This tale, as they say, had it all: white jocks at a wealthy Southern university, a black stripper from a cross-town state school, a night of alcohol-fueled debauchery, racial epithets, a charge of gang rape. Even a broomstick.
So did the courthouse aftermath. There was a zealous prosecutor who overreached, high-priced defense attorneys in high dudgeon, a media frenzy, DNA testing, indictments and exoneration of the defendants after the state concluded that they had been falsely accused. There were stories about campus tensions among students, faculty members, coaches and angst-ridden university administrators. Top it off with the strange-but-true coda of a district attorney disgraced, disbarred and thrown in jail.
But what does the Duke University lacrosse scandal teach us eight years later? “The Price of Silence,” an exhaustive and exhausting new book by William D. Cohan, suggests that the whole sorry mess — viewed in hindsight with the benefit of exclusive interviews and a full review of the legal files and journalistic record — reveals something about, as the subtitle puts it, the “power of the elite and the corruption of our great universities.”
The trouble is that Cohan forces the reader to sift through page after page of needless or redundant material to try to make sense of what happened before, during and after the infamous party that co-captains of the Duke men’s lacrosse team hosted in Durham, N.C., on March 13, 2006. This book alternates between gripping narrative and numbing stenography. Cohan, an alumnus of Duke and a veteran business writer, quotes his sources so heavily and provides his own analysis so sparingly that the reader is hard-pressed to know exactly what he means by the “corruption” of universities — or what his alma mater should have done to prevent its tailspin into crisis.
The pity is that this is a tale worth revisiting. Major universities continue to grapple with serious questions about sexual assault, alcohol abuse and the power of athletics at institutions supposedly dedicated to academics. President Obama this year formed a task force that aims to prevent sexual assault on campus.
At the end of his book, Cohan lists troubling incidents elsewhere. Among them: the death of a Cornell University sophomore in 2011 after a night of drinking and fraternity hazing; the accusation that four Vanderbilt University football players raped an unconscious female student in 2013, which the players denied; and the conviction of former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely V in 2012 on a charge of second-degree murder after he killed his ex-girlfriend in a drunken rage.
These were all big stories. But they were nothing compared with the Duke lacrosse scandal. Cohan’s more-than-600-page tome is at its best in a 27-page chapter that lays out the incident at the heart of it all. Three lacrosse players living in a rental house off campus threw a party during spring break. Most of the 47 team members attended.
Cohan captures the vibe in a telling quote from player Ryan McFadyen: “We were there all day, grilling, having beers, playing washers, beer pong, just having a good time, playing some music. . . . Everyone was drinking, and someone said, ‘Oh, let’s go to the strip club.’ Someone’s idea was like, ‘Let’s just have dancers come to the house as opposed to risking people going out and getting in trouble. We’ll just order dancers to come here,’ a very common occurrence on campus.”
Big mistake, as the world now knows. Two “exotic dancers” showed up, one an African American named Crystal Gail Mangum, who happened to be a student at North Carolina Central University. They performed briefly, with one player apparently making a lewd comment with a broomstick, then left after a chaotic sequence that witnesses said included racial epithets. Soon afterward, Mangum told an emergency room nurse that she had been raped.
Her accusation led to the indictment of three white players — Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans — as a district attorney named Mike Nifong drew national attention for what he told a reporter was “a statement case,” a rape with “overtones of racial animus.” But Nifong’s aggressive prosecution unraveled as inconsistencies emerged in Mangum’s account and other holes emerged in the evidence. The state attorney general, who took over the case, dropped the charges and declared the three players innocent. Nifong was forced from office and spent a day in jail for contempt of court.
Cohan interviewed Nifong extensively, one of several scoops in the book, and obtained useful perspective on his motives. The ex-prosecutor said that airtight cases usually end with plea bargains but that problematic cases, especially those with victims who have checkered pasts, sometimes must go to trial to ensure justice for all. “You’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” Nifong said. Cohan was unable to interview Finnerty, Seligmann or Evans. But he interviewed Mangum in jail as she awaited trial on a murder charge (in the stabbing death of her boyfriend) unrelated to the lacrosse case. She pled self-defense but was convicted of second-degree murder last year.
Such reporting helps build an intriguing recap of a courthouse battle that drew wall-to-wall coverage for more than a year. But the storyline often bogs down in the minutiae of the evidence, such as a player’s semen found on a towel, or endless posturing quotes from attorneys, or overlong citations of what various reporters and columnists wrote about the scandal.
But Cohan, aiming high, wants to show what the episode meant for a university that wants to be tops in academics and athletics. He would have done well to give readers a clearer history of Duke and more background on lacrosse for those of us who don’t know much about either. Still, some lessons emerge.
On one level, the book is a warning about the perils of free-flowing booze in a hard-partying culture. Cohan notes the ceaseless challenges Duke and many other universities face in limiting the influence of alcohol. Sometimes schools themselves are at fault. “Part of the reason drinking remained a problem — not that anyone had any delusions that it could be eliminated — was the university continued to send ‘mixed messages’ and ‘conflicting signals’ to students,” he writes. Cohan quotes from an internal Duke report in 2000: “We say we do not want underage drinking, but we distribute cups to [freshmen] before basketball games, knowing that they are engaging in underage drinking.” Alcohol rules made sense in theory, one administrator said in the report, but were “a farce in application.”
The book also cautions against the power of athletics. It starts with an anecdote about Duke’s famed basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who flirted with a jump to the NBA in 2004 just as university President Richard H. Brodhead was taking office. The episode, wrote a sports columnist whom Cohan cites, shed light on “exactly who is in charge at Duke.”
But basketball is not lacrosse. All-powerful Coach K pops up in the narrative occasionally, but we never see much evidence that he is calling the shots in response to the scandal. Instead we see Brodhead maneuvering awkwardly as he tries to avoid pronouncing judgment on an explosive legal charge while standing by his students. Brodhead, acting through a subordinate, also pushed out the lacrosse coach, Mike Pressler, and canceled the team’s season at the the height of campus tensions. Eventually Brodhead apologized for Duke’s failure to provide adequate support for lacrosse players and families during the crisis.
We learn from Cohan that Brodhead gave the New Yorker magazine an erudite rationale for the prominence of sports at Duke at a time when critics were saying the lacrosse scandal was Exhibit A of athletics run amok. The university president drew a parallel to Homer’s Odysseus, a man “skilled in all ways of contending” — intellectual, strategic, political and athletic. This ideal is the university’s goal. “I’m not saying that I would embrace athletics on any terms,” Brodhead said. “But that’s its relevance.”
In the end, the university paid dearly — nearly $100 million, Cohan reports — for legal and public relations advice and for settling civil lawsuits related to the scandal. Brodhead declined Cohan’s requests for an interview in 2013. “Why do you have to write this book?” he asked the author. “We are just getting over the events of March 2006.” This book, despite its flaws, answers the Duke president’s question.
THE PRICE OF SILENCE
The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities
By William D. Cohan
Scribner. 653 pp. $35