Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Naming Our Silences at Duke

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on April 11, 2006.)

When an event or issue breaks in the national media, you have to ask yourself if it’s new or if it’s the culmination of something older. If it’s new, then the media coverage is well timed and deserving. If it’s old, then the media coverage is long overdue and there’s a sense of media trying to make up for lost time. When we read about Duke lacrosse and see television’s coverage of the alleged rape by the players, apparently refuted by the newly-released DNA evidence, we have to ask ourselves: is this new? Or did the camel’s back finally break?

What that camel is depends on your perspective and what you’re reading or watching. Is the camel relations between predominantly white colleges and predominantly African American towns? Gender issues? Socio-economic issues of unchallenged privilege? Each one has various champions in the media.

The Washington Post has chartered a course down the middle, alluding to each potential camel, but for the most part points to Duke’s ongoing struggle to exist in Durham, NC as the largest issue of contention. While the university has gone to great lengths to improve “town gown” relations, major disagreements and resentment continues. University expansion, cost of tuition, and socio-economic differences that result in many students “living in a cocoon” perpetuate the problems. Perhaps when the school’s tuition is $3,000 more than Durham’s mean household income it is almost impossible for relations not to be strained.

Jason Whitlock, in contrast, put the onus squarely on gender issues. He even went to great lengths to dismiss the idea that race is the issue, attempting to put to rest the notion that “Somebody would have been arrested” if the races of the alleged victim and rapists had been reversed. “Men behaving badly in groups… cuts across all social, economic and racial demographics.” He’d like to see Duke and other universities combat these attitudes by incorporating anti-sexual harassment and sexual discrimination into its core curriculum.

Greg Garber focuses on socio-economic issues, but does so through other issues like race and town gown concerns. He compares impressions of the lacrosse players to Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe’s novel about unchecked privilege on college campuses. Wolfe writes that this privilege “was a Master Card that gave you carte blanche to assert yourself.” God knows that ESPN and Sportscenter have played this card as well, but through mostly the prism of race.

So amidst articles and stories that discuss broad societal problems playing themselves out at Duke, the smaller, more intimate stories are not being covered. Although that’s probably because the people involved – the students, players and the woman accusing them – don’t want to speak to the media. Sadly, that means that topics like Duke’s Final Four run not getting as much attention as it should and Duke’s reputation getting hurt receive column inches and air time. Given what’s at stake in this case – the players’ future, potential justice for one young woman – discussions of whether a very rich school continues to get rich are embarrassing.

Sites that cater to lacrosse experts and fans are treating the Duke story like any other. Laxpower has kept track of the university’s statements and news developments in a simple and direct webpage. E-lacrosse goes a step further and has a page dedicated to cataloging media coverage, including the nightly news in Durham. [Editor’s note: The John Weaver who owns E-lacrosse and the John Weaver who wrote this article are two different people.] Because of their directness, the coverage these sites provide is surprisingly effective, particularly compared to the sensationalist coverage of national sports media.

Given the amount of attention this story is receiving, it’s surprising the things that aren’t being said. No one is asking about Duke’s lacrosse recruiting class, which now former coach Mike Pressler announced two months ago, and which is still posted on Laxpower. What are those kids going to do? And what about the kids that are currently in the program? Now that the DNA evidence has come out and appears to support the lacrosse players, what do they do now? And what about the poor woman who’s accusing them? What about her kids? These are topics that have barely been broached, or not at all, and need to be discussed. They’re at the heart of the matter here. Perhaps people in the news are respecting the wishes of the students involved, but I doubt it.

E-lacrosse had a link to an editorial from the News & Observer, a paper covering Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham. It recounted what ministers at Duke’s chapel had to say recently in their sermons about what's happened on campus; it’s frequently forgotten that Duke was originally founded by Methodists and Quakers in the 1830s and 40s, and that influence still sits with the school. In a recent sermon, Dr. Samuel Wells, the dean of the chapel, called the recent past a time for “naming our silences.” When an event like this occurs and incites such anger on both sides, there are a lot silences to be named. This didn’t happen in a vacuum; this was not a new problem. This was the culmination of years of silent resentment and the camel’s back is finally broken.

It should be media’s job to help us name those silences so that we can identify them in our own communities and lives. This is no less true of sports media than any other. Sometimes that means media has to play catch up, showing all the leads and information that was available and could have pointed to this problem. But then media has to start reporting on how things can and should change.

By and large, this is exactly what happened with steroids in baseball. There was an identifiable problem that was missed en masse by national sports media, but when the story eventually broke sports media did its own version of soul searching and connected the pieces it should have over the years. Better later than never. Now, sports media has turned to talk of stiffer testing and legitimacy of steroid induced records for future generations.

I don’t get the impression that the same analysis is happening in this case. Sports media is focusing its attention on Duke, the lacrosse players, and how this situation represents something larger in America that is problematic. Race based town gown issues, gender issues and socio-economic issues similar to those in Durham are in many towns and schools in America. Through Duke, sports media is looking at these.

But that’s all that it’s doing. At this point sports media is essentially saying “This happened at Duke, here’s how. These issues are in other places too.” What does that mean? Where’s the conversation about how this can be prevented? Jason Whitlock started it by arguing for stronger anti-sexual harassment education in colleges, but that’s a lackluster response. Where are the broad ranging discussions about an educational system with such disparities between the people who have the keys to the ivory tower and those who do not? Where’s the talk about doing something for the kids living in Durham who might want to go to that school even though tuition is $3,000 more than their families make in a year?

Every great discussion needs a discussion leader. In these situations, for these types of cases, we look to media to name our silences and lead our discussions. But listing the problems as they exist now is only half of naming silences; the other half is how we fix them in the future. Otherwise those silences remain silent.

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