Sunday, June 03, 2007

John Feinstein: All Is Not Well And Good With Duke Athletics

Special to
Monday, May 28, 2007; 5:58 PM

Duke's President Richard Brodhead (left) and Duke's Director of Athletics Joe Alleva at a news conference during the height of the furor.

So the Duke lacrosse team's saga will not be a Disney movie after all.

You know the story: Unfairly accused group of athletes finds redemption by coming back from a season cancelled to win a national championship. Sadly for the movie-makers, Duke came up short in Monday's national championship game, losing to Johns Hopkins in the final for the second time in three years.

Even with the loss, a lot of Duke people will tell you that the lacrosse team coming so close to a national championship and the charges against the three players accused of rape and sexual assault finally being dropped last month means that all is well and good with Duke athletics.

It is almost pointless to argue with the Duke loyalists who have bought into the notion that the lacrosse players were guilty of nothing more than, "boys being boys," (and it should be noted here that I am the holder of a Duke degree).

I have in my possession an e-mail sent by a friend and fellow Duke alum in which he details the Duke version of what happened that night. In between commas, he wrote the following: "Some racial epithets were directed at the strippers¿" Oh is that all? Just a few racial epithets? He also pointed out that the players had requested a white stripper and a Hispanic stripper but were sent two African-Americans. Don't you just hate when that happens? Poor kids. No wonder the party got out of control.

Enough apologizing and enough martyrdom. It was a known fact on the Duke campus for years that the lacrosse team overdid it when it came to partying. There was a written report in 2004 that said just that and Tallman Trask, the university vice president allegedly overseeing the athletic department, and Joe Alleva, allegedly the athletic director, did absolutely nothing about it. Alleva fired Mike Pressler, the lacrosse coach, because a scapegoat was needed in the immediate aftermath of the incident and Pressler took the hit.

Here's what's wrong with all this: No one at Duke is ever wrong. Duke's last president, Nan Keohane, made a terrible choice when she selected Alleva as athletic director in 1998. Everyone at Duke knew that Alleva was a pleasant man whose next original idea would be his first, someone whose main asset when applying for the job was the fact that his racquetball partner was Mike Krzyzewski.

Five years later, Alleva had lived down to everything expected of him: taking a bad football program and making it worse, hiring a crony as baseball coach who HAD to be fired because the team was awful and former players came forward to say he had encouraged them to use steroids, and looking foolish almost everyone time he opened his mouth in public (which he rarely did, usually hiding behind press releases). Alleva did what everyone else at Duke has done for years and rode the coattails of Krzyzewski's successful basketball team. Keohane looked at this record and gave Alleva a new contract.

Why? Because she was a typical academician: Completely unable to admit a mistake.

Keohane finally left in 2004, going off to write tedious, self-righteous academic tomes. She was succeeded by Richard Brodhead who eventually was saddled with the lacrosse scandal¿And handled it horribly.

Suspending the season while waiting for the results of DNA testing was understandable. But once the DNA tests came back completely negative, Brodhead should have reinstated the season. He didn't though, in large part because his closest advisors: Trask, Alleva and university flack John Burness --ALL Keohane hires --didn't have the spine to tell him to do so. It is an indictment of Brodhead's leadership that, in spite of the fact that Trask, Alleva and Burness have consistently proven themselves incompetent, he hasn't brought in his own people to replace them.

Alleva is now overseeing a football program that hasn't won a game against a Division 1-A team since 2004. He had the chance to hire Bobby Ross as his football coach three years ago --the same Bobby Ross who won a national championship at Georgia Tech (not Notre Dame, not Nebraska, Georgia Tech) and took the San Diego Chargers to their only Super Bowl -- and hired the immortal Ted Roof instead.

Of course no one really cares about football at Duke. That's because Krzyzewski built a national power in basketball, winning three national titles and reaching 10 Final Fours. Therefore, money continues to flow into the athletic department and people just makes jokes about the football team. Which must make it great fun to be a Duke football player: You get your head handed to you every Saturday and get laughed at the rest of the week.

But, the apologists argue, everybody graduates. Trust me when I tell you graduating from Duke isn't all that hard. What's hard is graduating AND representing the school well. The lacrosse team represented the school poorly off-the-field and the football team is an embarrassment on the field.

The football players aren't to blame for not being better football players. One can only hope that those playing lacrosse learned their lesson from the disaster of 2006. What's sad is that the adults appear to have learned nothing. Brodhead continues to do his Mr. Chips act, sending out lengthy e-mails to alums about how everything is going just fine now. Trask is still employed. Burness is still employed and so is Alleva. No one from Duke has apologized to the lacrosse kids for throwing them under the bus -- the kids are hardly victims here but the school chose to protect its image rather than its athletes -- and the entire athletic department is in disarray. People like me get angry mail from Duke people saying that, really, everything is just fine -- that it's the media (people like me) who are causing all these problems.

Not exactly.

Even Krzyzewski's basketball team slipped in 2007, losing in the first round of both the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament after nine straight years of reaching the final of the former and at least the Sweet Sixteen of the latter. Gail Goestenkors, the highly successful women's coach, fled to Texas after her team gagged in the round of sixteen against Rutgers. The women's lacrosse team just blew the biggest lead in NCAA Tournament history in losing to Virginia in the semifinals. Of course the women's golf team DID win a third straight national title. Maybe Dan Brooks, the women's golf coach, should succeed Alleva. Or Brodhead. Or both.

There is a lesson in all this: It isn't about over-zealous prosecutors or media running amok. It's a lesson about a society in which no one ever admits they're wrong (see G.W. Bush and R. Cheney as exhibits 1 and 1A), especially allegedly smart people. Smart people make mistakes too. Mistakes are forgivable -- but only after you admit them.

No one at Duke has admitted to a single mistake yet. Until they do so, they don't deserve forgiveness.

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