Amid Legal Chaos, Duke Lacrosse Program Faces Uncertain Future
Posted April 23, 2006
DURHAM, N.C. — The Duke men's lacrosse team lost by a goal in last year's NCAA title game, falling to a school that's won eight national championships. The Blue Devils were a favorite to get back to this year's title game, and appeared ready to become one of the sport's elite programs.
Now, a month after an exotic dancer told police she was raped at a team party, a promising season is over, the team's veteran coach is out of a job and two players face criminal indictments. Meanwhile, in the background of intense media scrutiny, a university law professor is leading an investigation that some fear will end with Duke shelving men's lacrosse.
"It has seemed premature to announce, and especially while indictments are still not only out but where there might be more coming, ... what the fate of the team will be," Duke President Richard Brodhead said. "Of course, this is a matter that will be given the gravest consideration at the appropriate time."
The Blue Devils went 21-22 from 2002-04, but reached the title game last year by winning an NCAA-record 17 games. Many expected the success to continue under 16th-year coach Mike Pressler, and an impressive recruiting haul for next season had the program looking like one that reloads instead of rebuilds.
Robert Carpenter, who played for the Blue Devils under Pressler and started "Inside Lacrosse" magazine after graduating in 1996, said the sudden rise made Duke a hot program.
"A lacrosse coach can spend a lifetime trying to get to this seat that (Pressler) had been sitting in when this happened," Carpenter said.
The Blue Devils were 6-2 when the team held a March 13 party at the off-campus house of three team captains. Two exotic dancers were hired to perform, and one, a 27-year-old student at a North Carolina Central University, told police she was pulled into a bathroom at the house by three men and raped.
Duke initially suspended the team from play, and later canceled the season and accepted Pressler's resignation. Last week, a grand jury indicted players Reade Seligmann, a sophomore from Essex Fells, N.J., and Collin Finnerty, a sophomore from Garden City, N.Y., with rape, kidnapping and sexual assault.
Defense attorneys have strongly proclaimed the players' innocence. District Attorney Mike Nifong said there is a third suspect, one he hopes to soon identify with certainty and charge.
Duke is hardly the first college sports program to deal with this kind of controversy. St. John's disbanded its men's lacrosse team from 1996-2005, a decision that came five years after three players were acquitted of sexual assault charges.
At Colorado, a recruiting scandal helped lead to the December resignation of football coach Gary Barnett, as well as the departure of the university's president and athletic director. An investigation concluded drugs, alcohol and sex were used to entice recruits, while two women filed a lawsuit claiming they were sexually assaulted by football players at an off-campus party in December 2001. Police investigated, but no charges were filed.
"What Duke will find out is when your name gets dispersed, rightly or wrongly, it has the potential to affect everybody with a degree from that school," said David Plati, Colorado's sports information director for 22 years. "That's what we've kind of been digging out from here."
In Durham, lacrosse assistant coaches Jon Lantzy and Kevin Cassese are meeting with the team and maintaining contact with recruits in an effort to keep the program together. Both declined to speak with The Associated Press, as did Pressler and members of the 47-man team.
The school's investigation into the lacrosse program will focus on the behavior team outside of the rape allegations. A third of the team's players have been cited for public intoxication and public urination, and Finnerty was charged last year with simple assault in Washington, D.C.
In an interview with a Durham newspaper, athletic director Joe Alleva said he told Pressler the team was under the microscope and "he had to do everything he could to get them in line." When The Associated Press asked to speak to Alleva for this story, Duke officials referred questions to other members of the athletic department.
Duke has yet to start searching for a new coach and it's unclear how many current players and incoming recruits will remain. Duke spokesman Art Chase said the school is allowing players and recruits to contact other schools.
"I don't get the sense that people are thinking we're not going to have a team next year," Chase said. "But at the end of the day, we don't know what will happen."
Johns Hopkins has already received inquiries from a few Duke players and a recruit, spokesman Ernie Larossa said. Syracuse coach John Desko told The Syracuse Post Standard that Duke sophomore Zack Greer -- who led the country with 57 goals last season -- is seeking a release from Duke. But he won't be joining the Orange.
"I wouldn't be interested in our coaches recruiting players from Duke, given the situation," Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross told the newspaper. "I think it would be inappropriate."
Under NCAA rules, lacrosse players can transfer once without having to sit out a season. But Atlantic Coast Conference rules require players to sit a year and lose a year of eligibility if they transfer within the league.
"I've advised them that it's a good idea to at least see what their options are, although they all would prefer to stay here as far as I know," said Chris Kennedy, Duke's senior associate athletics director.
Hofstra coach John Danowski said he has received no inquiries from Duke players seeking a transfer. That would include his son, Matt, a Duke junior.
"They love the place," Danowski said. "They feel strongly about who they are. They love each other. Why would they want to leave? The kids want to be there.
"The kids went to Duke because they wanted to get the best education they could get. ... That's what Duke is and why they went there. The fact they were successful on the field was a bonus."