It's Not All About Lacrosse

R. B. ParrishContributor IFebruary 21, 2012

With the trial of George Hugely for the alleged killing of his girlfriend, we are once more inundated with innuendo about the sport of lacrosse. It is one which gifts its participants with “a sense of entitlement“. Its players are all spoiled jocks. It thrives in a “culture of privilege”. Its athletes go off on wild binges and commit unsocial acts with impunity, because they feel they are immune from punishment. All of which belies the truth but reinforces stereotypes. And those stereotypes in turn can produce their own consequences.

Consider for example the reaction to the 2006 rape allegations against the Duke lacrosse team. Before the rape charges the team was relatively unknown on campus. It mentored youth in poor Durham areas; raised the most money among Duke teams for Katrina relief; and was regarded by groundskeepers and support personnel as polite and respectful. Being in Division I, most of their time was spent studying, practicing, traveling or recovering from travel. They were serious students with a 100% graduation rate and the most academic honors in their Conference.

None of that was reflected in the media circus because the tabloid narrative was much more entertaining. As KC Johnson ( author with Stuart Taylor of "Until Proven Innocent") wrote ("Exonerated Ex-Duke Players Don't Deserve Scorn" April 15, 2007) :

Their mug shots appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the guilt-implying headline "Sex, Lies, and Duke." Eighty-eight professors from their own institution signed an April statement asserting that something "happened" to the accuser and saying "thank you" to protesters who carried signs reading "Castrate." They were compared to Hitler by one cable TV commentator, who also speculated that their parents might have sexually abused them.

In a May court appearance,  [Reade] Seligmann  [whose own father had been raised by a black family] received death threats from members of the New Black Panthers. A July Washington Post column mocked the tall, lanky [Collin] Finnerty -- accurately described as a "gentle giant" by one of his friends -- as a "disgusting" person who took "fun in tormenting the innocent."

With public animus running against him, Finnerty was thereupon convicted on an unrelated assault charge in DC--an “assault” in which he was never alleged to have struck anyone but was accused of shouting at them after being struck from behind and knocked down himself. His "trial" was a convoluted process in which police officers remembered "new" facts, the judge virtually called his lawyer a liar, and his chief defense witness was not allowed to testify. Finnerty was afterwards harassed repeatedly by the judge with threats of incarceration. Some observers believed that the conviction was pre-determined and had Finnerty consented to “turn” and lie for Nifong, that threat would have been made to disappear.

Media accounts would convince people that lacrosse players are inherently prone to bad conduct (or else their sport corrupts them along the way). But again from the 2006 Duke case:

(1) In the six most recent academic years [at Duke] ending in 2006, there were a total of 377 reported incidents of academic dishonesty (cheating, plagiarism, etc.) by all students. ..NONE were lacrosse players.

(2) In the six years ending in 2006, there were a total of 46 reported incidents of physical abuse, fighting and endangerment. . .NONE involved lacrosse players.

(3) In the six years ending in 2006, there were 20 incidents of sexual misconduct, including 14 findings of not responsible. NONE were lacrosse players.

(4) In the six years ending in 2006, there were 96 incidents of drug related misconduct. . . Only one was a lacrosse player (smoking marijuana in his room in 2001 and he was not a member of the 2005-2006 team).

(5) In the three years ending in 2006, there were 171 alcohol related medical calls to [Duke University police/emergency services]. NONE were lacrosse players. 

(Michael Gaynor, "Putting that Lacrosse Team Party in Context", March 14, 2007)

But it was the narrative of out-of-control players which titilated the public.  It became a long-running sensational mini-series.  It permitted writers who knew nothing about the sport (including such "crime experts" as Wendy Murphy and Nancy Grace) to pontificate about sports and morality.

And nothing has changed since. When the Huguely case is done, watch for reporters to sound off yet again about how it was all about lacrosse. And violent sports. And athletic competition. Actual facts must never be allowed to trip up a good fictional plot. But just for the record, fiction belongs in the fiction section, and not on the news pages.