Richard Brodhead’s recent denial of “scapegoating” the lacrosse team seems unsustainable. In the Duke president’s public response to Friends of Duke University, the sole evidence that he cited to substantiate his claim that he hasn't scaegoated the team was the existence of the Coleman Committee report. But he had described this document to the University community as favorable to the lacrosse team only in that it did not “confirm the worst allegations against this team”—which, of course, were that three players committed gang rape and dozens of others covered it up. Many people would consider Brodhead’s failure to mention that the report detailed the players’ positive academic performance, excellent relations with Duke staff, and extensive record of community service confirmation of the charge of his scapegoating the team.
More important, the Coleman Committee report conclusively showed how Brodhead already had scapegoated the team when he forced the resignation of lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. As William Gerrish, whose son captained the 2005 Duke lacrosse team, recently noted, Pressler “is perhaps the only one who did nothing wrong during this incident, and yet he ended up paying for it.”
Pressler coached lacrosse at Duke for 16 years; in 2005, he led the team to the NCAA finals, and was named national coach of the year. That former Hofstra (and current Duke) lacrosse coach John Danowski sent his son to play for Pressler testified to his peers’ high regard for him. Parents of his former players have lavished him with praise. Nina Zash, whose son co-captained the 2006 team, affirmed that “my son went to college a boy and came out a man, and I am not naive enough to think it's all because of his parents. Coach Pressler, from the first day he stepped foot into my house, let us and my son know that he would be tough but fair, and would never demand more than he gave. He 'walked the walk' every single day my son was under his watch. He was the guardian you want your child to have when you can't be there, [and] it was an honor and a privilege to watch him work his magic with my son these past four years.”
Pressler developed a reputation as a tough but fair disciplinarian, as Duke’s own investigation subsequently confirmed. To illustrate Pressler’s approach, a lacrosse player who graduated in 2006 recalled:
During my sophomore year I was involved in an off the field incident stemming from underage drinking. Coach Pressler’s policy from the day I arrived on campus was no matter what kind of troubling situation came up he wanted to know about it before it was brought to his attention by others. I failed to follow this rule and hoped that he would not find out. When he did find out his punishment was decisive and fair. We were scheduled to travel to West Point that weekend to play the Army. I had made the travel team and was excited about the trip. My family was also coming and my father was especially looking forward to seeing West Point. Upon learning of my incident Coach Pressler pulled me aside after practice and told me to come to his office after I showered. There, he informed me that I was suspended for the Army game and that I would not be making the trip with the team. He asked me to call my dad and tell him to cancel his trip. Coach Pressler was disappointed that I had violated his trust and for weeks I could not look him in the eye without feeling ashamed of what I had done. He was upset about the incident but made more of an issue regarding my violation of his trust. I learned a valuable lesson from him.
This discipline paid dividends, on and off the field. During Pressler’s 16 years at Duke, his players had a 100% graduation rate; between 2001 and 2005, more than half of Duke’s lacrosse players made the ACC academic honor roll—more than double the percentage of any other team in the league. The 2006 squad included a former walk-on, Edward Douglas, who graduated with distinction from the Duke Pratt School of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering. Douglas’ father believes that “Edward could not have excelled in such a rigorous major without the support and understanding that, as Mike Pressler says, ‘you are students first’,” since he “knows how to work with academically gifted students and players.”
If college coaches are to be held accountable for their players’ holding spring break parties at which lots of alcohol is consumed, there would be few, if any, college coaches left (outside of Liberty and BYU). Regardless, in the early days of D.A. Mike Nifong’s pre-primary publicity barrage, Pressler and his family were subjected to death threats. Protesters taped signs to his house with such messages as “DO YOUR DUTY. TURN THEM IN.” Several days later, when the Group of 88 issued their “listening” statement, the professors offered a message for such protesters: “Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.”
Pressler’s de facto dismissal occurred immediately after the Ryan McFayden e-mail was publicly released, on April 5. (The emergence of this e-mail remains a mystery; it seems increasingly likely that the e-mail was not turned over by an anonymous lacrosse player, as initially alleged, but simply released by local authorities. The team captains had voluntarily given authorities access to their e-mail accounts even as Nifong misleadingly charged that the players had “not been fully cooperative.”) Brodhead announced Pressler’s forced departure and the cancellation of the team’s season in a public statement to the University community. The remarks strongly implied—without stating so directly—that a rape occurred, although, he added, all players were innocent until proven guilty.
In an interview with the Duke Chronicle about his decision, Brodhead deemed the coach’s departure “highly appropriate." (He did not say why.) That same story contained the following puzzling paragraph from the president:
Brodhead condemned the actions of the team, if they turn out to be true. "It seems to me there might be some part of Duke education that is not yet fully successful," he said. "It's not in the statistics, it's not in the writing, but it's in a life skill."
Generally, administrators act once they’ve discovered the facts, not on the supposition that “actions” might “turn out to be true.” In Pressler’s case, Brodhead’s move came at a time when no players had been indicted, and just before the release of DNA tests, which Nifong had promised would identify the guilty, instead showed no matches to any of the players. (Nifong had also affirmed to the court that negative tests would exonerate the innocent.) Brodhead’s move sent an unmistakable message to people off campus: the players’ actions (true or not, apparently) were beyond the pale, and Pressler was either in some way directly responsible or had bailed out on his team anticipating that the guilty would soon be brought to justice. Unconfirmed reports circulated on the internet and on cable TV shows that the administration had repeatedly told Pressler to rein in his team’s behavior, but he had refused to do so.
As one current lacrosse parent recognized, however, “The real reason Brodhead did what he did was because he was afraid to stand up to Professor Houston Baker and the other rabble rousing protesting professors on Duke's campus. [Baker’s letter demanding the “immediate dismissals” of “the team and its players” had been released the previous week; the Group of 88 was just about to publish its so-called “listening” statement.] Brodhead’s actions sent a clear message to every student, parent, and prospective parent that he cares more about protesting, politically-correct professors than he does about his own students.”
Despite Brodhead’s move, Pressler stood by the team, at a time when few were doing so. He addressed a private meeting of the lacrosse parents shortly after his dismissal, encouraging them, as one parent recalled, “to hold our heads high. ‘Hang in there,’ he said. ‘Be strong for your sons. The truth will prevail in the end.’” One of the team’s 2006 graduates recently admitted, “Throughout the ongoing Duke Lacrosse ordeal I cried only once. That was when I had to say goodbye to Coach Pressler after learning our season was over and having to face the reality that I would never suit up to play for him again.”
In the groupthink atmosphere that pervades Duke’s faculty and administration, only one voice publicly challenged Brodhead’s decision. In an April 17 letter to the campus newspaper in which he admitted fears of “arousing the wrath of the righteous,” Chemistry professor Steven Baldwin lamented that Pressler “was hung out to dry by an athletics administration that neither understood the issues nor appreciated Mike Pressler the man. Long before we learn the truth about what happened that night, and long before we learn the conclusions and recommendations of the several committees formed by President Brodhead to address the situation, the athletic department convulsed and threw the baby out with the bath water.” Baldwin described the coach as “humble, reserved, thoughtful and honest to a fault,” a man with “great integrity” who “wanted to win the right way, with players who were students first and athletes second-players who would be a credit to Duke University.” At the very least, Baldwin noted, Pressler deserved basic principles of due process, to have his tenure considered once the administration had access to all relevant facts.
Brodhead should have heeded Baldwin’s advice. The Coleman Committee, in considerable detail, established that (a) in the sentiments of one administrator, there was a “documented history that lacrosse players liked to hang out as a group and drink beer. When they were caught three or four times a year, they were disciplined, but . . . the sanctions imposed were not sufficiently severe to act as a deterrent”; (b) the Duke administration never communicated to Pressler, either orally or in writing, that it considered his players’ behavior a serious problem (a student affairs administrator, for instance, described the lacrosse players’ hangout at the Tailgate event as “one of the most 'energetic' and . . . quite entertaining”); (c) when members of the administration asked Pressler to try to modify his players’ alcohol-related behavior, he unfailingly did so, and unfailingly got results.
Even more important, the committee discovered that far from being overly loose with his team, Pressler was one of two Duke officials who did the most regarding the team’s alcohol-related offenses. According to the report, besides the “Dean for Judicial Affairs and Coach Pressler, after he was made aware of specific incidents of misconduct, no other administrator appears to have treated the lacrosse team's disciplinary record as a matter of serious concern.” This approach shouldn’t come as much surprise: in the days before Duke’s current neo-prohibitionist revival, it hardly seemed scandalous when students on campus decided “to hang out as a group and drink beer.”
(The full text of the Coleman Committee report can be found on the “Duke and Men’s Lacrosse” homepage, for those willing to look hard enough and wade past the promotions for the Robert Bliwise, A.M., speak-only-to-lacrosse-critics, alumni magazine article. Or, I have excerpted all parts of the report relating to Pressler’s performance here.)
The Coleman Committee’s findings showed that no justification existed for Brodhead’s decision to scapegoat Pressler. Despite the committee’s recommendation to restore the team, however, the president did nothing for several weeks—almost as if he hoped a reason would emerge to override the committee’s judgment. He finally acted on June 5, in the remarks mentioned above, which did not mention the committee’s positive findings about the players. But Brodhead imposed one condition on his decision: Pressler would not return as coach. The president’s only comment regarding the Coleman Committee’s exoneration of Pressler was cryptic: “I would be happy for the world to take note of that fact.” (He, of course, has done nothing to further that goal.) At Alumni Weekend, when a group of Duke graduates complained about his rush to judgment. Brodhead cited public relations as his motive. According to the Durham Herald-Sun, he said, "Pressler's presence would have been a big story." It’s not entirely clear why Pressler’s presence would have been any bigger story than the continued presence of the faculty members who taught the lacrosse players (only to publicly denounce them); or of the admissions staff who recommended their admission to Duke; or of the athletic director who supervised Duke college sports; or, indeed, of Brodhead himself.
As has frequently occurred in this controversy, Duke women’s lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel showed courage where Brodhead did not. Kimel invited Pressler to attend her team’s quarterfinal victory over James Madison, and then asked him to address her squad before they left campus to play in this year’s Women’s Final Four.
Brodhead’s scapegoating has had its effect. One professor at Johns Hopkins, which edged Duke by a goal in the 2005 championship, recently wrote that he had “chatted to a number of people here about Pressler and his opportunities for securing another coaching job at the top level. I continue to be dismayed at the belief that he was somehow at fault. One well informed and extremely well connected individual said that he ran ‘too loose a ship’ to be considered for serious coaching positions.”
Pressler’s players, however, have stood by him. Several have penned letters of support as he goes back on the job market. As one current player wrote:
The past four months have been some of the most trying times not only for me and my teammates, but also for Coach P. I can only imagine how hard it must be to walk away from a program that you have personally built to greatness and from a group of young men that undyingly respect you. I have never seen anyone in my life deal with the kind of adversity that Coach P has dealt with, with the courage and resilience that he has displayed.
Further, his loyalty towards every member of our team throughout this entire process has left an impression on me, something I will not soon forget. In a time of adversity, when many would have retreated in order to protect themselves and their family, he stood fast in support of our team. I have thought a lot about these events and how Coach P has handled them and only have one explanation to offer: Coach Mike Pressler is a man of character. He stood up for us not only because he knew the allegations were totally false, but also because he was and will always be our family, and we were and will always be family to him.
Whether it be the friendly chatter in the locker room before practice, or at a team bowling trip, Coach P promotes a team friendliness and bond that I have never been a part of on any other team. I credit Coach Pressler with instilling this cohesive and familial bond that has allowed our team to stick together through this incredible time of adversity.
With his professional attitude, Coach P holds each one of his players at an incredibly high standard on and off the field. I can distinctly remember a time when I received a poor grade in a class. That afternoon Coach Pressler knew and confronted me about it. He did not single me out, yet instead simply told me that I needed to pick it up. This simple interaction made me work twice as hard to get my grade up, because Coach P treats all his players like professionals and this therefore makes all the players want to return this respect and conduct themselves as professionals on and off the field.
As an unrecruited walk-on my freshman year I came to Duke not only for the academics, but also with hopes of playing Division 1 lacrosse. Coach P, during preliminary meetings, informed me that tryouts would be on a day to day basis until he had made his final decision. Therefore, each day I came to tryout, I treated it as if it were my last (because it could have been). I can remember the excitement I felt when I came for a meeting in his office a couple weeks into my tryout. When he informed me that he was offering me a spot on the team, I can distinctly remember the feeling that came over me. It was a feeling of pure excitement, obviously, but more importantly a feeling that I was now part of something bigger than myself, something more important. I had an almost surreal feeling that I was now part of a lacrosse program with not only some of the best athletes in the country, but also the best coaches in the country. I felt I had been given an opportunity to join in the ranks of a very special group of men. Never since then have I regretted joining this team.
Simply put, Mike Pressler is a winner. It is a quality that is part of his character and nature. He is a man who can't stand and will not except defeat in anything he does in life. More importantly he is a man of honor, integrity, and loyalty. This has been proven in the way he has conducted himself in the past four months.
Chemistry’s Steven Baldwin concluded his April 17 letter by commenting, “Mike Pressler deserves better; so does Duke.” At the very least, Brodhead should stand down from his claim that neither he nor his actions have been complicit in “scapegoating” the team or its representatives.
[Originally published in Cliopatria.]