Sympathy for the Devil?

By Hal Crowther

In the sports pages of the nation's newspapers, my home state of North Carolina is always well represented. In the news sections we rarely appear, unless some spectacular crime or criminal -- Jeffrey McDonald, Velma Barfield, Eric Rudolph, Jim Bakker, Mike Peterson -- momentarily captures the tabloid imagination. If the crime involves race, like the current Duke lacrosse case, the national press from Oakland to New Haven sees our ancestral sins epitomized and magnified, even when the defendants are no more native to North Carolina than a bagel or a hockey puck.

Our time has come again. Wise and thoughtful things have been written about this case, some of them by the faculty and administration of Duke University. Most reaction falls predictably along lines of race, class, and gender, skewed slightly by the political correctness of educated whites who refuse to let the African-American community upstage their outrage. But when a black working mother and college student accuses white athletes from wealthy families of gang rape, deep nerves are pinched and people begin to betray themselves, as they betrayed themselves during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I remember a strange conversation with a friend, a white woman of impeccable liberal credentials, who became enraged when I suggested that it might be condescending to accuse black jurors of acquitting Simpson out of racial loyalty.

I'm not talking about moral mutants like Rush Limbaugh. Can it be true, as reported, that Limbaugh dismissed the Durham dancer as a "ho'"? Where in a civilized world could such a heinous pig find work, far less a woman or a friend? But it was a more respectable conservative, David Brooks of the New York Times, who struck a note that surprised and chilled me. I assume Brooks knows no more about the athletes' guilt or innocence than I do. What motivates him to call the rape case "a witch hunt"? What do we make of his unmistakable impulse to worry more about injustice to the white boys than to the woman who says they raped her? It's unseemly, I think. Knee-jerk reactions have been obvious on both sides, from both races. But are they knee-jerk reactions that deserve equal sympathy, in a place where raping a black woman was once a white man's prerogative, where winking at a white woman was once a black man's death wish?

It's a question of history, history most reflective Southerners understand better than New York columnists or cable-news personalities. If you feel protective toward kids who resemble your own -- many more media types are thinking "They could be my sons" than "She could be my daughter" -- it doesn't make you a monster. But only a truly obtuse individual would go public with those feelings and deny that it's a racial response.

At this stage, decency dictates a perfect neutrality about who may be telling the truth. We know for certain that one of these defendants, who lawyered his way around a gay-bashing incident in Washington, is an individual of questionable character and self-control. We know the team as a whole has a dismal history of disreputable undergraduate behavior. If I disparage them for that rude behavior, I'm afraid half my surviving fraternity brothers will turn up to denounce me as a flaming hypocrite. It may well be true that long ago, on another campus in a galaxy far away, I posed a similar challenge to the guardians of discipline and sobriety. There are living witnesses, several in North Carolina.

I don't remember hitting golf balls off the neighbors' houses; I surely don't remember raping anyone, or seeing it done, or hearing of it. But I was reckless and immature, and stumbled into situations that might help me to empathize with these outlaws, in spite of the distasteful details that attach themselves to their case. If three young men wind up in prison -- or even if the best lawyers money can buy win them a reprieve they may not deserve -- the 40-odd remaining members of the hard-partying Duke lacrosse team may find that their lives have changed forever. If there's any promise in their learning curve, several lessons have been absorbed already. One is about transactions involving sex and money, and the stupidity of imagining that the one who sells surrenders more dignity or moral currency than the one who buys. A race factor compounds the bitterness of this lesson, which many men never learn.

But the great lesson they should have learned, if they're able to learn at all, is one that might make them better men and better citizens than the ones they would have become if no charges had ever been filed. It's a lesson learned too late by most children of privilege, blinkered well into adulthood by the myth of the affluent middle class -- the myth that elite lives proceed smoothly from triumph to triumph with nothing but glory down the road. But the awful, class-blind truth -- ask Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, at the top of his world on Monday, unemployed and invisible on Thursday -- is that we live our lives with one foot on the banana peel, on the well-oiled roller skate. How quickly fortunes change, how very quickly it can all slip away.

When did I learn? I was a first-semester freshman at a college in New England, slow-dancing blissfully in a sleazy roadhouse with a woman whose face I can't remember, my head buzzing with Narragansett draft beer, an innocent working on a new image and full of confidence in his future. A minute later I was unconscious on the floor with the imprints of two lead-weighted nightsticks on my precious middle-class skull. The woman, to whom I was unfailingly courteous, was, alas, a jealous bartender's wife. I survived, with a severe concussion; for two years I slept sitting up to ward off vertigo. Whether I suffered permanent damage is your call, not mine.

Your world can upend itself in an instant, in the blink of an eye. If they've learned these things alone, the lacrosse team survivors are on a faster track to enlightenment than their university. Duke and many other schools, elite and less so, will eventually learn to their great sorrow that coddling athletes and deifying coaches was a seductive wrong turn toward academic irrelevance and institutional ruin. The myth of the "scholar athlete," incorporating "graduation rates," "clean programs" and the rest of that tired fraud, somehow survives daily bulletins on the multiple felonies and gross misdemeanors committed by current and recent college athletes.

Prominent on yesterday's police blotter for scholarship miscreants was Duke lacrosse midfielder Peter Wilson, charged with marijuana possession and driving while impaired. Wilson, evidently not a quick study at these life lessons the team has been learning, registered an alarming 0.21 blood-alcohol level on the Breathalyzer. Sweet timing, Peter. After suspending Wilson indefinitely, Duke president Richard Brodhead allowed that he was "disappointed." What he really meant was that Wilson may soon be found in a shallow grave with a big blue "D" branded on his forehead.

On the same sports page, we read that a new contract for the women's basketball coach at Tennessee has pushed UT's budget for two basketball coaches and a football coach past $4 million, enough to hire a whole new faculty and buy half of them new cars. Of course that's chump change to Duke's Coach K -- not just a coach, his commercial says, but "a leader." In lieu of leading, the great coach seems to have retreated to an underground bunker with his image engineers, afraid or disinclined to say a word about the scandal that has substantially devalued the turf he rules by divine right, as Duke presidents come and go. My god, what if some blue-chip basketball recruit, intimidated by a school so tough that even the lacrosse team commits felonies, should switch to a safer campus like Stanford or Syracuse?

Sympathy for the devil, if he's a Blue Devil, is often tough to find in North Carolina. There are reasons for that, few of them relevant here. But it's not hard to feel pity for Brodhead, an Ivy League scholar who took the helm at Duke just in time to test his survival skills on the perfect storm. His helmsmanship thus far has not inspired confidence. For his university, there's no happy ending I can script. If the party boys are found guilty, it's a permanent black eye, a setback no NCAA trophies can erase; if they go free -- even without a shadow of doubt on their innocence -- Duke's conspicuous presence as the rich white school in the poor black town is infinitely more precarious.

Compassion begins with the woman who says she was raped. The media campaign against her credibility, like those attacks on the district attorney for election-year grandstanding, is the work of defense lawyers on fat retainers. They're just doing their job, which isn't always a pretty one. If you feel compelled to believe them, you're the one who might catch a glimpse of your inner racist in the mirror.

It's not impossible to feel sorry for Duke; I have some very smart friends on the faculty, few of them guilty of the original sin of jock worship and many of them furious, ready to purge the athletic department from Coach K on down. It's not impossible for superannuated campus bandits like me to feel sorry for wild boys who drink away their perspective. But before I'd enter a plea for compassion, I'd have to be sure that the kids involved (no need to call them "men" at this point) are cut from essentially the same cloth as the ones I knew 40 years ago. They'd need to convince me that their beliefs and values at this critical stage of their lives make sense to this sexagenarian.

Who are these would-be warriors who carry big sticks? An ominous assessment came from Peter Wood of Duke's history department, a former lacrosse player and coach whose opinion has been much sought by the national press.

"A few years ago, a new kind of student began to show up at Duke," recalls Wood, who's had two of the three rape defendants in his classes. "Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive -- you could almost say openly hostile. They weren't all athletes by any means, but some of the worst were lacrosse players." In 2004 Wood sent a letter to his dean, warning of an ugly minority that had grown "beyond the 'few bad apples' stage" and adding that coaches were ignoring classroom schedules and fostering disrepect for academics.

The Graybeard Soliloquy -- "What's wrong with the young people today?" -- was a comic cliche in the age of Aristophanes. Careless explorers of the generation gap tend to stumble and wound themselves. But Wood's testimony supports grave misgivings about the demographic group that includes both the Durham dancer and the athletes she accuses.

We hear a lot about the 18-to-34s, the audience that made a megamillionaire of the creepy sex ghoul Howard Stern -- so much for respecting women -- and a trillion-dollar industry of "reality" television. Reality-show role models are macabre: none stranger than Donald Trump, without an atom of shame or a single glowing neuron in his baroquely-thatched head, glaring truculently from the duck blind of his personal foliage like a silly crib toy that thinks it's a wolverine. (Do young people understand that all the money in the world doesn't make a jackass less laughable?) But the values these shows advertise -- a feral Darwinian struggle to prevail, to exploit any advantage and vault gleefully over the bodies of the fallen -- are values common to Enron and al Qaeda. It was a lamentable irony when North Carolina Central University, where the unfortunate dancer is enrolled, invited an African-American motivational speaker, the author of Think and Grow Rich, to deliver its commencement address.

"... Success sometimes means being lonely," Dennis Kimbro told the NCCU graduates. "It means doing what you have to and not caring what others think, do, or feel."

Good grief. Ken Lay -- or Idi Amin -- couldn't have said it better. Someone at NCCU should read Eldridge Cleaver, who writes, in "Soul on Ice," "Competition is the Law of the Jungle. The law of civilization is cooperation."

TV shows endorsing the ethics of corporate predators -- the ethics of hyenas -- create instant millionaires, instant celebrities, instant executives and fast-lane players. Little wonder that instant gratification lures undergraduates like Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who was about to become a celebrity "chick lit" author when her publisher was inundated with evidence that she'd plagiarized everything but The Iliad. Little wonder that new software to thwart student plagiarists has become a necessary expense for universities, or that technology, this student generation's one vaunted advantage over the rest of us, has been mobilized for such ingenious variations on classroom cheating that professors despair of keeping pace.

"If they'd spend half as much time studying," a frustrated dean told the New York Times, "they'd all be 'A' students." In a four-year study of 62,000 college students, two-thirds admitted to cheating.

It's a culture of expediency -- a culture of short cuts, which reminds me of a preacher I heard once, a Scottish Calvinist who warned, "There are no short cuts; no short cuts to heaven. Every short cut leads to hell."

"The rational incentives to cheat have grown dramatically," suggests David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, "even as the strength of character needed to resist those temptations has weakened."

Why has it weakened? From this Witches' Sabbath of bad taste and sick values we call popular culture, it's hard to isolate the specific elements, the toxic agents that might turn our weakest kids crooked and mean. It's a culture based on witless distraction, ruthless competition and instant gratification, and if it's beginning to turn out damaged specimens we can't easily recognize as our descendants, aren't we the ones to blame? If Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield have been replaced by Sammy Glick, isn't it time we confessed that American children have been criminally neglected and misled?

Lay blame where you will, there's been a true sea change since we were undergraduates. One of the worst things I've ever heard about college students came from a graduate student, a woman who tries to rescue puppies that undergraduates dump at animal shelters when they go home for the summer. Often as not, she said, these flinthearted scholars adopt another hapless animal in the fall. If you ever did such a thing, and thought nothing of it, you'd probably be surprised to know that I'd never hire you or vote for you, and that I'd fight like hell to keep you from marrying my daughter. I don't know you at all, son, and frankly you scare me.

"Some humans ain't human," John Prine sings, "some people ain't kind."

Compassion is wasted on people who can't feel any. Peter Wood complained of an unfamiliar callousness in some of his students, a harshness resistant to empathy and compassion. He uses the word "crassness" -- a deliberate, fashionable insensitivity. As if kindness, courtesy and concern for the weak and the underdog -- the package they used to call "chivalry" -- has been declared effeminate and retro. Someone has convinced these young Americans that life is a rat race, and they're not unwilling rats.

A court will decide whether this neanderthal mindset is conducive to sexual assault. But abandoning dogs and taunting racial minorities -- a detail in the lacrosse case lawyers don't bother to deny -- is behavior neither high spirits nor distilled spirits will explain away. It's fathoms below sub-baccalaureate; it's subhuman, and it's all of a piece.

Though cheating and plagiarism appear to be coeducational, and alcohol abuse is gender-blind, the ragged antisocial edge of undergraduate delinquency bears the sour reek of curdled testosterone. Where the gradual, cultural erosion of student character meets combustible machismo -- a point never far from the athletic department -- institutions designed for scholars are breeding and harboring common louts. There have been several warnings, from Peter Wood and Reynolds Price among other faculty members, that Duke University was becoming lout-friendly. Whatever happens in this rape case, this is a devastating charge, one that Duke and other schools compromised by coach cults and athletic imperialism -- its in-state rivals are in no position to gloat -- will fail to address at a terrible price. What's at stake isn't reputation, recruiting, endowments or rankings in the US News and World Report. What's at stake is their souls -- their reason for existing. And they know it.

Hal Crowther's most recent book of essays, Gather at the River, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. Write him at 219 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1, 2006

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