Playing on

Duke braces for tough season, aware challenges that lie ahead won't be confined to lacrosse field

October 21, 2006|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

DURHAM, N.C. -- Ed Douglas often wears a light blue plastic band around his right wrist with the words, "Duke Lacrosse 2006." Then it says: "Innocent!" followed by the numbers (6, 13, 45) of his former teammates facing a rape trial in the spring.

It's not that Douglas, 22, a Gilman School graduate recently selected co-captain by the team, wants to harp on what may or may not have happened during a now-infamous off-campus team party in the early morning hours of March 14.

Rather, Douglas and the team's coach of just three months, John Danowski, who wears a similar wristband, believe it would be unrealistic - perhaps even disloyal - for the team to try to move forward without occasionally looking back.

As they concluded fall practices, the co-captain and coach indicated they won't discourage team members from making contact with the indicted players, or wearing wristbands or other markers of support, or talking publicly about last season's tribulations or attending the trial should it occur during the season.

The season begins in February and the first away game is at Maryland on March 3.

The three indicted players denied the charges on CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday and said they had expected the case to be dropped by authorities after DNA tests conducted in March found no definitive link between them and their accuser.

Danowski told The Sun he would not hesitate to invite indicted players Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty back to the team if they are cleared of the charges. A 27-year-old woman said she was pulled into a bathroom and raped after being hired as a stripper at the party. The third player charged, David Evans of Bethesda, graduated in May and is working for a communications firm, according to people who know him. Douglas said there "is, effectively, a gag order" preventing him from talking about the party.

In a sense, Finnerty and Seligmann seem part of the team even now. Asked how many players will be on the team that opens its season in February, Danowski replied: "When it's whole it'll be 43, and that's with Reade and Collin."

Inviting the players back could be sensitive for Duke, which endured a series of demonstrations last spring by students concerned that lacrosse team members were being coddled by the administration.

But university officials expressed no reservations about having the players back. "I believe our policy in such cases is to permit them to reapply and in such cases, admission is virtually always given," said John Burness, a Duke senior vice president. "As they then would be students in good standing, they would be eligible, assuming the coach wants them, to be on the team."

The party's aftermath rattled the campus for months as Duke debated whether players' behavior reflected the lacrosse team culture or student-athletes generally. There were racial undertones because the stripper is black and the lacrosse team mostly white. More recently, District Attorney Michael Nifong has come under criticism in the media as defense attorneys have seemed to punch holes in his case. On the lush campus, where students had rallied outside stone residence halls, anger directed at the team has cooled.

As the accused players await a trial that may occur during the lacrosse season, the team is trying to return its focus to the field even as it anticipates media questions and other distractions.

"There is a sense that you can't change the past. The only thing we can control is what comes next," said Douglas, who first made the team as a sophomore walk-on in 2004.

At the same time, Douglas said: "The emotions surrounding the events are still very raw. I think every guy in our locker room wishes with all their heart that Collin and Reade could be with us, so in that sense it is always present."

Douglas said the team may decide to continue wearing the wristbands, which also are being sold on the Internet to raise money for the former players' defense.

Finnerty and Seligmann have been taking classes near their homes in Garden City, N.Y., and Essex Falls, N.J., respectively.

Because he didn't play as a freshman, Douglas has a year of eligibility left even after graduating in May. He is enrolled in a graduate liberal arts program and is considering eventually applying to law school.

A year removed from advancing to the 2005 national championship game won by Johns Hopkins, Duke's 2006 season ended when the university halted play after eight games because of the rape investigation and because players acknowledged they hired dancers and underage drinking occurred.

For Douglas, the season was a jolt - a bad dream that really happened. This year he has the appreciation of someone who is getting a second chance that wasn't guaranteed. Duke had considered disbanding the lacrosse team before deciding in June to reinstate it after players agreed to a code of conduct.

Duke's incoming freshman class was originally 11. Four of the recruits changed their mind after the scandal and were released from their commitments.

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