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  • Reverend James Squire

The Ethics of the Duke Lacrosse Scandal




I used case studies in my ethics class to have the students do a deep dive into understanding the ethical ramifications of cases that contain important ethical issues. Most of the case studies were in the public domain. This particular case study began with allegations by a black woman, Crystal Magnum, who accused three members of the Duke Lacrosse Team of raping her at a party held at the house of Matt Zash on March 13, 2006. The three players were Reade Seligman, Collin Finnerty, and David Evans. Mangum was a student at another college who was hired to strip along with another woman, for the team during a party.


The media’s coverage of the case inflamed race, gender, and class divisions locally and nationally. There were many journalists on the edge of campus from local and national media. The allegations were ultimately deemed false. The students were exonerated based on DNA evidence and inconsistency in testimony.


It is important to note that according to a 2010 study of violence against women that only 2 to 10% of allegations are false. There is a range because it is difficult to get accurate data on reporting. After this case, however, parents of boys were concerned about their sons being wrongfully accused. Years after this event I was talking with a EA parent and asked if she was in communication with her son much in college. I was struck by her response. She said, “I talk to him some time each week and in every conversation, I remind him not to find himself in a compromised position where he could be accused of improper behavior with a woman student.” The Duke University scandal stayed in the culture for parents of boys.


Mike Nifong was running for DA and used the case to boost his election bid. He was trying the case in the public domain with little use of the word alleged. He was later suspended by The North Carolina State Bar Association and spent a day in jail. People in general were listening to Nifong’s statements as though they were facts. ESPN put out a video called “Fantastic Lies” which focused on arguments defending the three players including the perspective of the parents involved. It was biased.


Crystal Magnum’s five statements were in conflict with what was said by her. She had also bragged about getting money from some white students at Duke. A DNA test indicated that she had been inseminated by another person who was not a member of the team. This case was a high-profile case because of its complexity. As noted, it involved gender, race, and class.


A few years later in life Magnum stabbed Reginald Daye to death and was sentenced to 13 to 18 years in prison even though she said it was in self-defense. The lacrosse players at the party were not paragons of virtue using profanity, racist comments, and threats to sexually assault the two women who were there to strip.


When the case broke the faculty known as the gang of 88 as well as President Broadhead of Duke quickly took the side of Crystal Mangum. It split the campus of those for and against the team and the three students accused. The coach of the team eventually resigned under pressure and the team’s concluding games were suspended.


Many seniors on the team who had jobs upon graduation had their job offers reversed. The whole team found themselves guilty by association. Lives were ruined in the process. When it was clear that the three lacrosse players were innocent, the three players received 20 million dollars each after suing the university for liable. Duke paid $100,000 in legal fees. However, lives were ruined by the accusations even after the case was dismissed. People continued to doubt that the players were innocent.


I do have a dog in this fight so to speak as someone who received weekly mailings from President Broadhead as an alumnus of the graduate school at Duke regarding this case. I recall that I didn’t see much from him in support of the athletes and clearly there was no admonishing of the faculty outrage. I was wondering how this would play out if the players were found not guilty. It seemed to be a forgone conclusion. The payments to the students speak to what happened. However, there was more at stake for the honor of the woman involved as well as the players on the team. Contexts always shapes our attitude and decision making. Mangum was the mother of two and was an escort who was an exotic dancer who is black. She was also attending North Carolina Central University. The implication was that she struggled financially.


All but one player on the Duke University team were white except one person who was black. The students on the team were from middle to upper class homes.


Mangum’s lifestyle conjured up images of oppression and lacking a moral center or was she doing everything that she could to take care of her family? As noted, the lacrosse team was not the model of good behavior. They were seen as entitled. Backgrounds shaped a lot of the response to favor Mangum over the team and vice versa.


There are many ethical issues contained in this example, but a rush to judgement is clearly part of the issue. Legal ethics contains that basic statement at the heart of our legal system which is that you are innocent until proven guilty. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck in all probability it is a duck. If you asked the average non Maga voter if Trump paid Stormy Daniels for sex, they would bet that he has. He will be arraigned shortly for paying her. That is why we have all been told that we can be identified by the company that we keep so it is difficult to adhere to the that axiom that we are innocent until proved guilty.


Trump is a good example of how we must withhold judgement. We can see that issue in its extreme with him, given his history just as the Duke University President and faculty found it impossible to not blame the players given the context of race, gender, and class. I always think that it is important in those situations that may seem obvious to take the attitude of “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Withhold judgement! Let the process unfold in an ethical way! That is what Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has done. “Justice, a pillar of ethics, should be blind.” That attitude helps deal with what we think is an obvious breaking of the law. In addition, if we are wrong in our assessment, we must do something that Trump would never do. President Broadhead apologized to the entire Duke community, the players, and their families. That would never absolutely correct the wrong that was done, but it got ALL the players closer to being proved innocent in eyes of the public and to move on with their life.

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