With its recent story about former Duke University lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, “60 Minutes” reopened a scab on Duke's reputation. Pressler was forced out of his job nine years ago this month, after allegations broke about the team’s hiring of strippers at an off-campus party. This contretemps quickly came to be known as the Duke Lacrosse Fiasco.
Along with his players, Pressler was vilified. He departed Duke under a cloud of criticism and suspicion. His players became prisoners of their own university. The local district attorney pressed charges against three of them, all of whom subsequently left the university feeling shut out of the community without any due process and muzzled rather than permitted to defend themselves. Pressler was targeted along with them, largely because he refused to turn on the players and to join the mob throwing them overboard.
Pressler’s fate was intertwined with two university presidents. The contrast between these two men, as leaders and individuals, could not be starker.
Despite his handling of the Lacrosse Fiasco, Richard Brodhead remains Duke president to this day. During the controversy, Brodhead cowered, unable to stand up to protect the basic principles of a university community and to prevent a horrific rush to judgment. The DA manipulated Brodhead to sign onto what instantly turned out to be a manufactured interpretation of events. Without any parallel detective work to get at the facts, Brodhead bought the allegations brought against the players. The concept that these young men were members of the Duke community, and deserving of justice, eluded this president.
Brodhead had numerous opportunities to stop the train, but, ignoring senior advisors, he stubbornly refused to do so.
Brodhead has never apologized to anyone for his snap judgments, for failing to get at the truth, and for letting a DA who was looking for publicity in his quest for reelection call the tune.
Pressler was sidelined from what he loved: coaching lacrosse. He was an enormously accomplished NCAA Division I coach, his Duke teams perennial contenders for the national men’s lacrosse championship. But now he was a pariah in the collegiate athletic culture.
His alma mater, Washington and Lee, a Division III force, interviewed him, but at a truck stop hundreds of miles from the campus. It would not touch him with an offer. Pressler resorted to long walks in Duke’s forest yelling at the trees. He endured the trial of trying to figure out how to get his reputation back, a reputation unfairly stolen by Brodhead.
In contrast to Brodhead, Ronald Machtley, the president of Rhode Island's Bryant University, was willing to give Pressler a second chance, hiring him as men’s lacrosse coach. He believed Pressler’s account of what actually happened at Duke. Like Pressler, he was a leader who strongly believed in personal loyalty. Loyalty was a key aspect of Machtley’s leadership compass, and he was convinced it was also something at Pressler’s core.
Making inquiries in the college lacrosse and coaching world, Machtley became a believer in Pressler’s commitment to coaching and to his players and teams. That was what he wanted at Bryant.
Pressler has built the Bryant program from mid-ranks of Division II to the top 20 in Division I. He claims not to care “about the Roman numerals.” He simply wants to coach because that is where his heart and his passion are. It is that identity and commitment that Brodhead ripped away without compassion, understanding or any attempt to learn the truth.
Machtley’s relationship with Pressler has only deepened during his eight-year tenure at Bryant. His judgment of his coach’s character was repeatedly affirmed. Pressler has refused to use lucrative offers to go elsewhere as leverage to make Bryant pay him more.
In the “60 Minutes” interview, Machtley, in a grand understatement, declared that Pressler was treated shabbily at Duke. Such a public calling-out of one college president by another is very rare. But Machtley was absolutely spot on.
Of the two presidents, one was up to his job. Because of that, Pressler’s story has had a deservedly decent ending.
Stephen J. Nelson, an occasional contributor, is an associate professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and senior scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University.