren't so lucky?
Privilege had helped him to claim a victory. He wasn't trying to hide it, pretending as if it didn't exist or apologizing for it. Only making the reasonable observation that everyone should be lucky enough to have it on their side.