DURHAM, N.C. — John Guarco is a sophomore at Duke, a double major in economics and political science who recently was elected vice president of student government on a campaign platform that focused on combating sexual assault. After a recent student newspaper story asserted a men’s basketball player had been allowed to remain on the team for months after two women claimed he had sexually assaulted them, Guarco expressed a common sentiment when asked for his reaction.
Guarco, 19, gave a long answer, then changed his mind and retracted it, then stopped and gazed off into one of the many clusters of trees that weave through this pastoral campus before settling on a one-word answer: “Confusion.”
That summed up the collective response to the Chronicle story published Monday that asserted that Coach Mike Krzyzewski and athletic administrators allowed Rasheed Sulaimon to remain on the team for more than 10 months after receiving word two women anonymously asserted Sulaimon had sexually assaulted them in separate incidents. Reaction, on campus and nationally, focused on everything from the outsized importance of big-time college athletics to the complex legal obligations regarding allegations of sex crimes on college campuses to the story’s journalistic merits.
As the week wore on in Durham, it became clear that even if the accusations in the story were completely accurate, that didn’t necessarily mean Krzyzewski or any administrators handled them improperly.
In late 2013 and early 2014, according to the Chronicle’s story, two women told classmates in group discussions at student retreats that Sulaimon had sexually assaulted them. Neither woman filed a complaint with law enforcement or Duke’s Office of Student Conduct, which investigates allegations of sexual misconduct on campus. And neither spoke to Chronicle reporters, whose story is based, in part, on the recollections of other students at those retreats and an “anonymous affiliate” of Duke basketball.
The “affiliate,” the Chronicle reported, heard about the allegations and brought them to Krzyzewski and several other administrators in spring 2014. This January, a second person — a Duke student who worked as a secretary in the basketball office — also told administrators about the rumors. On Jan. 29, Krzyzewski kicked Sulaimon off the team and released a statement saying the junior guard had been “unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program.”
Federal law mandates university employees such as Krzyzewski report allegations of sexual violence and requires schools to investigate. But because the women wouldn’t agree to talk to school officials about their allegations, it would have been difficult for Duke to investigate. In statements this week, Duke administrators pledged they responded properly. On Thursday, Sulaimon’s attorney, who has refuted the accusations, told media outlets the university investigated last year and closed the case because the claims could not be substantiated.
Allegations of sex crimes against athletes have a special significance at Duke, a campus community scarred by a 2006 controversy in which law enforcement, news media, and members of the campus community rushed to judge lacrosse players accused of rape — charges that proved false. Some professors at Duke Law School were quick to preach caution this week and criticized the student newspaper.
“It was an irresponsible way to present that information,” law professor Paul Haagen said. The Chronicle reporters “kept putting things together in sequences where there was a suggestion something was going on or you were invited to make the conclusion as a reader. . . . A totally plausible narrative to me would be [Krzyzewski and administrators] learned about it, they referred it to the proper people, who did as thorough an investigation as they could, then reached a conclusion that nothing could be done.”
The Chronicle reporters — Emma Baccellieri and Nick Martin — declined interview requests this week and referred questions to Chronicle Editor Carleigh Stiehm. Stiehm declined to answer questions.
“We want to allow the story to stand on its own,” Stiehm wrote. “I am so proud of the reporting that Emma and Nick did.”
Sulaimon, a junior, remains a student at Duke. He was unable to be reached by The Post, and his lawyer did not return multiple calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Unless the alleged victims decide to pursue legal charges, or file complaints with the school, the story likely will dissipate with no firm conclusion of guilt or exoneration for Sulaimon.
“It’s the ultimate no-win situation,” said Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke. “I don’t think anybody feels good about the way that this is unfolding. If these allegations are true, that’s horrifying . . . but if the allegations are not true, one feels terrible for him.”
For some students, the most disturbing part of the story was the claim the alleged victims feared a vitriolic backlash that might result from accusing a men’s basketball player of a crime.
Dana Raphael, one of the co-founders of a student group for victims of sexual assault, said she “100 percent believes the survivors and supports them in whatever they do.” Raphael hopes the Chronicle story convinces her peers that idolization of the men’s basketball team at Duke — where students live in tents outside the arena for months to get tickets — is unhealthy.
“A god-like status for any person or group of people is just dangerous,” said Raphael, 20, a sophomore from Arlington majoring in Chinese and political science.
Celebrity status for college athletes is neither unique to Duke nor likely to change.
Wednesday night’s game was like any other at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The only visible sign of a controversy was in the media room, where Duke employees noted new faces clearly more interested in the postgame news conference than the outcome of the game.
The student sections filled early, as always, undergraduates pressed together, many of them coated in blue paint. When the team took the court, the crowd cheered as loud as ever. When Krzyzewski was introduced, the students greeted the coach as they always do: They bowed their heads, waved their arms and bent forward, as if in worship.