The End of the 00s: So Lax, by Katie Bakes

The Duke Case

I can’t say for certain, but there is an excellent chance I have been, behind my back, erroneously labeled a lacrosstitute.

I say “lacrosstitute” because that is the epithet of choice for a girl in a sundress who, for whatever reason, chooses of her own free will to consort with a bunch of louche loudmouths in Hawaiian print board shorts and mesh practice pinnies that announce “SUNS OUT, GUNS OUT” and cover neither chest hair nor beer guts (both being marks of proud distinction among their bearers).

I can see where the confusion would lie if you knew me from like 2001-2005 though. True confession: I had friends on the lacrosse team.

You probably hate those guys. I kind of hated them too, whenever I was not busy loving them. Isn’t that kind of the way we feel about all our friends? But I loved them most of the time. Of course, I was naïve: this was before I moved to New York and became exposed to all the wildly chivalrous and unbendingly considerate flower-senders and door-holders there.

I say “erroneously labeled” because the suffix in lacrosstitute implies a certain barter system in which I took no (fine: little) part. Partially because the laxers were my friends-but mostly because I knew too much-I avoided becoming a character in their trumped up kiss-and-tells, although I’d usually hear the lurid details of their “trips to jackhammerville” the next day during a Burger King run. This was the era of the Shaq Pack, mind you, and those cheese fries were delish.

My buddies in college were funny and brash and fiercely competitive. A casual game of backyard bocce once escalated into a high stakes showdown of shouted expletives and shrieking egos (in a good way though!) and one time I picked up a remarkable amount of social currency by balancing on the back two legs of my library chair for the longest out of anyone.

A number of my friends drove Wranglers, and one of them was named Tap. (The driver of the car, not the car.) Several were man enough to be in a cappella groups. One guy had a sub named after him by a local pizza parlor. Most of them have since been laid off by investment banks.

Many of these guys were surprisingly creative but opted to use their powers for evil. A girl who always looked tanned and thin and smoking hot the first few weeks of school but lost her luster as the semester progressed was declared the “Mackinaw Peach.” I mistakenly assumed for years that the nickname “Chrome,” bestowed upon one of my classmates, had something to do with the color of her hair. I was wrong. “Her face looks like she’s missing a chromosome,” someone explained. (I have to say, he had a point.)

Only with hindsight do I see the cumulative toll that such prolonged exposure to these stories and one-offs has taken on my psyche. If this is how these guys talked about those girls, I now consider, what on earth would they have to say about me?

So when I first heard the rumblings that some laxers at Duke had assaulted a stripper, I wasn’t entirely surprised. I hadn’t heard the details, but I nodded at the timing: during spring break as the team idled, bored on an otherwise empty campus. I had heard vague stories of similar parties with similar supplemental entertainment that had taken place on my own campus and been populated by my own friends, and these vague stories had included vague details that suggested that not every person in attendance had behaved as a perfect gentleman should.

***

The Duke Lacrosse rape incident wrapped up, into one very ugly and heavy burlap package, so many of the things we know and hate from the last ten years of our lives. Race, class, sex and sports? A raging and judgmental group of academic elites? A salivating media corps? A vengeful prosecutor with suspicious political motives? All this and more.

Nine days after the exotic dancer, Crystal Mangum, went to authorities with the ever-changing details of her ordeal, 46 of 47 members of the team provided DNA swabs to authorities per a court order (the 47th, who was black, was exempted from the trip).

I imagined my own friends, in their various permutations of athletic warm-ups, filing into the police station as if it were a stadium. The whole team would have been present in that scenario: all of them were white.

NANCY GRACE: OK, wait a minute. Wait a minute. … David Foley, if they’re innocent, why not cooperate? Why stall? Why did they have to have a court order for 46 or 47 lacrosse members to give DNA? It’s very simple. You take something that looks like a Q-tip. You swab the inside of your mouth. It’s nothing more than like a doctor looking for a sore throat. Why? Why wouldn’t they give their DNA? Let’s think about it, Dave Foley! Give me your best shot.
DAVE FOLEY, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, Nancy, in terms of this, we’re dealing with young people, OK, who are not necessarily familiar with the law, number one. So they need to have their legal rights…
GRACE: You’re kidding, right?
FOLEY: No, I’m not kidding.
GRACE: Because, you know, at age 17, you know where my father was? He was on a fighter ship halfway around the world, representing his country, about to die for his country. You know what? Don’t talk to me about how young they are, all right?
FOLEY: Well, they’re…
GRACE: These are the elite members…
FOLEY: … lacrosse players at Duke.
GRACE: … of the lacrosse team.
FOLEY: … But the bottom line is they’re not familiar with legal procedure, and so forth. As we know, they have to produce driver’s license, identification and so forth, but they don’t have to give statements or answer questions regarding these matters. And they could potentially be charged if they gave false information or misleading information, so…
GRACE: Well, why would they do that? Why would you go to a cop in an alleged gang rape case, say, and lie and give misleading information? I don’t know — where’s that coming from? You think they’re…
FOLEY: Because, Nancy, you’d be nervous, and some — especially when you’re dealing with people, let’s say…
GRACE: I think you’re nervous.
FOLEY: … trying to protect their friends, and so forth. So…
GRACE: You seem nervous to me. You’re nervous. And you know why? Because there’s really no good reason why, if you’re innocent, you won’t go forward and go, Hey, you want my DNA? Take it. I insist.

Nancy Grace is hardly proxy for the media at large. But the above interview took place on the very same day that the more levelheaded Times writer Selena Roberts penned her own scathing missive against the Duke lacrosse players, comparing them first to “drug dealers and gang members engaged in an anti-snitch campaign” before settling on “a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings.”

By mid-April two of these questionable human beings, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, had been picked out of a photo lineup composed entirely of members of their team-defense attorneys later likened it to “a multiple choice test with no wrong answers“-and formally charged with first-degree rape, sexual offense, and kidnapping. Not good news for their social standing! Nor was making the cover of Newsweek.

Newsweek

In the weeks that followed, a second round of DNA results found no conclusive matches to any of the 46 lacrosse players. (DA Mike Nifong had shrugged off the negative results of the first test: “Maybe they were wearing condoms.”) Further bolstering the defense’s case was the near minute-by-minute alibi, backed up by phone, ATM and Duke access card records, that rendered Seligmann’s involvement all but impossible. Several writers and bloggers, Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson chief among them, began meticulously outlining the prosecution’s various inconsistencies and transgressions.

Nifong, meanwhile, won the Democratic primary for reelection and then called a press conference to announce the indictment of a third player: team captain David Evans.

***

The guys I knew actually were criminals.

The high score list on the Photo Hunt machine at our beloved local hotel bar was so hotly contested that one night my friend Nate smuggled the entire terminal out a side door and into the getaway Dodge Caravan, a hand-me-down from his mom. I knew his mother well: she appeared at every game, festooned in various regalia bearing his number, and she always set up hoagies outside the locker room and sent me home with a Gladware full of brownies.

Anyway, we no longer had to leave the lax house to play Photo Hunt after that night.

***

As with most collegiate sports, the lacrosse world is fairly small. My best friend Sarah, herself a laxer in college, had just been introduced to a “super nice” Long Island family with five children and was set to spend the summer as a nanny for the two youngest girls before she went off to med school. The family was the Finnertys, as it turned out. Collin was their middle child.

“People think that I have the toughest time,” Collin would tell a Raleigh Metro reporter, “but it’s harder for my mom. I’ll be happy to see her sitting on a beach or some place, not having to think about this. When it’s over, I’ll be happy to see my whole family relieved, but especially for my mom.”

“Dude,” exclaimed my friend Brendan over the phone after the names of the accused hit the news. “I know Reade Seligmann from Delbarton. He’s seriously the best.”

I murmured sympathetically.

“No, I’m serious,” Brendan said. “Like, genuinely the nicest dude. The nicest dude. He’s so nice he makes ME look like an asshole. And I’m not an asshole!” He paused. “Wait. Am I an asshole?”

Brendan was not an asshole; he would never hurt a fly. But he would grab pizza off a strange girl’s plate after way too many drinks, take a giant chomp, throw the remnants back down… and then smack her on the ass. I’d seen this happen more than once.

“Lacrosse players at Duke have generally excellent grades, almost always graduate and often find jobs waiting for them on Wall Street,” conceded Newsweek magazine in the “Sex, Lies and Duke” cover story. And…

But they have a reputation for swagger and rowdiness, according to The Chronicle, the student newspaper, which wrote last week, “Players frequently walk around with girls-sometimes called ‘lacrosstitutes’ by their peers-in tow,” and have been known to kick in doors and urinate out windows. History professor Peter Wood, who often has lacrosse players in his course on Native Americans (who invented the game), complained that team members sometimes signed in to class and then walked out, without bothering to sit down.

Setting aside the fact that a great many college students who have neither heard the phrase “long stick middie” nor tried to use it as an innuendo have themselves been known to kick in doors and urinate out windows and bounce from class (I’ve done at least two of the three myself, and I don’t even think I was “in tow” at the time), this characterization is, as they say, not wrong.

There’s conduct unbecoming, though, and then there’s allegations of violent, strangling, 30-minute gang rape perpetrated by as few as two and as many as 20 members of a team, depending on when you asked.

A year after the first indictments were handed down, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, calling Nifong a “rogue prosecutor,” dropped all charges against Finnerty, Seligmann and Evans. “We believe that these cases were the result of a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations,” Cooper said. “And in the rush to condemn, a community and a state lost the ability to see clearly.”

In June of 2007, Seligmann was one of several people who testified at the formal ethics hearing that would ultimately lead to the disbarment of Mike Nifong. Voice breaking, he described the moment (at the 4:40 mark) that he learned he’d been identified by the accuser.

“The first thing I thought about was, you know… how am I going to tell my mom?”



Katie Bakes writes on the Internet.