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Players' parents turn anger at Duke

For months, Duke lacrosse families have directed their anger largely at the prosecutor who brought what they consider a baseless sexual assault case against three players.

But District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, who recused himself from the case last week, isn't the only object of their rage. Parents of team members say the university abandoned the 46 players, buckling under pressure by faculty and demonstrators to take action against the team when an African-American stripper's rape allegation surfaced last March.

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In a series of interviews, parents and lacrosse team supporters say Duke officials misled them about the university's position, privately assuring them that they believed players' claims of innocence but undercutting the team publicly by making critical comments and forfeiting games. The school's handling of the case has also alienated some alumni.

"Let's face it, a college community is a diverse environment, and there was sensitivity to the notion of white, privileged athletes beating up on a black woman. But in the consideration of an absolutely false notion, three Duke students and their families got lost," said Duke parent Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase.

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She is the mother of Gibbs Fogarty, a sophomore Duke lacrosse player who is not among the players charged.

Prosecutors dropped rape charges against the three accused players last month, although other charges remain.

Duke says it honored the players' presumption of innocence but had to let the legal system run its course. It would not have helped the players if Duke had tried to improperly influence the outcome of such a high-profile court case by becoming a legal advocate, said John Burness, a Duke senior vice president.

"We already had heard rumors in the community that Duke would use its influence, so we were being absolutely scrupulous," Burness said. "We only spoke to those things we could speak to with authority."

One parent told The Sun that Duke athletic director Joe Alleva and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III had told the captains March 24 essentially that, "We believe you," and that nothing would happen to the team until the legal investigation was completed. The next day, there was an announcement that two games were being forfeited.

"We have confirmed that two guys said, 'We believe you,' " Burness said in reply. "I don't have it confirmed that they said 'Nothing will happen.'"

But Burness added: "It is not up to Trask and Alleva. That is them reaching their judgment having talked to the captains."

President's statement

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A March 25 statement from President Richard H. Brodhead particularly bothered some parents. "Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke," it began. It went on to note that "people are presumed innocent until proven guilty."

The stripper, a student at North Carolina Central University, alleged that she was pulled into a bathroom and raped during a March 13 party at a house rented by three team captains.

On March 28, the university indefinitely suspended the season until there was a clearer legal resolution. That day, Duke released a statement in which the lacrosse captains agreed that they not play until the DNA results affirmed their innocence. At least one parent maintains that the captains were pressured into signing.

"President Brodhead made it clear he was prepared to take some pretty strong actions," Burness said in reply. "I don't believe he put pressure on them. The pressure came from the knowledge he was prepared to take that pretty strong action."

No trial date has been scheduled for the three indicted players - David Evans of Bethesda, Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y., and Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J. - on the remaining charges.

Nifong stepped aside last week to defend himself against a North Carolina State Bar ethics complaint for statements he made early in the case, including calling Duke lacrosse players "hooligans." The North Carolina attorney general appointed two special prosecutors to take over.

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Nifong's departure came as the case seemed to be unraveling, with the accuser waffling over what happened at the party. As new facts have emerged, Duke has become increasingly critical of Nifong and has invited Finnerty and Seligmann to return to school. Neither has accepted. Evans graduated in May.

To parents like Sally Fogarty, the school simply hasn't done enough, and she blames the university for its "lack of support."

Fogarty attended Duke and has raised funds for the university. Two of her children are Duke graduates, and her white brick home is replete with Blue Devil items, including photographs of athletic events and a pair of hooded "Duke" jackets hanging in the front closet.

But she says the atmosphere at Duke got so out of hand last spring - with pot-banging demonstrators calling for "justice" - that she asked her son to come home early because she feared for the safety of lacrosse players.

"On a Friday night, I heard the Black Panthers were marching, and I called him and said, 'Get your stuff; you're coming home,'" Fogarty said. "It was tense."

About 30 members of the "New Black Panther Party" rallied without incident outside a university entrance, according to Duke's Web site.

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Rob Bordley, the lacrosse coach at Landon School in Bethesda, which had five graduates on last season's Duke team, said: "There were a lot of people within the Duke community painting [the players] as irresponsible kids, evil kids, Huns such as the barbarians that invaded Europe. It was a ridiculous picture."

"Somebody down there should have stood up for those boys," Bordley said.

One player, Kyle Dowd, who graduated in May, sued Duke on Jan. 4, alleging that he was wrongly given a failing grade in a politics course last spring because he was a member of the men's lacrosse team.

"I think people rushed to judgment," said Dowd's mother, Patricia, of Northport, N.Y. "I think that's the biggest problem in this whole case."

Frustrated with Duke

The parents' frustration with Duke has led to angry e-mails and phone calls to university administrators and searing Internet blogs.

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Scott Diggs, 29, a former Duke lacrosse captain who played locally at Loyola, says he loves Duke but has vowed "never to support the university again, at least during Brodhead's tenure" because of the school's treatment of the athletes.

Diggs, who graduated in 1999, wrote a letter to the university recently stating that he was "appalled" at its handling of the lacrosse case.

"It's a really conflicted feeling," Diggs said in an interview from San Diego, where he is a commercial real estate broker. "I have quite a bit of love and appreciation for Duke, but to see the university really not support its students and athletes makes it kind of hard to continue to feel that way."

Duke law professor James Coleman Jr., who led a university review of the lacrosse program, said that he is sympathetic but that parents and alumni might not realize what Duke was up against.

"It is much more complicated than the families appreciate," Coleman said.

He said the bitterness is "understandable."

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"I can't imagine I would not feel the same," he said. "But I feel it's somewhat misdirected."

Coleman suggested that the parents' anger might be better directed at Nifong.

"The question is, what was the obligation of the university when a district attorney is saying a gang rape occurred?" Coleman said. "He basically invited the public to condemn the whole team. I just think the university was in a difficult sort of place and had to be very careful and very measured."

While Brodhead has been singled out for criticism, some parents also fault 88 Duke faculty members who endorsed a petition in April challenging the university to explore racism and sexual assault.

Fogarty said the group used the lacrosse case "as a platform for their own agenda." Other parents have derided the 88 as "politically correct liberals."

But Coleman said: "I don't think the faculty members who basically expressed concern in that petition had to be liberal at all. If you believe what the prosecutor said happened, then conservatives or libertarians would have been concerned, too."

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jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.


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