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Continuing Conflicts

By Mike Wise
Saturday, May 26, 2007

Mike Pressler and his family are planning on moving into their newly purchased home in Rhode Island this weekend. The only event that may tear him away is a trip to Baltimore on Monday to watch the lacrosse team he led for 16 seasons play for a national title.

Remember Pressler? He was the original fall guy in an unseemly American docudrama that pitted the privileged frat-boy culture of a private university against a black single mother, a college student who made a poor career choice to support her children. Stirred by a bungling prosecutor -- and a media contingent overzealously ready to believe him -- a cauldron of race, sex, class and law boiled over and scalded everyone.

When Duke plays Cornell in today's NCAA semifinal, the focus will be on a team emerging from a travesty, how a group of kids who did not have a lacrosse program to call their own a year ago are two wins away from everything Pressler always wanted for them. But after everything has played out -- from the kids who went from vilified to exonerated, from the D.A. who went from legal crusader to Keystone Cop -- the story of the Duke lacrosse team still doesn't feel right. The more you think about it, the more it conjures up all these conflicting feelings.

It's not right what Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong did to those kids, and it's not right former and future players have to bear that burden. Their names should have never been sullied like that. It's hard to imagine being the parent of a son wrongly accused of a heinous crime such as rape, the hurt they had to endure. And every letterman affiliated with Duke lacrosse the past few years, whether or not he attended that fateful party, is going to have an indelible stain on his résumé.

At the same time, it's hard to embrace everyone as a victim. With all due respect to those "INNOCENT" bracelets worn around Durham this year, this isn't "To Kill a Mockingbird II."

Pressler presided over a less-than-model program of student-athletes. Fifty-six players were involved in 36 on-campus incidents, many alcohol-related, since 2003. Some of those kids are presumably playing today. Of all the facts that came about the night of March 13, 2006, these aren't disputed: Team members spent $800 to hire a pair of exotic dancers; they requested one white and one Hispanic dancer, but instead were sent two black women; one player thanked one dancer's "grandpa for my fine cotton shirt."

It's still disturbing to look up on the Internet and read a sophomore player's e-mail describing how he would kill and skin a stripper at the next party. He also mentioned he planned to pleasure himself in his "Duke issue spandex."

Irrespective of where you went to school, racial epithets and hate-speech are not part of the curriculum. Somehow, some way, the definition of the "Duke experience" went awry.

Just because these players aren't felons, let's not instantly transform them into martyrs. It's okay to find middle ground in the good-and-evil spectrum, no matter what a certain D.A. tells you.

A book by Pressler titled "It's Not About the Truth: The Untold Story of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case and the Lives It Shattered," which is scheduled for a June 12 release, details a meeting between Pressler and Duke Athletic Director Joe Alleva in which Alleva essentially tells the embattled coach, "It's not about the truth anymore." The rationale was, his kids were in trouble and he had to go.

It's easy to feel sorry for Pressler, who appears to be the only person who received concrete punishment in the loss of his job. When asked of Pressler's continued connection to the program, John Danowski, the current Duke coach whose son, Matt, was recruited by Pressler, said, "I'm the coach here, but I'm not the coach."

"I didn't bring these kids here," Danowski added in a teleconference call with reporters Wednesday. "I live in an off-campus apartment. In some ways, this is still Mike's team. Who are we kidding here? He's responsible for their development. I'm the caretaker. He's the general manager, and I'm the coach."

Honoring the publisher's request, Pressler has refused all interview requests until the book's release. But when told of Danowski's praise, he relented for a couple of questions relating to the Blue Devils' competing in the final four this weekend.

"I don't think pride is even close to what I'm feeling," Pressler said in a telephone interview from his office at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., where he now coaches. "I don't think there is a word right now that describes how happy I am for them. For everything they've endured, here they are on the biggest stage. To go through what they went through, it's an accomplishment beyond understanding."

If the players representing Duke lacrosse pull off a title this weekend, it's a wonderful tale of resilience, a great story of competitive redemption. But let's not confuse winning in athletics with personal redemption. They're two different things -- one judged over a season and one over a lifetime.

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