In shadow, Duke returns

DURHAM, N.C. — DURHAM, N.C. --Duke men's lacrosse coach John Danowski sat at a desk recently inside a Cameron Indoor Stadium office flipping through the student newspaper.

He pointed to one article, then another about the sexual assault case involving three former players. Then he shrugged. "It's all the time," he said quietly. "You open the school paper and two of the columns are lacrosse-related. Every day there are reminders of an event last spring."


It has been almost a year since that event - the alleged sexual assault by three team members at an off-campus party - but the case seems hardly to have receded from Duke's collective consciousness.

The case is reminiscent of a political scandal in which the alleged crime becomes almost secondary to the mini-dramas sprouting around it. Like vines, those dramas extend in a dozen directions, entangling administrators, players, coaches, faculty and alumni.


"As far as I can see," Danowski said, "religion is about the only topic that hasn't been covered in this case."

It all seems to be happening at once: a collapsing criminal case, a district attorney's struggles, an impassioned campus debate, another investigation led by special prosecutors and, finally, a new lacrosse season that players hope will bring respite from the issues surrounding them.

When Danowski's team opens its season here against Dartmouth today, it will be the first game since the program was suspended by Duke's administration eight games into last year's schedule. Each player plans to wear the number of one of his indicted former teammates on his "shooter shirt" during pre-game warm-ups, according to co-captain Ed Douglas of Baltimore. Most, if not all, also intend to sport light-blue wristbands that say "innocent!" The team's first road game is at Maryland on Friday night.

It may be a new season, but too many issues linger for it to feel much like a fresh start.

Among the sagas is one involving Duke president Richard Brodhead, who some alumni - including former lacrosse captain Scott Diggs, a Loyola High graduate - believe mishandled the case and should step down. Brodhead has said he properly balanced the need to take the charges seriously with the presumption of the players' innocence.

But Diggs and others say the president didn't support the athletes and should have recognized early on that the accusations leveled by the North Carolina Central University student and exotic dancer were flawed.

"If I were a board member in dictating the direction of the university, I would easily lobby and garner support for his [Brodhead's] removal," Diggs said in a letter to Duke last year.

'Group of 88'


Then there is the furor surrounding faculty members known as the "Group of 88," who endorsed a newspaper advertisement challenging the university to confront racism and sexism as the lacrosse matter unfolded last April.

Criticized by the lacrosse community and others for seeming to "rush to judgment" against the players, many of the professors sought to clarify their position last month. In an open letter to the university, they said they never "prejudged" the defendants and that their sentiments were intended generally as "a call to action on important, long-standing issues on and around our campus."

Douglas, the Duke co-captain who attended Gilman, said he hopes such campus fractures can be healed. "I think there is common ground," he said.

When the season begins, Douglas said, the players must avoid getting caught up in matters they can't control. He said he knows how special it would be to win a national championship at M&T; Bank Stadium - Duke lost the title game to Johns Hopkins in its last full season - and divert the public's attention from last year's events.

"But I think we need to be careful not to try to play beyond ourselves and try to prove anything other than that we're a hard-working team," Douglas said. "I think if we try to incorporate aspects of the legal case or public opinion, then we're going to have some problems."

Danowski said he told the players at the beginning of practice last month: "You don't owe anybody anything. You play lacrosse because you love to play, because you love each other, you love the university and that's it."


The court case

The indicted players - Collin Finnerty of Garden City, N.Y., Reade Seligmann of Essex Fells, N.J., and David Evans of Bethesda - sent the team an e-mail late last year. "It was basically just saying, 'Fellas, we wish we were here with you and you've got to remember that we're facing some serious charges, and anything that you guys do represents all of us,'" Danowski said.

Evans graduated in May. Finnerty and Seligmann have been invited back to Duke but have decided not to return this semester while their cases are pending.

The criminal case is moving slowly. In December, District Attorney Michael B. Nifong dropped rape charges because the accuser was not certain exactly what happened at the March 13 lacrosse party. Kidnapping and sexual offense charges remain intact stemming from the woman's earlier statements that she was dragged into a bathroom and sexually assaulted.

Last month, Nifong took himself off the case and is defending himself against ethics complaints alleging he made improper statements about the case and withheld DNA evidence.

It is up to special prosecutors in the state attorney general's office to determine what happens next. The prosecutors are re-examining the evidence.


"If the record is what I think it is, I don't see any possibility that they'll go forward with the case," Duke law professor Paul Haagen said. "But there are many things I don't know."


March 13 -- Duke lacrosse players hold party, hiring two strippers.

March 14 -- Dancer tells Durham, N.C., police that three men beat her, raped her and sodomized her.

March 25 -- School announces that team will not play two games, citing decision to hire "private party dancers" and underage drinking.


March 28 -- Duke suspends team from play until it has "clearer resolution of the legal situation."

April 5 -- Coach Mike Pressler resigns.

April 18 -- Players Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty taken into custody on charges of rape, sexual offense and kidnapping.

May 15 -- Team co-captain David Evans of Bethesda is indicted.

June 5 -- Lacrosse program reinstated for 2007.

July 21 -- John Danowski from Hofstra hired as coach.


Dec. 22 -- Prosecutor Michael B. Nifong drops rape charges against players.

Dec. 28 -- North Carolina bar files first ethics charges against Nifong.

Jan. 12 -- Nifong asks state attorney general to appoint special prosecutor.

Jan. 26 -- Duke's 41 players, most returning from last season, begin practice for new season.

Sources -- AP, staff reports