[UPDATE -- Wednesday, April 12 -- Slate published an article on Friday (thanks to mld for the link), the same day I wrote this, by a guy who went to high school with a couple of the guys on Duke's team. One point he made about lacrosse that I overlooked was its "marriage of athletic aggression and upper-crust entitlement." The Times also published an Op-Ed on the subject on Sunday.
Slate's writer makes a good point, though I want to issue a few caveats. At my private high school, there was not a meathead lacrosse culture. Maybe we were a bunch of pussies, and that's why we lost in the first round of the state playoffs my senior year, in a game we should have won, goddammit.
At college, though, it's a different story. The alpha-male steakhead cream rises to the top. Still, another caveat. Not everyone on Duke's team when I was there was a meathead. But what's important is that the meathead culture prevails. They're the ones who, it seems, set the tone.
One last caveat. I wrote this post with a certain presumption of guilt, which was a mistake, the more I learn about the case. If this rape did occur, it was heinous and disgusting. But at this point I'm keeping an open mind.]
Most of you have heard that the Duke University lacrosse team's season has been cancelled and its coach has resigned due to a criminal investigation into an off-campus team party at which a stripper was allegedly raped by three players in a bathroom. Even worse, there was a racial element to the alleged act, with witnesses saying they heard players shout epithets at the woman as she left the party. And then there's the email sent by a player after the party in which he said he'd like to get a few strippers over to his dorm room so he could kill and skin them. (Good times.)
Some of you know that I was briefly a member of the Duke lacrosse team, back when I was a sophomore. One of you (Notorious) emailed me to ask why I hadn't posted anything on the subject.
Without further ado.
I walked on to Duke's lacrosse team my sophomore year, made the initial cut and stuck around for all of "fall ball" (the series of fall practices that run from late August through October) before I was cut. So I know the coach, Mike Pressler, a little bit, and I have a rough sense of what the culture of the team was like at the time.
The background of my "fall ball" experience: I got into pretty good shape that August, running stadium steps etc. I was a midfielder, which is the position that has to run the most. I've since packed on a few pounds, but at the time I wasn't much heavier than I was in high school, bearing about 180 pounds on my 6'2" frame.
Even though I had committed myself to a last athletic hurrah in my attempt to make the team, in retrospect my heart was never in it. I did my fair share of partying in college, and the fall of my sophomore year represented the nadir of my university career, personally and academically. So even though I was in pretty good shape, I didn't really curtail the revelry at all, which affected me in practice. Probably more significant is that I never really meshed with anyone on the team. I didn't feel part of the group. And to explain one of the reasons for this, it's time to move this discussion to ...
... the weight room, which was like wandering into a gorilla exhibit at the zoo. Lots and lots of testosterone. Some people who could pump some pretty serious iron. Then there was me. At the NFL scouting combine, players are asked to lift 225 pounds as many times as possible. That's two 45-pound plates on each side, plus the weight of the 45-pound bar. I could barely break 100 pounds at the time. To bang out 10 reps, I had to go with 25 pounds a side, which equals a whopping 95 pounds. Most players on the team would lift at least 135. The strongest would set the weight somewhere in the 200s.
So there I was, a skinny, sensitive kid in the midst of, let's face it, a bunch of meatheads. Not everyone on the team was a meathead, but the steak quotient on that team was pretty high. One guy, a mediocre but incredibly large midfielder who I found pretty much impossible to defend in drills, had the sloping forehead and pronounced eyebrow ridge of a prehistoric man.
All that said, there's no way that I think or thought that anyone on that team would be capable of what members of the current incarnation of the team are accused of. I think clearly some bad and brutish apples found their way onto the present team. But I can envision how the environment I saw back during my brief stay with the team could allow ignorant and callous people to flourish.
Coach Mike Pressler (the one who just resigned) was kind of a prick. But that can be said of dozens of successful collegiate and professional coaches in a variety of sports. And he wasn't all bad. We had a couple humorous moments together, particularly this one day when I blew his mind following a Saturday morning practice when, as the team filed over to the weight room (weekend practices sucked; it was either lift and then practice or practice and then lift), I informed him that I hadn't had time to eat before practice (the bigger, unspoken problem was that I was cruelly hungover) and would he mind if I grabbed some lunch and then headed over to the weight room later to work out on my own? (My request was denied, and he later told me something along the lines of, "Aaron, I've heard some strange things in my day, but that was the strangest question that anyone has ever asked me.")
The question for me, in trying to envision the team atmosphere in which an incident like this could take place, is twofold. 1) Is the Duke lacrosse team's locker room more or less steakish than those of other top-flight Division-1 lacrosse teams? 2) How do lacrosse teams compare to say, football teams, when it comes to the prevalence of brutish, stupid men?
Not having been in any other D-1 program's locker room, I have no way to answer those questions. But I do have some thoughts on the particular breed of meathead that inhabits a top-flight lacrosse locker room. Firstly, however, let me say that there are plenty of good lacrosse players who are not meatheads at all buy laid-back, moderately intelligent people. If that weren't the case, I would never have become engrossed with the sport and the culture that surrounds it.
It may be that the real lacrosse powerhouses (like Syracuse and Princeton) are populated with fewer out-and-out Neanderthals than Duke's team (though in the case of Syracuse, no offense, I doubt it) and that Pressler's recruiting of unsophisticated thugs actually helps explain the team's lack of ultimate success (despite being ranked in the top-10 year after year, last year was the first time Duke made it to the NCAA championship game during Pressler's 16 years as head coach). Maybe he recruited the wrong type of player.
This is all rank speculation. That being said, let's continue to engage in it. One thing about lacrosse is that it is a white person's sport. Blacks are starting to play it more and more, but it remains a sport that is played by affluent, suburban white kids. (And woe betide white people when blacks really begin to pick up the sticks in earnest; one game I like to play is putting together a fantasy roster of top black athletes and guessing how many weeks of practice they would need before they could beat the U.S. national team -- excluding retired athletes like, say, Barry or Deion Sanders, my midfielders might be Reggie Bush, LaDanian Tomlinson and Ed Reed; my attackmen might be Allen Iverson, Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O'Neal (crease attack); my defenders might be Ray Lewis, Jeremiah Trotter and LaVar Arrington; my goalie might be Tiger Woods -- I'd say two weeks would be sufficient.)
Duke has one black player among the 47 players on its roster. He wasn't required to give a mouth swab for DNA. (Awkward.) Most football teams are filled with black athletes.
So there are a couple differences probably between lacrosse and football rosters. One, the mix of blacks and whites doesn't allow for a racist current to flow through a team unchecked. Two, there are hard-to-define but recognizable differences between high-level white athletes and high-level black athletes.
To illustrate my point, imagine former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski as an archetype of a certain kind of white athlete and former NFL wide receiver Michael Irvin as someone who is representative of a certain type of high-level black athlete. My point is, in watching the best black athletes in social situations and around their teammates, you often see a kind of looseness and easyness. But in a lot of white football players, there is a sort of steroidal, barely controlled rage that seems to animate them. (Plenty of black athletes do bad things, and plenty of them act aggresively, but what you don't see in their interactions with one another and with the media is the tightly-wound, bug-eyed rage of the Romo personality.)
This is all highly generalized, but the point is that, when I say the word "steakhead," I envision a white athlete. I make associations in my head with New Jersey types who like to get in fights on the weekend. Whatever happened on that Duke lacrosse team, I think the meathead culture -- excessive drinking, aggresive and misogynist behavior, a tendency toward violent confrontation -- played a role and somehow it went unchecked. Certain behaviors were allowed and encouraged. Boundaries were crossed. And in that atmophere, the worst aspects of a few young men's natures emerged, allegedly, and went out of control.