Sunday, April 9

Blue Devils Made Them Do It

Allan Gurganus, the author of "The Practical Heart," is a Guggenheim Fellow for 2006.

NO charges have been brought yet. True, the coach has resigned; one student has been suspended; three white players still stand accused of raping and sodomizing a black "exotic" dancer hired to dance at a party at their school-leased pad.

Innocent until proven guilty, yes. But everybody has an opinion. Certainly here, where Topic A — A.C.C. basketball — just ended with both Duke and North Carolina falling short. March Madness takes on new meaning.

Lacrosse was our Eden's first team sport. The Cherokees called it "the little brother of war." They swore it offered superb battle training. It bred loyalty among players, a solidarity demonstrated by the code of silence among Duke's party attendees. These included the team's one black member and only Durham native.

Postparty, the sole player now banished from campus (for his own protection) sent a group e-mail message. It promised another bash, one whose invited women would be killed, then skinned. O.K. Innocent until proven guilty. I know his parents love him; I hope they get him help. This young man's lawyer actually cited his sudden concentration upon skinning as proof that rape had not occurred.

From north of here, this story must seem like yet another involving Southern frat boys run wild, besmirching the great-granddaughters of their own ancestral slaves. But Duke's lacrosse team is largely recruited from Northeastern prep schools. The player who showed such lively interest in peeling skin off his next stripper has a white S.U.V. with New Jersey plates.

Though Duke is in Durham, N.C., whose namesake family made its billions in tobacco, most of Duke's students hail from elsewhere. The university's popularity as an alternative to the Ivy League has been refined in recent years. Students fondly call the campus Gothic Wonderland.

This Disney reference acknowledges the incongruity of its gray-stone Oxbridge architecture, constructed in the 1930's as a wishful invocation of Europe: real culture, faux antiquity. It could not, like Chapel Hill's 18th-century campus, be built of native red brick. Why? The tobacco warehouses visible from the Duke campus are all brick.

As a native North Carolinian, one too familiar with the state's code of privilege and fraternity, I left home early. I went north to school, taking my chances among strangers rather than trusting the old-boy network that might've worked for me. But after decades elsewhere, I came back, bought an Arts and Crafts house, settled here to grow a garden, love my friends. I daily observe and adore this place.

I know firsthand the good will of the Durham community. Through Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, I have taught fourth graders writing and drawing. My class included professors' children as well as children of the cleaning crews who nightly scrub their labs and offices. It is criminal that this sexual and racial accusation might seem typical. It's sad that the university administration's three-week silence appeared to sanction such acts.

I have also taught at Duke. My students have been exemplary. Certain young writers from my class proved idealistic enough to go teach at rough public schools, one in a section of Durham far from the calming sight of Duke's cathedral-sized chapel. The level of teaching at the university is superlative. And it is done by actual professors, not teaching assistants. One-third of Duke's students are members of minority groups. Duke is hardly the lily-white institution some suppose.

Like all universities, though, this one lives or dies by attracting top students. That means convincing college-shopping high schoolers that Duke is sexy and fun. (I still find it hard to believe that anyone would choose a college based on how well its basketball team played the previous year; but, about so many things, I seem to be the last to understand.)

Lacrosse is a draw. Glamorous boarding-school sports are magnets for the attractive, competitive and wealthy young people that increasingly define Duke's student body.

Ivy League colleges do not, they assure us, give athletic scholarships per se. Here, there's no such interdiction. To enlist — then hold onto — a major player, promises must be made. Talent has its privileges, especially in lacrosse, that bailiwick of Abercrombie allure.

One perk of belonging to a sports team: preferred living quarters, close to campus but far from adult supervision. The lacrosse team's 610 North Buchanan house is, even among such Animal Houses, notorious. Friends in the neighborhood painstakingly restored an old home; they sold it the instant Duke planted a sports team next door.

Young male students are apt to take on the nature of their particular sport. One early explorer, after witnessing an Indian game involving hundreds of stick-wielding players, wrote, "Almost everything short of murder is allowable."

The Duke team is known on campus as the Meatheads. Nights before the dancer's visit, complaints were lodged in a nearby restaurant as players chanted with the wit typical of such groups, "Duke La—crosse! Duke La—crosse!" No one quite dared confront them. Though they pass as ordinary citizens — unlike the pituitary cases found among basketball stars — they're still guys of serious, strenuous bulk.

Their coach, now resigned, preached, "Work hard, play hard." This seems to have meant, "If you turn up and give me your all at practice, what happens after hours is strictly 'Don't Ask.' " The "Don't Tell" part involved not snitching on one another. Neighbors complained to the university to little avail. Middle-class white residents, come to ask for late-night noise reduction, were routinely cursed. The beer-can litter and the welter of S.U.V.'s suggested what went unmonitored inside the house.

The police report did more than hint. Its allegations of rape and sodomy prove weirdly well written, more gripping reading than most detective novels. Its author is anonymous but he might be advised to take a writing class at, well, Duke ... its night school, of course.

"Two males pulled the victim into the bathroom. Someone closed the door and said, 'Sweetheart, you can't leave'...The victim's four red polished fingernails were recovered inside the residence consistent to her version of the attack."

Peter Wood, a history professor at Duke and himself a lacrosse player at Harvard, warned the administration two years ago that players were cutting class for morning practice — his course in Native American history, the culture that had given them their game. But what administrator is going to risk driving away a winning team from a winning university? How soon Boys Will Be Boys become Administrators Who Administrate in Defense of Such Boys. This lacrosse season, until rape accusations ended it, featured six wins and two losses. Code for "Leave them alone."

Of the 40 or so players required to give DNA samples, nearly one-third showed previous arrests for under-age drinking and public urination. One member of the team had been ordered to perform 25 hours of community service in connection with the assault of a man in Washington. He had asked the player and two friends to stop yelling he was gay. Beating ensued.

It would be far too easy to scapegoat one university for allowing boys to be brutes. But in the institution's hurry to protect its students, right or wrong, it seemed to forget its role of educating and reassuring a community larger than itself.

The university once offered respite from our country's most rabid competitive impulses. Once upon a time, there was even a core curriculum assuring that every student in every field had read the same great works, including sacred texts, Shakespeare, the Greeks. Once science reigned unchallenged by religious strictures. Once institutions of higher learning ranked ... higher.

Now corporate America, athletic America, Defense Department America form a unified competitive team. Duke's head basketball coach was recently offered tens of millions to lead a pro team. He refused, receiving a fancier leadership title and the full attention of Duke's new president.

A man nabbed for using Duke stationery to support his favorite Republican Senate candidate, Mike Krzyzewski gives inspirational talks to Fortune 500 corporations. Though silent about the scandal, he still appears in ads for American Express and Chevy. Does he keep the money, or his school? Guess.

When the children of privilege feel vividly alive only while victimizing, even torturing, we must all ask why. This question is first personal then goes Ethical soon National. Boys 18 to 25 are natural warriors: bodies have wildly outgrown reason, the sexual imperative outranks everything. They are insurance risks. They need (and crave) true leadership, genuine order. But left alone, granted absolute power, their deeds can terrify.

The imperative to win, and damn all collateral costs, is not peculiar to Durham — and it is killing us.

Why is there no one to admire?