Issues at Duke spark debate

Athletes' behavior, status on campus come into question

College Lacrosse

March 30, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

Durham, N.C. -- By indefinitely suspending its men's lacrosse season, Duke University has addressed the short-term matter of whether the team would continue to play while an investigation continues of an alleged sexual assault at an off-campus party.

But long-term issues remain, not only about the team's future but also about how Duke and other universities can foster athletic team "cultures" that don't presume their members are above the rules, according to officials associated with college sports.

Even if the sexual assault allegations involving team members prove false, Duke officials said the March 13 incident still raises troubling questions about the players' level of respect for women and about underage drinking.

Administrators also have expressed concern about reports that racial slurs were shouted at the party, in which an African-American exotic dancer was allegedly pulled into a bathroom and sexually assaulted by three men at a house rented by lacrosse players.

It was not certain yesterday whether Duke's decision to suspend its upcoming schedule would ease campus tensions even minimally. Students and community members have periodically rallied against what some believe is lenient treatment of team members. The players have been permitted to continue practicing, but two games have been lost to suspension already and Saturday's game against Ohio State is off.

"I just don't know," Donna Lisker, the director of Duke Women's Center, said when asked if protesters would now feel they are being heard. "Innocent until proven guilty is a critical presumption. But these are such serious charges."

As President Richard Brodhead left a news conference to announce that the season was suspended Tuesday night, he was met by placard-waving demonstrators demanding justice for the alleged victim, a student at nearby North Carolina Central University.

Yesterday, Brodhead met privately with a few dozen students about the university's response.

"I don't want to say I'm satisfied, but I will say that what happened in there makes me feel like we're moving in a good direction," sophomore Bridgette Howard said after the meeting, which was closed to all reporters except those working for Duke's student newspaper.

The level of outrage had seemed to increase as details about the allegations emerged.

According to a search warrant, the victim and a fellow dancer told police they had been dancing in a master bedroom but tried to leave when the men watching became "aggressive." Asked by one of the suspects to return, the victim was pulled into a bathroom and someone said, "Sweetheart, you can't leave," the document said. It said she was overpowered by three males and was hit, kicked and raped.

Lacrosse team members said in a statement Tuesday night that DNA tests will prove their innocence. The results are expected next week. Brodhead said players told him there was no sex with the victim - either consensual or forced.

The incident has shaken the lacrosse community.

"One of the things that make it so newsworthy is that it's pretty darn unique for the sport," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, a membership group overseeing the sport. "The allegations are very disturbing on their own merits, and that is magnified because it's lacrosse."

Lacrosse is one of America's fastest-growing sports. Many more games are televised now than five years ago, and organized participation is up 50 percent from 2001 to 2005, according to US Lacrosse.

The challenge for the sport is to make sure its young participants don't begin to think of themselves as "stars," aloof from their classmates. That is a potential hazard when campus athletes become prominent, said Paul H. Haagen, a Duke law professor who has counseled student-athletes.

"Across the country there is a kind of increasing separation of athletes from the rest of the student body," Haagen said. "The culture of athletics increasingly is to demand more of athletes as athletes, and not as, say, history students playing athletics. This is not just a college problem; they're coming into college this way."

Asked how the NCAA might remedy the situation, Haagen replied, "You limit practice times, you limit seasons. I would like to see very much more integration."

Stenersen said lacrosse is still "light-years" away from larger sports such as football and basketball in terms of revenue and exposure.

"But are there challenges that growth causes? There's no question," he said. "Every kid's lacrosse education has to include issues of personal responsibility to themselves, to their team and to the sport itself."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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