You’re sure to be disappointed if you believe that individual Duke professors will cease exploiting Mike Nifong’s procedurally dubious targeting of three Duke lacrosse players. In recent weeks, Peter Wood went out of his way to seem to slander Reade Seligmann, while adding unsubstantiated allegations against the team as a whole. Then Wahneema Lubiano conceded that she and other members of the Group of 88 were fully aware that “some would see the [Group of 88] ad as a stake through the collective heart of the lacrosse team.” Friday’s Herald-Sun features the latest in this pattern, an op-ed from Orin Starn.
Starn denounces the alleged arrogance of Duke athletics as part of his campaign to transform Duke into a watered-down version of Haverford. In the process, he imitates the Times’ Duff Wilson in superficially presenting both sides of the legal case while actually offering a one-sided interpretation hostile to the players. No wonder Herald-Sun editor Bob (“Eyes Wide Shut”) Ashley rushed the piece into print.
Like Wood and Lubiano, Starn’s ideological agenda has blinded him to the facts before: John in Carolina called out the cultural anthropology professor when he distorted Coach K’s remarks back in June. In his Herald-Sun piece, Starn again blasts Coach K, this time for having “stubbornly refused to learn the lessons of these last months. An arrogant sense of victimization and entitlement seems to have replaced any semblance of clear-thinking or self-reflection in Duke sports circles.” The description, however, is more appropriate for Starn: the cultural anthropology professor would seem the perfect protagonist for William Anderson’s fascinating piece deeming the case Duke’s “Reichstag fire.”
In a half-hearted critique of Nifong’s actions, Starn claims that there’s “plenty of reason to doubt District Attorney Mike Nifong’s fairness with the lacrosse charges” and says that he signed a petition to put Lewis Cheek on the ballot. It turns out, however, that the professor’s doubts about Nifong’s fairness are of a distinctly limited variety.
He reports that “most Durhamites want to hear all the evidence before passing judgment.” I’d be curious to know what evidence Starn would like to hear “before passing judgment” that Reade Seligmann was either on the phone, in a cab, or more than a mile away at an ATM machine—and on a videotape, no less—at the time of the alleged attack. Or what evidence Starn would like to hear “before passing judgment” that Nifong violated Section 3.8 of the state bar’s ethics code. Or what evidence Starn would like to hear “before passing judgment” that the Nifong-ordered April 4 lineup—the only evidence used to indict Seligmann and Collin Finnerty—violated multiple Durham procedures and statewide patterns and therefore must be suppressed.
Like Wilson at the Times, who contended that while Nifong’s case had holes, the DA had more than enough evidence to bring to the jury, Starn seems to believe that the public, the media, and the academy should simply stand aside while Nifong engages in what Susan Estrich has correctly termed “mindboggling” violations of standard procedure. Had Starn sat on the Warren Court, I assume he would have bitterly resisted Mapp v. Ohio, since the exclusionary rule prevents localities from “hear[ing] all the evidence before passing judgment” when police or prosecutorial misconduct occurs.
Starn promises to remain “vigilant in ensuring that both [the players] and their accuser receive fair treatment from the justice system.” A tenured professor who conflates the rights of an accuser in the “justice system” with those of defendants needs a refresher course on the Bill of Rights.
In any case, if the Herald-Sun op-ed represents a “vigilant” Starn ensuring that the players “receive fair treatment from the justice system,” I can’t imagine what he’s like when passive about protecting civil liberties. For he spends most of his time denouncing the behavior of a handful of lacrosse players—none of whom, as far as we know, are among those ultimately targeted by Nifong—to bolster his claim that Duke should abolish all athletic scholarships and retreat to club sports.
“It was revealed this spring,” Starn reminds Herald-Sun readers, “that almost one-third of the lacrosse team had been arrested on public drunkenness and on other charges.” After a week in which we’ve learned that the Durham Police Department adopted an official policy of targeting Duke students for arrest, this statistic carries considerably less weight than it once did. (I’m surprised that someone with Starn’s vigilance about judicial fairness neglected to mention this finding—but, alas, it doesn’t fit his anti-athlete thesis.) The professor also ominously notes that “good evidence suggests that a team captain gave a false name to hire strippers." (Former lacrosse captain Dan Flannery called himself Dan “Flannigan," but promptly showed his ID to the second dancer—hardly the actions of someone with a flawed character.)
Starn concludes by denouncing any player who engaged in racial slurs—a far more serious, and far different, offense than drinking. By linking underage drinking with the racial slurs Starn trivializes the latter. Moreover, he provides not a scintilla of evidence that this clear character flaw had anything to do with participation in intercollegiate athletics. Are athletes more inclined to be racists? Starn implies it is so, as if no one could deny the proposition. Why should we think that if Duke transforms itself into a watered-down version of Haverford and has only club athletics, it still won't have a few students with horrible beliefs? And, of course, Starn is selective in the behavior that he describes: he ignores the Coleman Committee report’s many positive findings about the lacrosse team—that the players were strong students (with not even one instance of academic disciplinary action); that they had impressive records of community service; that they unfailingly treated staff politely and with respect; that they showed no evidence of sexist or racist behavior on campus. These facts don’t fit Starn’s thesis; he prefers to paint an one-sidedly negative account of the players’ behavior.
“None of this,” Starn hastens to add, “means that the three indicted lacrosse players are guilty.” That he chose to preview Nifong’s opening argument to boost his own case against Duke athletics is, I suppose, an unfortunate necessity. Perhaps he’ll offer a private apology to the three players about how he needed to sacrifice their standing to pursue the greater good.
As I’ve noted before, Starn’s approach to protecting his students seems to depend on whether doing what’s right conflicts with his on-campus agenda. In the case of Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Starn graduate student arrested on procedurally dubious grounds in
Does Starn have an opinion of his former student’s personal character? Apparently the professor couldn’t find space in his op-ed to discuss that issue. Joining the chorus of those who have praised Seligmann wouldn’t advance Starn’s anti-athletics cause, since Seligmann is himself a Division I athlete who virtually everyone considers an asset to Duke. Better, I suppose, for Starn to allow Herald-Sun readers to retain a false impression of his former student’s character.
What does Starn envision replacing funding for Division I athletics at Duke? “New money should be invested in academic merit scholars,” he contends, “for deserving African-American and other applicants from underrepresented groups to strengthen Duke diversity and excellence.” Leaving aside the fact that race-based scholarships are almost certainly unconstitutional in the post-Grutter environment, Starn supplies no evidence that funding for athletics has taken away from Duke offering academic merit scholarships to students from underrepresented groups. As with his insinuation that athletes are more likely to be racists, I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for the assertion. Somehow, I’m not persuaded.