Acton Commentary

The Duke Case in Review: Justice Prevails, Virtue Interprets


There was good cause for celebration when prosecutors dropped all charges against three former Duke University lacrosse players accused of sexually assaulting a stripper at a party. Our justice system works. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper rightly said the athletes were victims of a “tragic rush to accuse” by a zealous district attorney. Amidst the celebration, however, we were also reminded of the fact that good looks, intelligence, athletic performance, and wealth do not produce moral virtue.

“Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?” This proverb may explain why many of us op-ed pundits were so quick to assume the worst. When you invite strippers to a drunken party you are begging for trouble. The Duke University lacrosse team was burned by much of the public and the three lacrosse players received a special burning by district attorney Mike Nifong.

What would have happened if the Duke Lacrosse team had been the kind of men who were not fans of drunkenness or the dehumanization of women? Perhaps we would be talking about their last season as national champions.

Dr. Madeline Levine, in her book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids , explains that while many of her young patients from upper-middle class backgrounds are “indulged, coddled, pressured, and micromanaged on the outside, [they] appeared to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity of develop” on the inside. We are all aware that a deeply rooted moral conscience would have made a huge difference in the events leading up to that night.

While many of the details of the Duke University rape case may never be resolved, one fact is sadly clear: Crystal Gail Mangum, the accuser, and the three players were all in the same moral boat the night of the party. Ms. Mangum, as we have learned since, is a deeply troubled woman in need of much help and restoration as a woman of inherent dignity.

Without full disclosure the media was left with a credibility conundrum and many of us, myself included, jumped to conclusions. Was it unreasonable, however, to believe that the type of men who would hire a stripper would also be capable of sexual assault? Was it unreasonable to imagine that a woman who takes her clothes off and dances for cash is also the type of woman who would lie about being raped?

Duke's lacrosse team had a market demand for dehumanized women and that demand was met. In such cases, freedom of the market needs to be constrained by moral awareness. Women who strip need help and men who enjoy strippers need help as well.

What if the Duke Lacrosse team had lived such admirable lives on Duke's campus that, when they were accused of doing wrong, it would have been immediately assumed to be ridiculous? Good character, however, was not the norm, as reported by Duke University's ad hoc review committee established to review the last five years of the lacrosse team's reported behavior. The University reported the following:

“In contrast to their exemplary academic and athletic performance, a large number of the members of the team have been socially irresponsible when under the influence of alcohol. They have repeatedly violated the law against underage drinking. They have drunk alcohol excessively. They have disturbed their neighbors with loud music and noise, both on-campus and off-campus. They have publicly urinated both on-campus and off. They have shown disrespect for property. Both the number of team members implicated in this behavior and the number of alcohol-related incidents involving them have been excessive compared to other Duke athletic teams. Nevertheless, their conduct has not been different in character than the conduct of the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol.”

The Duke lacrosse debacle exposes the fallacy of a popular American myth: namely, that material advantage, academic excellence and athletic success produce men of virtue, character, and integrity. On the contrary, it produced a team of men who enjoy misogyny. This case also reminds us that broken, weak-willed women can easily be taken advantage of and can easily deceive. America was “called out” as a culture more concerned about its kids' achievements than their moral formation. Success is not a substitute for character. The case exposed the weaknesses of us all and four lives were devastated in the aftermath.