Race, Class, and Sport: Duke Lacrosse 2006

It was like something out of nightmare. One moment three white college students were competing to win an NCAA Division 1 championship, and the next they were accused for the racially-charged gangrape of a black exotic dancer, their faces splattered on the front page of every newspaper, their season suspended, over. This was the reality of the 2006 Duke Men’s Lacrosse team.

Image of a newspapers account of the rape allegations. (npr.org) 

Today, these three students are declared to be innocent with distinction. Evidence proves that. They did not commit the crime. Yes, the accuser, Crystal Mangum, was hired to dance at the party where this allegedly happened, but she was severely intoxicated and asked to leave by the hosts after being paid. But, she claimed rape, igniting a massive media circus that had the perfect bend of racial and class properties. As Dan Orkent, former editor for the New York Times, puts it: “it was white over black. It was male over female. It was rich over poor. It was educated over the uneducated. My god, all the things we know happen in the world coming together in one place. And the journalists start to quiver with the thrill when something like this happens” (ESPN Fantastic Lies Documentary). The case exploded in the media, portraying it as a hate crime and the abuse of privileged white kids over a black woman. The media made the accused students seem absolutely guilty without due process, which ruined their reputations across the country, even leading to the cancelation of the rest of the Duke lacrosse season and the firing of head coach Mike Pressler because of his support of his players.

This incident illuminates greater questions regarding race, class, and sport. What role has popular sport played in the social interactivity of early 21st century United States? This article aims to prove how sport, specifically lacrosse, can serve to heighten class distinctions and differences based upon the culture surrounding that sport.

Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in America. Having been around for over 100 years, it is now just achieving national popularity at the turn of the millennium. However, only today is lacrosse starting to branch out into lower socio-economic markets. Over a decade ago, and still to a lesser extent today, lacrosse was believed to be the “rich-man’s” sport. It traditionally has been dominated by high-class privileged white families from the Northeast. For these reasons, when the Duke lacrosse scandal was made public, it started a class war between privileged whites and lower-class black communities. An initial news story reporting on the case in 2006 states how there were “near daily protest rallies” (npr.org, 2006). Black and lower-class communities were fired up at the thought wealthy white college students could potentially get away with the abuse of a black single mother with children who was scraping by to get money.

Beyond this event, there were already poor perceptions of the lacrosse team. Robert Mosteller explains how “other stories of boorish behavior had been in the local press, generally involving alcohol and rowdy parties,” which led to complaints from community neighbors (Mosteller, p. 1352). This divide extended beyond race as well, with a neighbor where the fabricated assault took place stated, “I’m sort of assuming [the rape] happened… because they’ve been such arrogant kids… if you ask them to be quiet, they shout unpleasant things at you, and I’m white” (Mosteller, p. 1353).  The Duke lacrosse team also had a decent portion of athletes who had priors for drunkenness and rowdy behavior (Mosteller, p. 1354). This shows how even before the incident, there was already a mental distinction between entitlement and the lower-class. The prior information on the lacrosse team accumulating arrests was “characterized by some as a stereotype of out-of-control jocks with a sense of entitlement” (Mosteller, 1354). People saw this lacrosse team as entitled rich kids who believed they could do and get away with anything, including the rape of a black escort.

With these class distinctions already being propagated because of lacrosse culture, the Duke lacrosse case was the perfect incident for these distinctions to explode. The case sent shockwaves around the country, with people perceiving it as white, entitled lacrosse players from upper-classes abusing their privilege on someone from a lower-class black social standing. People feasted on the biased news coverage, which only could have made class differences and conflict between the rich upper-classes and poorer lower-classes stronger, and this was in direct result of lacrosse culture and the Duke Lacrosse case. Ultimately, the analysis of this incident shows how sport can play a large role in driving classes apart from each other.

Works Cited/Further Readings/Viewing

Mosteller, Robert P. “Duke Lacrosse Case, Innocence, and False Identifications: A Fundamental Failure to Do Justice.” Fordham Law Review 76 (2007): 1337-1412.

Fantastic Lies. Documentary. Directed by Marina Zenovich. 2016. ESPN Films.

Primary Sources

“Duke Lacrosse Players Arrested on Rape Charges.” NPR.org, April 18th, 2006. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5348321

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