In the legal world, it is difficult to imagine a more complete exoneration than that received by the Duke lacrosse players.
Sadly, facts matter in the courtroom more than they do in a newspaper. As the Duke men’s lacrosse team completed its season with a one-goal loss in the national championship game, many leading sports commentators used the occasion to get in one final swipe at the team. Maybe the players were innocent, the storyline went, but the team was filled with bad guys whose personal character should be interpreted solely on the basis of their attending a spring break party with strippers.
Clucked the Baltimore Sun’s Roch Kubato, “The players who attended the infamous party last year might not have done everything they were accused of, but what they were doing was wrong. Very, very wrong.” (Two of the accused players, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, briefly attended a party they played no role in organizing and perhaps drank some beer. That’s “very, very wrong?”) Sports columns in the San Jose Mercury News, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times made the same argument, almost as if they were written by the same person. So much for the power of the independent press.
It turns out that not one of the journalists who penned these columns ever interviewed a single current or former Duke lacrosse player. Nor did they seem to know the most basic facts about the case or its context.
Some sports reporters, it’s worth noting, covered the story professionally. The AP’s Aaron Beard has done extraordinary work on the lacrosse case for months. In early May 2006, Jason Whitlock wrote one of the first major columns challenging the pro-Nifong media consensus. At the Final Four, cnnsi’s Kevin Armstrong and Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel thoughtfully explored how the case personally affected some of the lacrosse players.
But for the most part, last week’s performance confirmed the worst stereotypes of sports columnists: that they are paid to have strongly expressed opinions, regardless of the quality of the argument they offer, or even their own consistency. When the issue is whether Joe Torre should rebuke Alex Rodriguez for his dalliance with a figure the New York tabloids have termed the buxom blonde, perhaps this standard is acceptable. When facts and research are required, however, the result is, at best, shoddy work.
Take the most famous sportswriter to comment on the case, John Feinstein—someone who, in a never-ending cascade of increasingly panned books and appearances on radio talk shows, has become one of those brands you can’t avoid no matter how much might want to.
They can just say, “We know you had this party. We know it got out of hand. None of you is man enough to come forward and say what happened. You were witnesses to a crime. We’re shutting down the program and you’re all gone.”
Prompted by Kornheiser, Feinstein conceded that his negative characterization of the players was not a result of their drinking or the captains inviting strippers. “That happens—but that happens on every school in
So what justified Feinstein’s condemnation of the players' character? The fact that none of the players had gone to police and incriminated their teammates for the “crime.”
You know, I don’t want to hear any ifs, and, or buts. These kids have acted disgracefully, just by the fact that not one of them—I don’t want to hear about the code, among buddies and among teams. A crime was committed. There were witnesses to the crime. They need to come forward and say what they saw . . .
They won’t, and that’s why I’m saying the hell with them—strip their scholarships.
Since Feinstein had elected to speak without determining the facts, he didn’t know (as had been reported two days before his interview) that the three captains had “come forward and said what happened,” and had even told police they would take a polygraph test. Moreover, as the
Feinstein, then, wanted the university to give its students an ultimatum: falsely implicate their teammates in a crime that never occurred or lose the financial wherewithal to attend college.
Much like the Duke faculty who condemned the lacrosse players to advance the professors’ ideological and curricular agendas, Feinstein had a personal angle to the case: he wanted to settle a score with people at Duke. In 1998, he had lobbied aggressively for Duke to name a longtime friend, Tom Mickle, as its new athletic director. The search committee rejected his advice and selected Joe Alleva. Those at Duke with whom I have spoken—some strong defenders of how the university handled the lacrosse case, others who were deeply disappointed by the school’s tepid response—were unanimous on one point: Alleva was easily superior to Feinstein’s candidate, who was merely one of many people considered for the job. But Feinstein took rejection badly. Had Duke hired his preferred choice for A.D., he sniffed a column last May, “this never would have gotten to this point.”
Blinded by this personal animus, Feinstein managed to get virtually every key element about the lacrosse case wrong:
- The only “crime” committed was underage drinking, in which the lacrosse players joined three-quarters of the nation’s college students and which both he and Kornheiser admitted last March was nothing unusual on college campuses.
- As Feinstein described the lacrosse team as “immature, idiotic, [and] out-of-control,” a faculty committee’s investigation showed that the players—like many students at Duke—drank too much, but otherwise were unusually good students, with strong records of community service and treating staff well, and no record of sexist or racist behavior.
- Despite his insinuation that the “rich, privileged, lawyered-up and white” lacrosse players had engaged in racist acts, we now know that one, and only one, of the team’s 47 players responded to a racial taunt from the second dancer, as the party was breaking up, with a racial slur of his own.
After the dismissal of charges and Duke’s run to the championship game, did Feinstein acknowledge his own rush to judgment? No. Explain or understand the facts of case? No. Admit that personal biases clouded his interpretation? No. Instead, in radio interviews and several newspaper columns over the past month, he lectured morality from some lofty moral high ground known only to him.
Discussing the three falsely accused players in an interview a few weeks ago, he asserted,
I don’t think I’ve been proven wrong, because . . . I said, I think they’re probably guilty of everything but rape.
Were they guilty of sexual assault and kidnapping, the other two charges that they faced? Of having personal characters that resembled Hitler’s, as commentator Wendy Murphy had suggested? Of racist slurs, even though none of them were even on the premises when the racially charged argument occurred between the second dancer and one lacrosse player? Feinstein didn’t say—but obviously all of those offenses would fall under a definition of “everything but rape.”
Following up on his radio screed, Feinstein took to the pages of the Washington Post to declare, “No one at Duke has admitted to a single mistake yet. Until they do so, they don’t deserve forgiveness.”
This was yet another Feinstein factual error: the team captains had apologized, publicly and repeatedly, for holding the party. The same man who last year blasted the Duke administration for not immediately terminating the lacrosse program and later wrote “whether Duke plays lacrosse next year really doesn’t matter” then criticized Duke for not resuming the season after the first round on DNA tests came back negative last April.
The lesson of the case, Feinstein informed Post readers, “isn’t about over-zealous prosecutors or media running amok. It’s a lesson about a society in which no one ever admits they’re wrong (see G.W. Bush and R. Cheney as exhibits 1 and 1A), especially allegedly smart people. Smart people make mistakes too. Mistakes are forgivable—but only after you admit them.”
It’s more than ironic to see repeated character assaults on the players and demands that Duke fire several administrators coming from a sportswriter who has not admitted—much less owned up to—his own serious misjudgments about the case.Do they give Pulitzers for hypocrisy? If so, consider Feinstein a shoo-in.