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Looking Before We Leap

by on February 11, 2015 6:15 AM

I smiled exactly once while reading "The Price of Silence," a 600-page gorilla of a book about the Duke lacrosse shambles of 2006.

Written by William D. Cohan and published last year, the book is an exhaustive account of a sexual assault that supposedly took place at an off-campus party, and the unraveling of the case brought against the three Duke lacrosse players who were charged with the crime.

The sole passage that tickled my funny bone was a quote in a Sports Illustrated story from John Burness, a Duke vice president:

"If this was Mississippi or Penn State," Burness said of the lacrosse scandal, "it wouldn't be as big a story."

Well, as we all know, five years later it WAS Penn State and it WAS "as big a story," for many of the same reasons it was a big story at Duke. Consider this excerpt from the same SI story:

"Really, only two universities, Stanford and Duke, have been able to consistently utter the phrase 'We do it the right way' without hearing snickers; with three national titles in basketball since 1991 and a 96 percent athletic graduation rate, Duke seemed to have mastered the balance between high academic standards and big-time athletics."

Funny, I thought that was what folks said about us.

Also familiar was the satisfaction some observers derived from seeing disgrace visited upon a school with, as SI put it, a "long-standing and at times obnoxiously trumpeted sense of itself."

Then there were those who thought Duke's "work hard, play hard" ethos was all out of whack. The late novelist Reynolds Price, who taught at Duke, expressed his dismay at "the stunned or blank faces of students who exhibit a minimum of preparation or willingness for what I think of as the high delight and life-enduring pleasure of serious conversation in the classroom and elsewhere."

I'm no Reynolds Price, but I could have written those words.

And Price's complaints are mild compared to the fire and brimstone hurled at Duke by Hal Crowther, a columnist for the North Carolina Independent. Duke and its ilk, Crowther wrote, "will eventually learn to their great sorrow that coddling athletes and deifying coaches was a seductive wrong turn toward academic irrelevance and institutional ruin. The myth of the 'scholar-athlete,' incorporating 'graduation rates,' 'clean programs' and the rest of that tired fraud, somehow survives daily bulletins on the multiple felonies and gross misdemeanors committed by current and recent college athletes."

Whew.

"The Price of Silence" is a cautionary tale about confirmation bias – the tendency to interpret events in ways that reinforce what we already believe to be true.

One might think that we scholars would take care to keep our biases in check, but we're as susceptible to uncritical thinking as everyone else. At Duke, when word spread that a black woman hired as an exotic dancer had been sexually assaulted by white lacrosse players, many faculty members (and many newspaper columnists) were appalled but not surprised: The laxers were privileged, hard-partying, misogynistic louts. Guilty as charged!

Defenders of the lacrosse players were equally certain: These were good kids from good families, scholar-athletes par excellence. OK, they shouldn't have hired exotic dancers and hurled racist insults at them, but rape? They would never!

Needless to say, neither side knew whether a sexual assault had actually occurred. And then, when the charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence, neither side changed its tune much. Those committed to the white male privilege/black female victim narrative said maybe a rape didn't happen, but it could have happened. Those committed to the scholar-athlete narrative dismissed the abusive and exploitive behavior that did occur that night as youthful folly.

Reasonable people can disagree, of course, but what we see again and again – whether the topic of the moment is black males dying at the hands of white cops or Brian Williams burnishing his battlefield cred -- is unreasonable people looking at the same set of incomplete facts and leaping to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Here, Jerry Sandusky was called out – twice – for sexually molesting young boys. Paterno, focused solely on closing out his illustrious career in a blaze of gridiron glory, looked the other way. No, Paterno, the architect of "success with honor," did all that he was required to do when he reported what he knew to his supervisor.

In the digital age, we deliver our judgments immediately. Commentators feel positively called upon to do so: It's our job.

But we would do well to heed the words of pioneering blogger Andrew Sullivan, who recently announced he was leaving the blogosphere to return to the actual world so that he could "have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged."

What a novel idea. I don't plan to exit the information superhighway anytime soon, but I hope I remember to slow down, think things through, give the benefit of the doubt, wait until I know more.

 

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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