What I'm Reading: The Price of Silence, William D. Cohan

Author: Matt Storin ’64

My years in communications at Notre Dame drew me instantly to the latest dissection of the infamous Duke lacrosse scandal, that last word having two inferences — first, the deeds of which three lacrosse players were wrongly accused and, second, the travesty of the justice system that pursued them. A quick reprise: during spring break on the Duke campus in 2006, the lacrosse team unwisely chosen to hire a couple of strippers for a late night party. With an abundance of alcohol on hand, it was perhaps not surprising that crude remarks, some of them bigoted, were made toward the dancers, both of whom were minorities. Ultimately one dancer claimed she was raped by three players in a bathroom of the rental house where the party took place.

William D. Cohan, a Duke alum, reports meticulously and fairly about the whole sorry episode from the night of the party through the tortured prosecution under then District Attorney Mike Nifong and on through the filing of numerous lawsuits amid the damaged reputations of just about everyone involved, including the president of Duke, Richard Brodhead. The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Great Universities, should be required reading for anyone in a college or university administration. In no particular order, Cohan documents the dangers of granting undue privilege to student-athletes, the combustible nature of alcohol and hormones, the ferocious desire to protect a university’s “brand” and, finally, that old reliable, the power of money.

Almost no one in this book gets off free — not the players, despite being declared “innocent” during a North Carolina Bar Association probe of Nifong’s conduct; obviously not Nifong, who was ultimately disbarred; not the Duke administration, faculty or trustees; not Duke’s world-famous basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, who basically disappeared during the crisis; not the lacrosse coach, who was forced to resign; not the Durham Police, who performed incompetently and sometimes unethically; and not the press, many of whom rushed to judgment. One exception would be the Duke student newspaper, The Chronicle, which at least relatively speaking to the rest of the aforementioned reported with care and restraint. And you probably have to give a nod to the defense attorneys. It’s never edifying to see how they make the sausage, but in this case they triumphed.

Cohan is so meticulous that occasionally the narrative drags. He wants to be sure that every important version of what happened in that bathroom is recorded. Unfortunately, the alleged victim had many of those. But the author interviewed so many of the key people, and so well, that it is mostly captivating. Even eight years later, the case has not disappeared from the news. In May the three players settled a lawsuit they had brought against the City of Durham (for a $50,000 contribution to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission).

I have moved on to a far more edifying story, An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by Todd S, Purdum. It includes, thus far, some cameo appearances by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, and his good friend and former Notre Dame professor Harris Wofford.

Matt Storin is a retired journalist and a former director of communications at Notre Dame.