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Duke Lacrosse Team Known for Its Swagger

April 7, 2006

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) _ At Duke University, they like to say there’s only one real fraternity on campus: LAX, shorthand for lacrosse. Long before the university was rocked by allegations that lacrosse players raped a stripper during an off-campus party March 14, Duke’s highly ranked team had a reputation for swagger and a powerful sense of entitlement. Now administrators are starting to wonder whether they put up with it for too long.

``Taken as a group, is there a special history of bad behavior with this team?″ Duke President Richard H. Brodhead said Wednesday in announcing the resignation of the coach, the cancellation of the rest of the season and the opening of an internal investigation.

A black stripper who was hired to perform at a team party has charged that three white players choked and raped her in a bathroom in the early morning hours of March 14. Witnesses said she was also taunted with racial slurs.

No arrests have been made; police are awaiting DNA test results on the team members. The team’s captains have acknowledged hiring a stripper and allowing underage drinking, but have denied any rape occurred.

Even before the scandal, the nearly all-white team had come to personify an arrogant elite on this privileged campus, a collection of Gothic-style buildings dominating the landscape of this working-class city almost evenly divided between black and white.

Nearly a third of the team’s 47 members have been charged in recent years with offenses such as disorderly conduct and public urination.

Neighbors have described the leased single-story white home where the alleged attack took place as a kind of ``Animal House.″ A rusted tin shed out back is spray-painted with players’ nicknames and jersey numbers, and a primitive white painting of a lacrosse player adorns the roof.

Peter Wood, a professor of Native American history who was captain of the Harvard and Oxford University lacrosse teams, said he complained two years ago about coach Mike Pressler’s decision to order practice on a weekday morning that conflicted with his class. He also has had problems with team members signing in, then ducking out of class.

``Certainly in recent years I’ve been troubled too often by encounters with the men’s lacrosse team,″ he said. The professor said that one thing he ``sensed very clearly was just their tightness as a group.″

In his recent novel, ``I Am Charlotte Simmons,″ Tom Wolfe portrayed athletes at his fictional Dupont University (a Gothic-style school in the North) as lumbering, thuggish ``herpes pustules″ who get all the women and get away with everything. The lacrosse team comes in for particular scorn.

``Lacrosse,″ one character says, ``is one of the only two sports where white boys are the ones with the machismo.″ (The other is ice hockey.)

Duke law professor James Coleman Jr., who has been appointed to investigate the team, said he wants to know whether bad behavior by the lacrosse team ``is something that has been ongoing, whether the university has been aware of it, whether the teams _ the coaches and athletic department _ have been aware of it; and whether the university, coaches and athletic department have taken appropriate action to deal with it.″

The allegations have Dr. Marie Savard questioning whether the Duke lacrosse program was really the incubator of integrity, responsibility and sportsmanship she thought it was when she had entrusted her three boys to it.

``We were happy that our kids were at Duke and not someplace where it was all about the game and winning and not about the sportsmanship and the academics and collegiality,″ said the Denver physician, who considered Pressler a ``role model and sort of second parent″ to sons Zack, Ben and Aaron Fenton. ``I thought our kids were more protected. I’m feeling naive now.″

Pressler’s attorney, Edward J. Falcone, said Thursday night his client is no more a ``guarantor of the behavior of 18-21-year-olds than are parents of children that age.″

``His resignation should not be construed as an indication that he has done anything wrong,″ Falcone said. ``He has done nothing wrong.″

Pressler’s supporters said he was an exceptional coach of high morals. This year’s media guide includes a testimonial from Jim Gonnella, a two-time All-American from the Duke class of 1997.

``The values that were instilled in me as a member of the Duke Lacrosse program provided me a framework for success after college,″ he wrote. ``My four year experience taught me the importance of integrity, responsibility, teamwork and pride.″

Savard said Pressler would suspend players whose grades dropped below a C.

``What is completely ironic to me is coach Pressler instilled values in my three sons in terms of integrity and hard work and academics,″ she said in a telephone interview. ``My kids in general, because of coach Pressler, all feel that they are better people as a result.″

Many claim the allegations against the team are just a reflection of a sense of white privilege that pervades the entire campus.

``I like Duke. I had fun my four years here. But the culture at Duke _ most people think most students at Duke think they’re above everything else,″ said Tracy Egharevba, a senior and member of the on-campus chapter of the NAACP. ``They’re prestigious. They can do whatever they want without any consequences.″

Jeff Benedict, former research director at Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Society and author of several books on sports violence, said it is not as much about economic privilege as it is the ``culture of entitlement″ that surrounds college and professional athletes.

``What’s unique about sports, and this includes lacrosse, is when you go to college campus you are afforded things that other students are not afforded,″ he said. ``These guys know they’re different.″

He added: ``It’s like being given extra power when you’re quite young and immature. And some guys don’t handle it very well.″


Associated Press writers Jason Bronis, Emery P. Dalesio and Samuel Z. Spies in Raleigh, and Colleen Long in New York also contributed to this report.

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