Who’s Responsible for the Duke Lacrosse fiasco? Liberal Professors!
Disclaimer: I’m a Liberal Professor, so make of that what you will.
Earlier this week, Mike and the Mad Dog interviewed Mike Pressler, former Duke Lacrosse coach, and Don Yaeger, who is the author of the newly released book: It’s Not About the Truth. I have not had a chance to read the book yet and, therefore, I am not going to comment on it. I’ll just comment on some of the issues raised in the interview.
I should start by noting that there’s a debate about whether sports talk radio hosts are journalists, or entertainers. The debate matters if we want to know what sorts of factual standards hosts should be held to. If the goal is to be bombastic, provocative and opinionated, one could argue that a certain shoddiness with the facts is fine, because that’s what happens in ordinary conversations – people say things that aren’t necessarily precisely true, but that’s OK because they’re just giving their opinion. If the hosts, however, regard themselves as something more than just two guys talking – that they have an authority, or an expertise on the issues that entitles them to a certain credibility, then the question of journalistic standards becomes more relevant in judging them. I can’t say that I have ever heard Mike Francesa or Chris Russo describe themselves as journalists. But, there’s no doubt that facts matter to them and that they often chastise callers (and guests) for getting their facts wrong. Mike and the Dog do entertain but they also both clearly see themselves as possessing credible opinions because of what they know. (and, their audience, it would appear, generally agrees).
Which is why their interview of Pressler and Yaeger was so lame – an ideological screed dressed up as a serious discussion of the Duke Lacrosse case.
First, let me express skepticism about their concern with a “rush to judgment.” There was a “rush to judgment” in the Duke case. That’s not my point. But, Francesa and Russo have, over the years, like many sports talk radio hosts, immediately assumed the worst about a professional athlete upon the first report of potential wrong-doing by that athlete. And, in many cases, neither a grand jury indictment nor even a charge has been necessary to spur contempt and lamentations about “today’s athlete.” There are alot of people out there now decrying how people reacted to this case without acknowledging a simple truth – there are very few instances in which a prosecutor’s assertion about the likelihood that a crime has been committed is challenged in the early stages of a case. Our entire system of grand jury indictment is biased in favor of prosecutors and few challenge the validity of that system. And, Russo in particular has, on numerous occasions, disparaged things like people’s rights to due process, their right to protection from unlawful search and seizure, or the niceties of the law when it comes to allowing the legal process to play itself out before determining someone’s guilt or punishing them. We give prosecutors extremely wide latitude in bringing criminal cases. Not, infrequently, that leads to serious miscarriages of justice. You would never know that, however, to listen discussions of the Duke case in much of the media.
As for the substance of the discussion itself, much of it recounted Coach Pressler’s experience of events as those events unfolded after March 13, 2006. But, interjected throughout the conversations were a surreal mix of comments. In one sentence, Coach Pressler would decry “people painting us with the same broad brush.” And, in the next breath, Francesa would make a comment like: “99% of professors are left, of left, of left” a statement that is not only not even close to factually accurate, but also is entirely overblown as an explanation for how events transpired at Duke last year. To give another example, Coach Pressler would say “everyone was using this case to advance their personal causes.” This, in the midst of an interview which argued, a la the best right-wing talk radio, that “you get a liberal faculty impacting a liberal president” so that, of course, this was the outcome. Yes, speaking of personal agendas.
I said this recently in responding to Rick Reilly’s column about Pressler, but I will repeat: When you have such a strong case (in this instance of gross prosecutorial misconduct), why do you need to airbrush out every fact that doesn’t support you’re black and white view of the situation? At one point during the interview, Russo asked Coach Pressler whether he had any regrets, anything he wished he’d done differently, Pressler answered with a Bush-like categorical “no.” Though the tone of the interview was overwhelmingly indulgent and non-confrontational, it’s clear that Russo was surprised by this answer, because he asked it again (and got the same answer). Could Pressler really mean that? The Coleman report, which the four men in the studio all discussed in approving terms (with Russo noting it said nice things about the Lacrosse players) makes abundantly clear that there was an off-field disciplinary problem with the team, almost all of it related to alcohol consumption. And, though it’s true that drinking is a common behavior/problem on college campuses, the Coleman report was clear: “over the last five years, however, many lacrosse players increasingly have been socially irresponsible consumers of alcohol. Their extensive record of repetitive misconduct should have alarmed administrators responsible for student discipline.” The Reilly piece cited the Lacrosse players’ 100% graduation rate under Pressler clearly not in order to tout their academic performance, but to suggest that they possessed exemplary character. The Coleman report takes a more nuanced view of this issue, asserting that their academic and athletic performance was “exemplary” but noting that this was in contrast to their “socially irresponsible” behavior. And, though boys will be boys, the Coleman report states that the number of team members implicated in misconduct and the “number of alchohol-related incidents involving them have been excessive compared to other Duke athletic teams.”
And, on the question of Coach Pressler’s awareness of his players’ off-field conduct, the Coleman report makes clear that administrators did an inadequate job of bringing players’ misconduct to the attention of the coach, the Coleman report makes clear that Pressler was informed of his team’s “problematic disciplinary record.” So, there was no question that his players had a track record when it came to alcohol. And, yet, there is nothing the coach feels he should have or could have done differently? Let me interject here and say, so that nobody misunderstands me, none of this means that the three falsely accused players got what they deserved. But, is it too much to ask that Coach Pressler at least acknowledge that the team that he coached and for which, therefore, he was responsible, had a noteworthy off-field disciplinary record that probably required more discipline than he was giving it? If you want to argue that pro coaches can’t be held responsible for player misconduct off the field (think Marvin Lewis and the Bengals), that’s one thing. But, you can’t plausibly extend that argument to college. Pressler does seem to have been kept in the dark about some incidents. But, he knew enough to know that there was a problem.
None of this has seemed to matter these days. What was a terribly mishandled case by an infuriatingly irresponsible prosecutor has been elevated to the worst injustice in the history of American jurisprudence. But, what stands out about this case is how total has been the exoneration in this case and how thoroughly the prosecutor has been vilified. There have been plenty of innocent people indicted for crimes they did not commit in the state of North Carolina these past few years (and plenty that went to jail for crimes they didn’t commit). And, yet, I cannot remember, in my seventeen years here, a prosecutor being so publicly disgraced.
One other note concerning the repeated harping on the liberal professors and their responsibility for this fiasco. The notorious eighty-eight professors who wrote the “listening statement” last year that has drawn so much venom, was a significant topic of conversation during the interview. Not the substance of it, none of which was discussed (you can read it here and judge for yourself what you think of it. scroll down to the bottom of the link). Instead, the implication, clear from the amount of attention the 88 professors received in the interview, was that they played a major role in what happened to the players and the coach. One problem with this assertion is that the statement appeared in the Duke Chronicle on April 6, 2006 (and makes no mention of the coach). And, Coach Pressler was told he was being fired on April 5, one day earlier, by the athletic director Joe Alleva. And, the immediate precipitant for the decision to fire the coach was clear – the emergence of an email sent by one of the players joking about having another party at which strippers could be skinned alive.
Was it perhaps too easy for professors, students and others to use the allegations made to push broader claims about racism and sexism at Duke and in society more generally? Sure. There’s plenty of hyperbole around those sorts of issues on college campuses and such tendencies were, from people at Duke have told me, especially prevalent during that period of time. But, it has been nothing more than an ideologically motivated stretch to make 88 professors (out of the 2500 or so faculty at Duke) co-conspirators in the case itself.
The discussion was little better in covering other issues. At one point, the discussion turned to the financial impact of the case on Duke. Yaeger asserted that one economist told him the case could cost the university $100 million. And, it’s true that, with lawyers’ fees, settlements and the like, the university will have paid out several million dollars in relation to the case. But, one hundred million? Where does that figure come from? In 2006, Duke University, an already very rich school, had it’s best year ever in terms of development (that is, fundraising). And, it’s incoming classes, though there’s some evidence they were affected by the case the past year, remain at full capacity, as flush with outstanding students as always. Francesa, who loves to talk dollars and cents (though not necessarily do any research about such matters), jumped on this claim and added that it would also hurt the State of North Carolina. How this is so I leave to your imagination, because I have no idea.
By all accounts, the case has continued to hang over the campus, and people with knowledge of such matters tell me that surveys and focus groups that Duke has conducted show that people now link the University to the case, a reality that will likely linger for some time. And, yes, the coach lost his job. But, if the case is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about the perils of a rush to judgment and the unfairness of painting all people from one group with the same broad brush, then those lessons were clearly lost on the four men who were actually discussing them.