A team of their own

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BALTIMORE – Bob Knight, full-time coach, part-time philosopher, once surmised that the pure beauty of collegiate competition, as opposed to the pro ranks, is that the focus is on the name on the front of your jersey, not the back.

But as Duke's last-second shot slipped just wide of the net Monday, giving Johns Hopkins a 12-11 victory and the men's lacrosse national championship, the Blue Devils' Matt Danowski sprawled face first on the turf here and cried for the exact opposite reason.

The resurrection of Duke lacrosse following 15 months of accusations and allegations, sins and sensationalism, indictments and ethics charges, a canceled season and finally a run to the final, furious seconds of the title game, never was about a school some players may attend but don't trust.

This always was about the 41 names on the backs of their 41 jerseys.

This was a team, in many ways, without a school because it was a school, in many ways, that didn't want a team. Some faculty members still don't want it, no matter the dropped charges, the exposed lies and the track record of model behavior since.

"We weren't winning for Duke itself. We weren't winning for the faculty. We weren't winning for the students," Danowski said. "We were winning for ourselves. It sounds cliché, but at one point all we had was 41 guys and our family. We didn't have student support. We didn't have faculty support. It was really just about us."

The Duke case has been a polarizing, touchstone event that captured the nation's attention first for what the charges seemed to say about campus life, privilege, sex and race. Later it did the same for the incredible misconduct by a rogue prosecutor and the realization that just about everything so many bought into wasn't true.

Guilty became innocent. Innocent became guilty. And caught in the middle were not just the three indicted players but also a group who watched its night of unquestionably poor choices snowball into a feeding frenzy of modern media and academic opportunism.

And some of the worst offenders were their own faculty and the administrators who caved to the tidal wave of groupthink that, to this day, continues to unapologetically condemn them all.

Their coach was fired. Their season was canceled. There were campus protests, wild media accounts and groups marching outside their homes, banging pots and pans and holding signs urging "Castration." Signs declared "Real Men Tell the Truth," which, it turns out, was what they were doing. "Wanted" posters with their mug shots were hung claiming rape.

While much of the condemnation in this case justifiably has focused on defrocked district attorney Mike Nifong, the Durham Police Department and a reckless media, some of the most heated rhetoric did not come from civic authorities or far-off columnists.

It came from Duke's very own opportunistic professors, the ones right in front of them, which wasn't just more personal but much worse.

"It was an opportunity for people to move their agendas along," said John Danowski, Matt's father and Duke's new coach. "That's the world. The world is about politics. It's not about right and wrong or truth."

Even as evidence mounted that this was just a giant lie, some faculty members continued to ignore the truth in lecture halls and media interviews in favor of misplaced advocacy and fame.

There were professors who organized huge protests. There was one who made it part of class time to have students attend an anti-lacrosse rally. Another made a now discredited Rolling Stone story on the case required reading. Another claimed publicly that "regardless of the 'truth' " the lacrosse players were "almost perfect offenders."

Still another determined that a judgment on the case "cannot be left to the courtroom" because "justice inevitably has an attendant social construction."

In articles, letters and mass emails, faculty compared the team to a lynch mob, slave owners, racists, rapists, liars, practitioners of genocide and so much more. One-sided accounts of the case made their way onto class syllabi.

Then there was the "Group of 88," a collection of faculty who wrote a scathing letter designed, as one professor put it, "to drive a stake through the collective heart of the lacrosse team." To this day there has been no retraction, just a "clarification" which clarified little, although the group now is only 87 strong.

All the while, the school's administration sat mostly quiet as campus descended into chaos and the players felt sold out and betrayed by academia who are supposed to be about finding the truth, not leaping to conclusions for political gain.

"(The players) had nothing to turn to," Coach Danowski said. "They had to go run and hide on the weekends. There were wanted posters on these kids; everyone was telling them what bad people they were. Who do you turn to but each other? And that's where this started."

Players had to walk into class with professors who had blasted them. They had to sit next to students who had protested them. When the women's lacrosse team tried to defend them by wearing sympathetic wristbands, they were condemned on a campus where dissenting opinion seemingly no longer was tolerated.

If Duke, too, was a victim of Nifong's nonsense, it did little to acquit itself in how it handled the scandal. It did little to protect its own students.

Even today, things have improved only marginally.

In a speech just last month, one professor declared with no proof that nonspecific members of the team were "perjurers." He then surmised that "at the heart of the lacrosse team's behavior is the racist history of the South."

"It's very, very disappointing, and it is an embarrassment to anyone associated with education," said K.C. Johnson, professor at Brooklyn College and the author of the "Durham In Wonderland" blog, a comprehensive and influential account of the case. His book "Until Proven Innocent" will be out in September.

"The faculty response was generally either silence or a very vocal condemnation with unsubstantiated allegations, a rush to judgment and the presumption of guilt," Johnson said. "I've never seen anything like it in higher education."

While the legal innocence of these players is unquestioned, that does not mean they were entirely innocent – it isn't like these accusations stemmed from a group Bible study. The team had a history of drinking too much too often, and on the night in question players put themselves in a bad situation.

Still, many on the team committed no crime whatsoever. Others did little more than drink under age – which isn't a rarity on campus.

At least two players made indefensible racist and violent comments, but even the circumstances of those events have been questioned and, like everything in this case, may not be as they first appeared. You can lose yourself in Johnson's blog to read the entire back and forth.

Even so, the vitriol was over the top, completely out of scale with what turned out to be the truth.

Which is why, at one point, just about every player understandably thought of leaving, taking a scholarship to play at some other elite institution.

Then late last spring, in the heat of it all, they gathered. This wasn't going to be about Duke. It was going to be about one another. The juniors (who would be seniors) said they would stay if the freshmen and sophomores wanted. They said that anyone could walk, without apology, but if everyone wanted to stick together, they would also.

No one left. A new coach was hired. The team completed nearly 600 hours of voluntary community service. A focus of showing the world and their own school became the goal. And, maybe most importantly, old habits were broken. In the 15 months since the first flare-up, there hasn't been a single off-field incident.

"They've been just about perfect," Coach Danowski said. "(In the) classroom, outside of the classroom; you don't hear a peep about these kids. Everyone wants to bring up the (past) warrants or something. Where are they now? Nothing's happened. Is anybody writing that now?"

As for the faculty that still attacks: "They don't know these kids," he said. "They've never taken time to meet any one of these kids and know who they are or what they are about."

But those people still are at Duke and many, due to tenure, always will be. There have been few apologies, fewer retractions. Not from fellow students, not from professors, not from administrators.

Not that the players want anyone's sympathy. They want nothing to do with being a victim. It was reporters, not them, who wanted to bring up this stuff. Even then, some were reluctant to answer.

Mostly they just wanted to be a team, even if some players no longer trusted, loved or had pride in the school on the front of their jerseys.

So here on a warm day in Maryland, in front of a record crowd of 48,443 and a national television audience, they were just that – a team trying to be the best team in all the land.

Despite a furious (what else?) comeback, it didn't happen. A group of men who attend the same school lost a lacrosse game here Monday.

That school had lost a lot more than that a long time ago.