Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Coleman Committee Report--and "Aggressive Body Language"

Slate has a piece by David Feige, an author and former public defender in the Bronx, outlining the myriad of procedural abuses associated with the D.A.’s indictment of two Duke lacrosse players. Feige’s conclusion: “In the end, between his media mania, harassing search warrants, and the outrageous attempt to interrogate individuals already represented by counsel, Mike Nifong has exposed a reality of the criminal-justice system that can often escape our attention: Prosecutors captivated by the beneficial glare of the media spotlight are often ready to ignore convincing evidence of innocence in the politically motivated pursuit of criminal defendants. The Durham district attorney's actions raise the question of whether prosecutors really are willing to win elections at the cost of wrongful prosecutions. Sadly, for Durham and Duke and for all of us, the answer in this case seems to be ‘yes.’”

As a reminder that flawed processes can sometimes produce flawed results, as part of a set of motions, defense attorneys released a photo of one indicted player, Reade Seligmann, time-stamped from an ATM machine at a time when the police report alleged that the rape was occurring. (Since Nifong, for reasons that remain unexplained, made the arrest before even investigating whether Seligmann had an alibi, the prosecution never presented this evidence to the grand jury; there are several other photos of the ATM scene.) In his only quote of the day, the D.A. said that he plans to seek a third indictment in two weeks. But from taking a look at the Raleigh TV websites, last night’s 11pm news ignored Nifong’s promise and instead, quite correctly, showed the Seligmann photo.

In a surprise, a Duke committee recommended restoring the lacrosse program in 2007, coupled with appropriate stringent regulations regarding behavior and consumption of alcohol by team members. That a law professor, James Coleman, chaired the committee was a good sign; the report contained none of the unfortunate tone or substance that has characterized previous statements on the issue from the Duke faculty. The report’s data also presented a much less negative view of the team than we’ve seen over the past six weeks.

The report makes clear the disturbing pattern both of increased excessive alcohol use by team members and team members’ disproportionate violation of college alcohol policy. But the document also condemns the administration for insufficient oversight in general and poor communication with the (ex-) lacrosse coach in particular; and contextualizes the issue by noting a more general problem of all Duke students ignoring the college’s alcohol policy, which the report calls “arbitrary and often ineffective.” And other aspects of the report portray the players as about as far from Nifong’s “hooligans” as imaginable. The team members are warmly praised for their courtesy to athletic staff, their good relationship with the women’s lacrosse team, and their record of volunteer service in the community; the report found no evidence that “the cohesiveness of this group is either sexist or racist.” None of this material excuses the (admitted) actions on the night in question, but it certainly calls into question allegations, like that of Duke professor Houston Baker, that these actions typified the team’s behavior.

For me, the single most interesting aspect of the report came in its discussion of the players’ athletic performance. Last year, more than half the team made the ACC’s academic honor roll, more than any other school, and between 2001 and 2005, the Duke lacrosse honor roll total more than doubled that of any other ACC school. The committee interviewed 10 Duke professors who had taught significant numbers of lacrosse students. Nine of the ten offered positive comments; one professor noted that “the lacrosse players were willing to defend unpopular positions in class.” Given the ideological tenor of the Duke faculty, it’s not hard to imagine what some of these positions might have been.

That analysis is worth remembering when taking into account the response of the tenth professor interviewed by the committee. Peter Wood, a member of the History Department, was a lacrosse player at Harvard and then coached the Duke women’s lacrosse team when it had club status; perhaps this common bond led lacrosse players to seek out his classes. That clearly was a mistake. Wood, co-author of the textbook Created Equal, which bills itself as “emphasizing social history—including the lives and labors of women, immigrants, working people, and persons of color in all regions of the country” based on “an expanding notion of American identity—one that encompasses the stories of diverse groups of people,” teaches courses in African-American and Native American history. Wood’s scholarship and teaching seem to reflect a clearcut slant on the American past—one well within the historiographical mainstream, but also, perhaps, not a good environment for students generally “willing to defend unpopular positions in class.”

Wood certainly didn’t welcome the students to his class. After his 2004 Native American history course, Wood wrote a letter to the dean complaining about “the decline in classroom behavior of lacrosse players in particular and athletes in general.” The committee noted that Wood has given a substantially harsher version of events in recent weeks than he did in his 2004 letter (which the report doesn’t release). In an attempt to verify Wood’s claims, the committee spoke to his teaching assistant, who reported that “she did not think the lacrosse players intentionally intimidated other students, but thought that they displayed aggressive body language in class.” So, the committee uncovered nine professors who said either that the players were no problem or that they were assets to the class—even if they “were willing to defend unpopular positions”—and a tenth who had only negative things to say about team members, and whose teaching assistant, incredibly, accused the players of “aggressive body language.” It is, of course, possible that members of the team behaved totally differently in Wood’s class than they did in the other nine classes the committee sampled. But I’d say it’s rather unikely.

[Originally published in Cliopatria.]

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