Resolution in Durham still seems far away

April 12, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Two weeks ago today, a Duke lacrosse player attended a "Take Back the Night" rally on his campus. "I completely support this event and this entire week," he told the student newspaper, The Chronicle. The march was held in the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness Week. "It's just sad that the allegations we are accused of happened to fall when they did," the player said.

One week ago today, police revealed an e-mail apparently written by a Duke lacrosse player, as sickening as it was disheartening. The e-mail was so vile, it prompted school officials to cancel the team's season and led to the resignation of the Blue Devils' coach.

The e-mail came from the address of sophomore Ryan McFadyen, the same player who'd made the remarks to the student paper seven days earlier, presumably in earnest, presumably from the heart. The contradiction in character speaks to the complexity that lies at the very core of a controversy that's managed to shine a bright light on racial tension in a small community.

Thanks to a politically ambitious prosecutor and defense attorneys with equal admiration for television cameras, the entire drama has played out nearly in real-time. In an era in which an office worker can spend an entire eight-hour shift refreshing ESPN.com, the news out of Durham, N.C., can't come quickly enough.

And even as it does trickle out, the evidence lacks the texture to provide a real hint at what actually happened that night. Is McFadyen -- and by extension, the rest of the Blue Devils team -- the saint who lights candles and walks in honor of women? Or is he a monster who hires them for money and then fires off coarse and threatening e-mails?

The duality of McFadyen's public portrait illustrates perfectly what we really know after four weeks of banter, finger-pointing and name-calling. Put simply, we're miles away from anything resembling an absolute truth.

The allegations -- a stripper says she was gang-raped, sodomized and held against her will at a party March 13 -- have yet to become formal charges. The sports pages are the wrong place for this trial to take place. As beautiful a microcosm this world of bats, balls and helmets can be, it's not a perfect reflection. Sports are easy to interpret. You're out or you're safe. You scored or you didn't. You win or you lose. There's room for error, but there are also a dozen different camera angles, instant replay and thousands of eyewitnesses.

This is how many of us prefer to consume news and events, and it's why the investigation of the Duke lacrosse team has been especially difficult to digest. Taken singularly, every day has brought a different knee-jerk judgment. The evidence of the day is always compelling, and lacking context, always damning.

How many of us rushed to verdict after the initial allegation? Did your opinion change when defense attorneys began poking holes? Change again when the e-mail was released last week? (There was mention of hiring strippers again. "I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the[y] walk in and proceeding to cut their skin off," the e-mail read. Amazingly, it became even more depraved from there.)

And did your opinion change again this week when authorities revealed that DNA tests didn't implicate a single one of the 46 players who were tested?

The court of public opinion thankfully has no jurisdiction. But as public opinion flip-flops, we get a slight peek at the real-world consequences that might be wrought by this controversy. While it hopefully sparked much-needed dialogue in Durham these past four weeks, this isn't a case that spawns solely good intentions.

If players are eventually cleared of wrongdoing, sure, justice might have been served, but a community will also have been harmed. Stereotypes will have been reinforced and the next 911 call could be met with unnecessary skepticism.

We don't tie this dark reality to anything a jury foreman says. Instead, we link it directly to the public nature of the case. Prosecutors cannot allow their investigations to be mistaken for trials.

The way this case has been pursued, every news junkie with access to the sports page has been appointed to the jury. Attorneys have volleyed their rhetoric back and forth, knowing very well how passionate the knee-jerk reaction can be.

The totality of the case was never a focal point. Publicly, it's hinged on specific points of conflict -- what she said, what they said, what the DNA tests said. In sports, it's safe to take situational statistics and draw bigger conclusions. In the real world, it can be dangerous.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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