The Duke lacrosse case's long shadow of doubt

Todd Detwiler

When Duke and Yale met on the court in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament this year, the defending champions from Tobacco Road were on the march for their sixth championship under famed coach Mike Krzyzewski. The underdog Ivy League team had won just once in NCAA tournament history, two days earlier against Baylor in the first round. In the lead-up to the game against Duke, social media was overflowing with jokes about how the fans from each of these prestigious private schools love boat shoes, polo shirts with popped collars, and playing chess.

What wasn't mentioned as often was the larger, darker link these two schools shared: athletes who had been accused of sexual assault. Yale is the latest school to face this public scrutiny; Duke is the most famous.

Exactly 10 years and six days before Duke and Yale met, a black woman reported to police that three white Duke lacrosse players had raped her during a house party at which she had stripped. Latent and longstanding tensions in the city and on campus around race, class and gender boiled quickly to the surface. The district attorney made inflammatory statements that fueled an intense media firestorm. The coach of the team was forced to resign, their season cancelled. Over a year later, when the attorney general of North Carolina dropped the charges against the three players, he said, "We have no credible evidence that an attack occurred." The DA was later disbarred after he was found to have committed ethics violations in the case. ESPN's recent 30 for 30 documentary, "Fantastic Lies," dissects how the media coverage and the prosecutorial misconduct had a profound effect on the families of the men accused.

But beyond the impact on the families, what happened at Duke has also come to inform the way our culture thinks about and reacts to accusations of sexual assault. For the past 10 years, this case has been the Alamo-esque rallying cry for people who worry that women who report sexual violence are liars, out for revenge, or regretful after having sex: "Remember Duke Lacrosse!" Even though the woman in the case was never charged with false reporting, many people view Duke lacrosse as the quintessential example of the danger of false rape accusations. According to a 2015 Vox article, estimates of false rape allegations range between 2 and 8 percent. Even so, the power of this case is illustrated by its ubiquity.

I've heard the phrase "Duke lacrosse" pop up in casual conversations and in the courtroom, to say nothing of its inevitable appearance in the comments section on any piece about sexual assault. It came up in jury selection for convicted rapist and Baylor football player Sam Ukwuachu. This past summer on "The View," Whoopi Goldberg defended Bill Cosby against the numerous allegations against him by saying, "If you're the mother of a son who gets accused, you want to keep innocent until proven guilty. Just ask the parents of the boys of the Duke lacrosse team."

The shadow of the case is long and destructive in this world that is predisposed, for so many reasons, to disbelieve and shame people who report sexual violence.

Over the past few years, there has been a string of high-profile cases involving collegiate athletes accused of sexual assault. The most prominent is easily the one against former Florida State quarterback and current Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Jameis Winston. The combination of the well-documented failures of the Tallahassee Police Department's investigation of the case and the public scrutiny of the woman's statements by people looking for evidence of a false accusation gave the hint that this would be the next Duke lacrosse case. The Winston case, though, didn't fall apart in the same way the one in Durham did. No charges were ever filed against Winston, but no official has ventured so far as to say that there was no evidence of an assault.

Last year, back at Duke, coach Krzyzewski, for the first time during his time at the school, dismissed a player. He gave little explanation for kicking Rasheed Sulaimon off the team. A month later, the university newspaper reported that two women had reported to the school that Sulaimon assaulted them. Sulaimon has denied those allegations and denied that was the reason he was dismissed. This case, especially compared with the 2006 lacrosse one, was a quiet affair in Durham. There were no criminal charges, the school was incredibly tight-lipped, and the first anyone learned publicly of the problem was with Sulaimon's dismissal. Perhaps the administration had learned almost 10 years later to deal with the issue internally, be quiet in its wake, and quickly get back on court. Duke went on to win the national championship. Sulaimon moved on, too; he now plays at Maryland, which made it into the Sweet Sixteen of this year's tournament.

There are more cases that show how fresh the issue of campus sexual assault involving athletes remains, each one offering a new opportunity for people to air their doubts. After heavy student protests, three Oregon basketball players accused of sexual assault received years-long suspensions in 2014. All three are now suing the school. Multiple Vanderbilt football players await retrial, two Baylor football players were convicted of sexual assault over the past two years, and recently, eight women filed a suit against Tennessee that accuses multiple athletes of sexual assault. The hockey team at the University of Ottawa has been suspended for the past two years following a report of an assault involving multiple players in early 2014. Twenty-two of the players have launched a class-action suit against the university.

Yale is the latest case to draw national attention. The former captain of the basketball team, Jack Montague, was expelled February 10 for breaking the school's conduct code. According to a statement by Montague's attorney, released days before the NCAA tournament began, a Yale panel found that Montague had sexually assaulted a fellow student the previous year. Montague has indicated that he intends to sue the school, stating the outcome was "unfairly determined, arbitrary and excessive by any rational measure" and has caused irreparable damage to his educational and basketball prospects. The woman in the case never filed a police report and she hasn't spoken publicly. Unless she chooses to do so or Montague goes forward with a suit, the case will quickly wither away.

Going into the tournament, the media often treated Montague's case as a distraction. With its tongue firmly in cheek, the women's website Jezebel described the coverage thusly: "Yale Sexual Misconduct Expulsion Threatens to Ruin March Madness, Sports Forever." Since Montague is the only person who has come forward, his story and his connection to the basketball team have shaped the narrative. Montague's friend is quoted in a Newsweek article asking, "Where is the respect for due process? Where is the consideration for how this is going to affect Jack for the rest of his life?" The implication being that Montague was possibly railroaded by the system -- not unlike what happened to the Duke lacrosse players, our collective cultural memories whisper.

Much has changed in the decade between Duke lacrosse and Yale basketball. Not only has the federal government put an emphasis on encouraging universities to better respond to reports of sexual assault, but there has been a wave of student activism demanding that universities do so. This new weight on creating university systems that better respond to reports of sexual assault is in constant tension with the cultural lesson so deeply embedded in our minds about Duke lacrosse: We must take reports of sexual assault more seriously, but also never forget that one time a high-profile case fell apart. Montague's case and his dispute of it are products of that tension.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from looking at Duke lacrosse and Yale basketball and the 10 years that separate these cases is that no system that exists to respond to reports of sexual violence is perfect. Rarely does one offer an outcome that is satisfying to most people. The media, if it needs a starting point from which to work these cases, should scrutinize those systems, and how a decade-old case has made it acceptable to so easily doubt someone who comes forward with an accusation.

To truly come out of the shadow the Duke lacrosse case has cast, the conversation needs to refocus toward a constant questioning of how we seek justice, and whether that process is fair to everyone involved.

Jessica Luther is an independent journalist living in Austin, Texas. Her book "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape" comes out in September.