If I were developing a list of the people who most need to go away and leave the rest of us alone, it would not begin with Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. Nor would I start off with Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens. Pat Robertson wouldn't earn the top spot and neither would actor-turned-ubiquitous-pitchman Dennis Hopper. Instead, entry number one on my list of people who need to go away would be the 2006 Duke University lacrosse team.
I assume everyone knows the back story. A group of athletes, nearly all white and well heeled, hired two African American exotic dancers for an evening of political symbolism…er, I mean boys-will-be-boys hijinks. Precisely what happened from there is a matter of dispute, but by the time the night ended, racial epithets were allegedly tossed about and one of the dancers persuaded the district attorney to charge three of the players with sexual assault.
The national media, of course, found the spectacle irresistible. There was the racial angle. There was the social class disparity. And of course there was both sex and, allegedly, violence. Suddenly, a purely local crime story morphed into the sort of national morality tale that has been the unique curse of this era of the insatiable 24-hour news channel.
The University, embarrassed by the spectacle, suspended the indicted and offered public assurances that racism and violence against women would not be tolerated. A group of 88 faculty members paid for a "listening statement" in the school paper that, while never making any formal accusation, seemed to presuppose the guilt of the accused. A couple of professors were even further. Student protestors acted out of rage and exhibitionism, picketing the lacrosse players' residence and carrying various sorts of banners, some of which were sophomoric and offensive.
And then it got weird.
Right-wing pundits, obsessed bloggers, and various other flotsam and jetsam of the conservative culture wars saw an opening for their unceasing battle against the phantom demons of campus radicalism and political correctness. They enthusiastically embraced the cause of the indicted players. By this time, it had become increasingly clear that the Durham County prosecutor, Michael Nifong, was pursuing the case a bit too zealously, cutting corners and quite possibly railroading the defendants. But the culture warriors, though they hardly spared Nifong, often seemed more interested in blaming the Duke administration and faculty—and especially the "Gang of 88" professors who published the newspaper ad—for perpetrating the greatest injustice since Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. (Or something like that. I exaggerate, but not by much.)
The case ultimately took care of itself. The indicted players, able to afford first-rate legal counsel, were exonerated after it became clear that Nifong had overstepped all boundaries of prosecutorial propriety. The D.A. himself was ultimately ruined, suffering disbarment and even a very brief jail sentence. The university did what wealthy institutions generally do and paid the accused a settlement to put the whole affair behind them.
All's well that ends well, I suppose, except for a couple of matters. First, a fairly pedestrian case—overreaching prosecutor violates defendants' rights—has now become a permanent rallying crying for the cultural right. Even Roger Clemens' attorney, fending off accusations of steroid use against his superstar client, made reference to Duke, as if the two cases had anything in common other than a tie to competitive athletics.
Second, the 88 professors who signed onto the "listening statement" continue to be smeared by the punditocracy and its minor league affiliates in the blogosphere. Sure, like most Americans, the "Gang of 88" probably assumed that the indicted players were guilty. But their newspaper ad, an attempt to reach out to angry and frightened women and African Americans on and off campus, simply did not approach even the suburbs of slander. It was a poorly-written, jargon-filled, self-righteous screed. But it was measured in the conclusions it drew and clearly allowed for the possibility of exoneration.
But worst of all, the cacophony generated by the right-wing noise machine obscured—perhaps intentionally—the single most important lesson to be learned from the Duke debacle. This was not a story of political correctness run amok. Rather, it was an all-too-typical tale of an overzealous prosecutor, blinded by ambition, who refused to back down even in the face of exculpatory evidence. When this happens to poor, and often African American, defendants, we sometimes learn the truth only after someone innocent is cleared by his DNA after a decade or so of incarceration. Or, absent genetic evidence, that secret may simply reside in the tortured soul of a man languishing behind prison walls for a crime he knows he did not commit. Unfortunately, the real story—the story of rampant prosecutorial misconduct and the need for judicial and public vigilance—was buried beneath layers of hackneyed culture warrior talking points about tenured radicals and their hatred of privileged white males.
As for the players themselves, their names are now entered into the hallowed book of right-wing martyrs, along with Dick Nixon and Joe McCarthy. But they are innocent only in the sense that they broke no laws other than, perhaps, regulations governing the distribution of alcoholic beverages. A bunch of rowdies got in over their heads and almost paid a terrible—and certainly unfair—price for their actions. There is no heroism here and much cause for embarrassment.
Yesterday, the 38 former players who were not indicted decided to reach back into the money pot to see if there was anything left over for them. They filed suit against the city and the university for emotional distress. "They were," said their attorney, "harassed in class by teachers and their fellow students. They were the target of protest marches and threats; they were called rapists and racists; they were surrounded in their own homes by screaming protesters." Evidently, the legal theory is that Duke University should have suspended the First Amendment so as not to hurt anyone's feelings.
I'm sure the lawsuit has pumped a fresh shot of adrenaline into the veins of the culture warriors. The Greatest Injustice in Human History, after all, will not be avenged until every professor who even thought—but never said—that the players were guilty is drawn, quartered, and run out of town. The warriors will not rest until 88 careers are destroyed.
My dog is less tenacious than this—and far less hypocritical. The Duke case was all about people who used bad judgment being punished far out of proportion to the actual offenses they committed. Now the culture warriors, irony-challenged as ever, will not back off until the university and its faculty experience an identical form of injustice.
As for the 38 unindicted athletes, it's time to call off the meretricious money grab. The 2006 Duke lacrosse team dishonored their university and now they need to suck it up and move on. Let the right-wing windbags find some new toys to play with.