A Tragic Mess

The Price of Silence:
The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, The Power Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities

By William D. Cohan
New York: Scribner, 2014, 653 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Laura Pappano

Given the growing alarm about the problem of sexual assault and rape on college campuses, it is difficult to consider The Price of Silence, an investigative retelling of the Duke lacrosse scandal that riveted, divided, and enraged the public in 2006 and 2007, as an isolated tale of bad actors.

It is true that the particulars may not be relevant outside of this case. But the slippery challenge of getting at the truth, and of whose version of events is to be believed, by whom, and to what end, has become overly familiar. Recent allegations of rape or sexual assault at the University of Virginia, Hobart and William Smith, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Florida State—to mention only a few—make clear that this problem needs a better approach.

It’s not news that intoxicated undergrads may make poor decisions that have horrendous, life-altering results. As universities puzzle about how to manage off-campus acting out, one point to be drawn from reconsidering the Duke case is this: leaving the policing of student behavior to law enforcement is risky. College administrators must set and enforce expectations for conduct (yes, even off campus) and have an internal review system for incidents even when police are involved.

Had either or both of these systems been in place, the Duke case might not have become the focus of a spate of books, the latest, this one by William D. Cohan, a Duke graduate and the author of The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Fréres & Co. (2007); House of Cards (2009), about the final days of Bear Stearns; and Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World (2011). For those needing a refresher (and who doesn’t, given the twists and turns of the Duke case), the problems began around midnight on March 14, 2006, when two strippers, Crystal Mangum and Kim Roberts (both women of color), were hired to perform at a party attended by 41 of the 47 members of the Duke University lacrosse team (all but one of whom were white) at the off-campus house of three of the players. Mangum later said she was raped in the bathroom by three white players.

The accused players—David Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann—were picked by Mangum from a photo line-up created by the Durham, North Carolina, police that, counter to standard practice, contained photos only of Duke lacrosse players. Even so, it took Mangum several sessions to identify her attackers. Inconsistencies began to show up in the timeline of events: Seligmann was at an ATM, in a taxi, getting take-out, and talking to his out-of-state girlfriend on his cellphone during the time Mangum said the rape had occurred. Forty-six players provided DNA samples. DNA from Mangum’s rape kit revealed DNA from four men, none of them the Duke lacrosse players—evidence the prosecution did not immediately share with the defense.

Findings such as the DNA evidence and Seligmann’s alibi, which he corroborated with time-stamped photos and the taxi driver’s testimony, did not give the case’s prosecutor, District Attorney Mike Nifong, pause. Instead, Nifong, who was in the midst of a campaign for re-election, seems to have decided to burnish his image as a tough prosecutor by moving ahead with indictments. He eventually stopped speaking to the media, but initially, he regularly appeared on national television making presumptive statements. He did not hesitate to declare that a rape had occurred, telling MSNBC he was handling the case himself because “of the racial animus and hostility,” and because he “felt this was a case that we needed to make a statement [about] as a community, that we would not tolerate this kind of behavior in Durham.”

In addition to these problems, the police work in the case was sloppy: for example, members of the lacrosse team had cleaned the house before the police even thought to search for evidence. Over the course of the investigation, Mangum changed her story many times, providing surprising twists (once claiming she was raped by twenty men), and finally asserting that she was unsure if penile penetration, the legal definition of rape in the state, had occurred.

Eventually, Nifong was removed from the case, ejected from office, and disbarred, and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper took over. He had his investigators review the evidence and conduct interviews, including with Mangum, whose story changed yet again, leading Cooper to claim that, “the inconsistencies were so significant and so contrary to the evidence that we have no credible evidence that an attack occurred in that house on that night.” He described the dangers of “a rogue prosecutor who goes out on his own” and took the unusual step of not only dropping all charges but also proclaiming that “these three individuals are innocent of these charges.”

The case is infuriating on many levels, perhaps most profoundly because the apparent false accusations by Mangum and the arrogant grandstanding by Nifong whipped up such a frenzy across the nation and on campus that the backlash left the Duke lacrosse players looking like heroes for enduring the public vitriol with quiet confidence. But this narrative of prosecutorial wrongdoing camouflages questions about a troubled team culture and an environment that may have encouraged the charges in the first place.

It is notable that the Duke administration did little to counterbalance the antics of the parties in the case. Dithering on the sidelines, unsure of whether to throw the bums out or stand by their kids, Duke’s weak and measured response may have been the only one available to an institution that lacked an effective internal method for handling charges of off-campus crime. But it did serious damage. By waiting for law enforcement to act, the administration left the Duke community in limbo. The protracted and tainted process sowed deep divisions at Duke and in the city of Durham, which could have been ameliorated if the university had played a more active role.

Part of the university’s job should have included putting a check on a fraternity culture that fed what is, at a minimum, a threatening environment for women. The lacrosse player Dan Flannery called the Allure Agency seeking two strippers because, according to Cohan’s reporting, the team typically went once a week to a topless bar in Durham. But on the night in question, some underage players had lost their fake IDs, so the partiers decided to have strippers come to them. And they had the cash to throw a party with strippers and alcohol because, according to player Ryan McFadyn, hours earlier, at practice, the team’s coach, Mike Pressler, had handed out “something like $10,000” to the players as meal money for the eight days of spring break. While not excessive ($26 per day per person), it gave them the easy financial means to hire strippers and purchase alcohol.

In addition, the subculture of male athletes who obtain summer jobs in finance is problematic. According to Cohan, John Danowski, who became the Duke lacrosse coach after Pressler was fired, observed in USA Today that these male students are “around forty- and fifty-year-old men all summer,” and “they see that for those men, hiring strippers and dancers is acceptable behavior. But the rules of private behavior on Wall Street are different than the rules at college.” If the role of colleges is to promote gender equality and respect, having students spend off-campus time, when they’re supposed to be learning, emulating men who frequent strip clubs creates an obvious tension. Are women sex objects for hire—or are they colleagues? Or—equally troubling—are some women to be treated as sex objects, and others not.

This last question is particularly relevant here, and—if I can speculate—may have driven Mangum to make her rape charges. Cohan writes that the two dancers were only a few minutes into their performance when one player grabbed a broomstick and threatened to “shove this up you.” Roberts grew concerned for her safety and Mangum’s, and cut the show short, angering the players, who had paid them $400 each.

Roberts says the players began calling them racist names, and one yelled, “Hey, bitch, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt!” Another complained to the dancers that the agency had sent the wrong girls: “We asked for whites, not niggers.” Did this sexual and racial degradation trigger Mangum to seek revenge? We will never know, and because the case was so mishandled, the players’ behavior got a pass.

It’s not clear to me that, as outrageous as this case was, it makes a good story. The book’s subtitle, The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, The Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of our Great Universities, announces all the juicy elements. But readers receive little help from Cohan in drawing any lessons from his book, whose major contribution is to offer an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) retelling. Cohan seems unable to muster the editorial discipline to select key parts of documents and speeches. Instead, he routinely dumps long excerpts into the text, including quotations in which interview subjects repeat themselves. The book runs to more than 600 pages. Just when a reader craves analysis and judgment, there is mere description. For example, when the defense attorney Joe Cheshire speaks on behalf of the indicted players at a news conference after Nifong dropped the rape charges (sexual assault and kidnapping charges stood for a time), Cohan quotes him for more than a page, pausing only to announce that “Cheshire continued, in another virtuoso performance.”

But none of the information in Cheshire’s extended quote is new, since we’ve already seen the situation unfold. At this crucial moment, after more than a year of grandstanding and pain for all involved, Cohan fails to convey what hearing this news must have felt like, what kind of energy pervaded the room, what was going through the minds of players on all sides of the story. What did it mean that Nifong was backing down? We get only some official verbiage. Duke President Brodhead calls on the DA to “put this case in the hands of an independent party who can restore confidence in the fairness of the process,” Cohan writes, and the “Friends of Duke, which had been hypercritical of Brodhead, applauded his statement.” Cohan follows with another official statement: “We are glad to see our faith in President Brodhead has not been misplaced.” It continues this way. I will not.

I question, too, Cohan’s decision not to include source notes. He argues that in “an era when digital access to documents of all stripes is becoming increasingly ubiquitous,” providing notes “seems somewhat superfluous.” I disagree. The ability to quickly find sources is critical, especially about an event this controversial, and the lack of them makes the book less valuable.

My point: it is great to be so close to the action—privy to primary documents, interviews and reports—but it is disappointing not to be able to feel the impact of events. Cohan has put a terrific catalogue of information all in one place. He deserves credit for tireless reporting and interviews with key subjects, including Nifong and Mangum (from prison, where she’s serving time for second-degree murder in the death of a boyfriend). What is lacking in The Price of Silence is the author’s experienced guidance, to provide analysis and a thoughtful narrative. Eight years after this case captured public attention, it still feels like a tragic mess.

Laura Pappano, writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women, is a journalist who writes about education and gender in sport. She is part of the Women’s Sports Leadership Project at WCW.

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