Duke Professor Karla Holloway – on the aftermath of the lacrosse incident

18 09 2006

S&F Online

The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 4.3
The Cultural Value of Sport: Title IX and Beyond
Summer 2006

Coda: Bodies of Evidence
Karla FC Holloway

When things go wrong, when sports teams beget bawdy behavior and debasement of other human beings, the bodies left on the line often have little in common with those enclosed in the protective veneer of the world of college athletics. At Duke University this past spring, the bodies left to the trauma of a campus brought to its knees by members of Duke University’s Lacrosse team were African American and women. I use the kneeling metaphor with deliberate intent. It was precisely this demeanor towards women and girls that mattered here. The Lacrosse team’s notion of who was in service of whom and the presumption of privilege that their elite sports’ performance had earned seemed their entitlement as well to behaving badly and without concern for consequence.

Justice inevitably has an attendant social construction. And this parallelism means that despite what may be our desire, the seriousness of the matter cannot be finally or fully adjudicated in the courts. The appropriate presumption of innocence that follows the players, however the legal case is determined, is neither the critical social indicator of the event, nor the final measure of its cultural facts. Judgments about the issues of race and gender that the lacrosse team’s sleazy conduct exposed cannot be left to the courtroom. Just as aspects of their conduct that extend into the social realms of character and integrity should not be the parameters of adjudicatory processes, the consequence of that conduct will not be fully resolved within a legal process. Those injured by this affair, including the student and the other young woman who were invited to dance under false pretenses and then racially (at least) abused, as well as Duke’s campus and Durham’s communities, are bodies left on the line – vulnerable to a social review that has been mixed with insensitive ridicule as well as reasoned empathy. Despite the damaging logic that associates the credibility of a socio-cultural context to the outcome of the legal process, we will find that even as the accusations that might be legally processed are confined to a courtroom, the cultural and social issues excavated in this upheaval linger.

Perhaps the most critical, if not the most sustained response of the campus to the rape allegation and the series of incidents of misconduct and the lack of administrative oversight that it has exposed, has focused on the matter of culture. Duke University’s president Richard Brodhead commissioned a series of committees, one of them to review and examine the campus culture. The Campus Culture Initiative has focused on the fault lines – alcohol, gender, race, and athletics – the spaces of university life where problems of community and conduct visibly reside. If athletes with otherwise good grades use alcohol as their reason for laxity, for racial bias and gendered tirade, why is it that public media cultures, and other lay respondents within and outside of campus would elevate good academic performance and subordinate these issues of character? With no blueprint on how to interrogate these broad and deeply entrenched matters of culture, Duke’s commission of this investigatory committee arguably indicates its notice of the inequities and imbalances on the campus – where the “culture” of sports seems for some a reasonable displacement for the cultures of moral conduct, ethical citizenship and personal integrity. But “culture” is also the catch-all for the event, one that contains as much potential to replicate our failures as well as for engaging and sustaining a more progressive and democratic campus community. And it is not the first time Duke has positioned an institutional investigation of a problem of culture.

When, in the last year of President Nannerl Keohane’s presidency, a report on the status of women at Duke discovered evidence of cultural and social practices that disadvantaged women, a commission of women faculty and administrators, a group of women student scholars, and an alumni group of women (legates of the Duke Women’s College) were charged with discovering the “fix” to the problem. This flurry of restructuring and response came after a committee of women faculty, students, and administrators labored to uncover the gendered issues of disparate treatment and its consequences. As if a prelude to the events of spring 2006, the bodies that mattered, those who were the objects of inquiry, were also the bodies whose labor was required to fix the inequity.

At what cost?

How do we measure, value, assess, and document the energy of spirit, body, and intellect expended by those who endure the problems caused by cultures of both masculine and white racial disrespect? In its forms of verbal violence as well as physical, in its presumption that there are some bodies available for taunt and tirade, whim and whisper, the “event” is phased back into the subaltern spaces of university life and culture. Their sporting behaviors, on and off the courts, endure.

At the conclusion of spring semester the lacrosse team, minus three indicted (and one suspended) member, gathered to celebrate their reinstatement on Duke’s campus. Their reinstatement was accompanied by a code of conduct they inexplicably wrote for themselves. At this gathering, their interim coach (who had been, just three years prior, their former team member) vigorously professed his blanket judgment that those who stood indicted for the rape of a student from North Carolina Central University were innocent. As the day drew to a close, every indication was that the remaining team members’ athletic careers would continue nearly uninterrupted except for the scrutiny of the administration and their self-authored code.

The interim coach’s pronouncement was critical in weighing the significance of this event. In nearly every social context that emerged following the team’s crude conduct, innocence and guilt have been assessed through a metric of race and gender. White innocence means black guilt. Men’s innocence means women’s guilt. These capacious categories, which were in absolute play the night of the team’s drunken debacle, continue their hold on the campus and the Durham community.

After their reinstatement, things for the Duke lacrosse players edged as near to normal as the aftermath of the horrific affair could allow. And ironically, for the rest of the campus, everything else was curiously normal as well. Not so strangely – indeed, predictably – those members of a class who have been exposed to abuse or intolerance or inequity (on this campus, as in the nation, women and black folks) are called once again into service to help remedy the campus culture that these boys’ sports culture created and exploited. Our labor on newly invented committee structures and our availability for public and private consultations, conversations, and often intense confrontations persists despite and amidst the growing acclamation of support for the team.

The irony of this displacement is fully inscribed on the weary bodies of black and women faculty and students at Duke whose visible representativeness placed us, eventually, (after a team of white male administrators decided on the parameters of the university’s response) into membership and leadership roles of committees charged to remedy the damaging culture that was now in evidence. This responsibility emerged despite the fact that neither women nor African Americans were the ones who enabled, permitted, arguably encouraged, or facilitated the cultures of disrespect that had been tolerated. Because otherwise and after all, the Lacrosse team members were stellar academic performers as well as athletic players. Their moral misconduct seemed secondary to the fact – even a righteous ‘release’ – for those who otherwise performed so admirably. And even at this moment of transition of the event – to the courts to handle the charges of rape, sodomy, and assault, and to the university to handle the matter of culture – the team’s athletic agenda proceeds apace, and those most wounded by the event, by direct and indirect association, are left to manage the exploitation they have suffered as the consequences of this particular culture of elite sports and the protections of privilege.

The culture of men’s sports in particular, with its elevations and hierarchies, with its often brutal physical contact, and with its body-intense loyalties remains unindicted in this curious yet predictable aftermath of the men’s lacrosse teams’ documented record of demeaning, brutish, rude, and alcohol-ridden conduct. It is behavior that seems so attached to its winning season and its members’ successful academic performance that the very notion of the choices endemic to the culture of team mentalities and conduct – who plays, who does not, who makes the team, who is varsity, who is second string – has meant we have responded to this as just another form of choice. The ethic of sportsmanship means we have been overly tolerant as well of aberrant conduct as just another choice, merely a dimension of the ways and means of sports.

When Catherine Stimpson reminds us that “boosterism can be boisterous . . . victory will bring ecstasy and too frequently a bullying attitude of superiority [and] defeat will bring pain and too frequently a churlish and belligerent anger,” she indicates precisely the demonstrable after-the-game conduct that has been so destructive in this particular occasion. Stimpson notes how “defeat also tests the character of the fan, for the true fan must remain loyal even during the bad times.” She might well be speaking of the women’s LAX team, who went on to their post season play proclaiming to the media that they would write the word “innocent” on their sweatbands, and who finally decided that their fidelity could be expressed by recording on their sweat bands the jersey numbers of the indicted men. They were athletes themselves, as well as “true fans.” In a moment that called on more action than I had will for, I wanted to write to them to ask if they might, instead, consider writing the word “justice” onto their gear, a word whose connotations run deeper than the team-inspired and morally slender protestations of loyalty that brought the ethic from the field of play onto the field of legal and cultural and gendered battle as well.

I write these thoughts, considering what it would mean to resign from the committee charged with managing the post culture of the Lacrosse team’s assault to the character of the university. My decision is fraught with a personal history that has made me understand the deep ambiguity in loving and caring for someone who has committed an egregious wrong. It is complicated with an administrative history that has made me appreciate the frailties of faculty and students and how a university’s conduct toward those who have abused its privileges as well as protected them is burdened with legal residue, as well as personal empathy. My decision has vacillated between the guilt over my worry that if not me, which other body like mine will be pulled into this service? Who do I render vulnerable if I lose my courage to stay this course? On the other side is my increasingly desperate need to run for cover, to vacate the battlefield, and to seek personal shelter. It does feel like a battle. So when asked to provide the labor, once again, for the aftermath of a conduct that visibly associates me, in terms of race and gender, with the imbalance of power, especially without an appreciable notice of this as the contestatory space that women and black folk are asked to inhabit, I find myself preoccupied with a decision on whether or not to demur from this association in an effort, however feeble, to protect the vulnerability that is inherent to this assigned and necessary meditative role.

Until we recognize that sports reinforces exactly those behaviors of entitlement which have been and can be so abusive to women and girls and those “othered” by their sports’ history of membership, the bodies who will bear evidence and consequence of the field’s conduct will remain, after the fact of the matter, laboring to retrieve the lofty goals of education, to elevate the character of the place, to restore a space where they can do the work they came to the university to accomplish. However, as long as the bodies of women and minorities are evidence as well as restitution, the troubled terrain we labor over is as much a battlefield as it is a sports arena. At this moment, I have little appreciable sense of difference between the requisite conduct and consequence of either space.


1. I am grateful to Professors Robyn Wiegman and William Chafe for their generous and careful reading and response to early drafts of this essay, and to Janet Jakobsen for her intuitive and tremendously helpful review.



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