“Fantastic Lies” and the lessons of the Duke lacrosse case

Don’t stereotype. Don’t rush to judgment.

Those are the lessons of the Duke lacrosse case from 10 years ago. Three men suffered the horror of being flung into the spotlight as wrongly accused rape defendants, and the collateral damage went far and wide. “The momentum of a country hungry for justice overtook any serious investigation of the alleged crime,” writes Christina Cauterucci in Slate.

So when I heard ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series was releasing a documentary on the case called Fantastic Lies, I had a bit of trepidation. I had hoped the last word had come three years ago. Too many people had already made political points or a few bucks while unfairly trashing my alma mater’s reputation one way or the other — either as a bastion of white privilege or a school so eager for political correctness that it cares little about the truth.

This is Duke. The Chapel, to be precise. (Now under renovation.)
This is Duke. The Chapel, to be precise. (Now under renovation.) From Wikipedia Commons

There’s a grain of truth in each of those perceptions. But neither defines Duke. It’s much more diverse than outsiders realize. It has thriving religious communities — mainline Protestant (more or less Duke Chapel’s focus), Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Islamic — alongside people who couldn’t care less. Hippies and preppies share the quads. A lot of kids are rich, but a lot of kids are on financial aid.

(One quick aside that bugged the crap out of me in grad school: I was in the master’s of liberal studies program, and one of my classes met for its final session at the professor’s home. She said she enjoyed teaching our classes because they were so much more diverse than Duke undergrads. I recalled that in another liberal studies class, two-thirds of the people in the room said they were listening to NPR at a specific time on Sunday afternoon. We may have been different ages, ranging from early 20s to mid-60s, but that ain’t diverse.)

We were MUCH hipper than the lacrosse team in the late 80s.
We were MUCH hipper than the lacrosse team in the late 80s.

So I was a little frustrated when the documentary opened by repeating the old depiction of the lacrosse team as the “cool kids” on campus. To whom? Duke has no defined “in crowd.” Given the backlash against the team, it was pretty clear that a lot of people at Duke found the lacrosse players’ behavior not cool, even before the rape accusation. (I did, however, enjoy the comments from Jim Cooney, a Duke grad who represented one of the players and laughed at the scarcity of Southern accents on campus. He also recalled a judge who said he had spent his whole life in North Carolina … except for the four years he spent at Duke.)

But Fantastic Lies improved from there. Even without the cooperation of Duke administrators or most of the team, it presents a compelling restatement of the case. And unlike most of the media that sprawled up around this case, it’s not out to judge. Even Crystal Mangum, the accuser who is now in prison for murder, gets a bit of sympathy from lacrosse player Tony McDevitt, who sees her as a mentally unstable woman being used as a pawn.

So instead of reopening a lot of old wounds, Fantastic Lies succeeds as a sobering but fascinating take that may actually build some bridges and help us better understand how to avoid going through something like this again.

Extremists on each side won’t be happy. I’ve skirmished a bit with people who won’t rest until Duke runs a lot of administrators and faculty out of town on a rail. And you may still find a few people out there who insist, against all evidence to the contrary, that someone on the lacrosse team must be guilty of rape. (Or something. See William D. Cohan below.)

But for the rest of us, Fantastic Lies has a lot to offer:

A legal tour de force. One lawyer, Bradley Bannon, says at the outset that all lawyers know most people accused of crimes are guilty, and he had “no problem” believing a bunch of rich white kids would do such a thing to an African-American woman. He turns out to be the hero in the best part of the film, in which three lawyers who represented different defendants go through the case point-by-point. Prosecutor Mike Nifong tried to catch the defense off guard by bringing his DNA expert to a preliminary hearing and inviting them to cross-examine him, and a nervous Bannon stepped up and called on the countless hours he spent teaching himself about DNA and reading the expert’s 2,500-page report.

It’s like a case on Elementary, though Sherlock and Watson usually have to deal with more competent criminals.

– Journalists’ self-examination. Dan Okrent, then the NYT’s public editor, calls the media’s breathless takes on the case “a journalistic tragedy.” Former News and Observer columnist Ruth Sheehan reads an excerpt of her column calling on someone from the team to step forward to say what happened, then another excerpt of her subsequent apology.

Some people might never accept such apologies — Sheehan is still being pilloried by the remnants of the online mob, even as other central figures recognize her eventual contributions:

(Neff is the News and Observer reporter who did a terrific job seeing the case through. Johnson’s role is more complicated. He’s a history professor elsewhere who found the case curious and wound up blogging constantly about it, helping to shed light on some of the issues but also playing a little too readily into the hands of right-wing extremists with an ax to grind against “political correctness.” He is, though, quick to credit people who did the right thing, including Sheehan.)

– The face of pure evil. That would be Mike Nifong, the district attorney running to keep his job (he had been appointed to the post but had to run for election that year) who literally would not listen to exculpatory evidence.

We get some insight into Crystal Mangum, the accuser. Her former minister, Delois Burnette, tells us with a sad tone of resignation that Mangum was a bright girl who had her priorities in the wrong place, and she returns later to say she wasn’t stable. Faculty member James Coleman echoes McDevitt, saying Nifong put a mentally unstable person in this position.

We get no such insight into Nifong. That’s not a complaint about the film. I’m not sure there’s any explanation for what he did. He had motive — prosecuting those easy scapegoats would play well in Durham’s African-American community at the time — but it’s astounding to think he could get away with ignoring the evidence that clearly cleared the suspects.

Reade Seligmann’s mother has a telling quote. As the film recaps the lawyers’ demolition of Nifong’s DNA guy, she says, “I felt like my head had exploded. They had to work to get to the place where these kids are right now.”

That hearing must have been equal parts reassuring and frightening. Reassuring in the sense that they knew the momentum of the case had swung. Frightening in the realization that someone had actually conspired to make them seem guilty. By this point, it wasn’t an accident.


Johnson is clearly happy with the film, though I’m sure some of his followers wanted more emphasis on those bad old Duke administrators who should’ve somehow silenced the howling mobs of activists and made things much easier for a team of rape suspects.

The credits listed three consultants: Johnson, Neff and one “John Ryan McFadyen.” Barring extraordinary coincidence, that would be the player then known as Ryan McFadyen whose email, citing the disgusting book American Psycho, caused him to be suspended. He actually returned to Duke, not just to finish his undergraduate degree and play lacrosse, but to get a master’s in liberal studies (like me). But today, he calls himself John McFadyen to avoid Google searches that turn up that email, and he blames himself for coach Mike Pressler’s resignation.

Also listed separately as a “consulting producer” is William D. Cohan, who has written a book on the case and wrote the follow-up on McFadyen’s life two years ago. But Cohan is most unhappy with the film, writing that the filmmakers started out basing things on his book and then went in a totally different direction:

Fantastic Lies presents the narrative that the parents of the indicted players and their defense attorneys have been busily trying to preserve in amber for years: that the players were falsely accused, and that the Durham police, aided and abetted by Nifong, the rape nurse, and the media created an epic conflagration. Instead of grappling with why there never was a trial and how the North Carolina State Bar was used to subvert justice, the film once again spews the defense version that justice was served, even though it was not, and that no amount of money, not even $20 million, could ever compensate the three players for what Mangum and Nifong did to them.

Cohan thinks some questions are still unresolved. That strikes me as odd. Some of the behavior is certainly questionable — the same neighbor whose recall of events contributed to the players’ alibi also says he heard a racial slur — but it’s still virtually impossible that Mangum was assaulted by anyone at the party. On Twitter, he’s continuing to defend his position — though he doesn’t seem to be responding to Johnson’s flame-throwing tweets — while also cheering on Duke in the NCAA basketball tournament. He’s a Duke alumnus.

So Johnson and Cohan may be arguing until the end of time. And we’ll always have plenty of people who hate Duke — some anti-PC crusaders, some who have never forgiven Christian Laettner.

Aside from that, I think this film is a rite of healing.


Even for people who did little to nothing wrong, this case has lessons to teach:

– Duke administration: One thing I loved about the film is that it shows, in stark terms, how much pressure they were under. There’s a scene of then-provost Peter Lange trying to pacify a mob of people yelling at him to … I don’t know, hand them the players’ heads? When the case turned, with full benefit of unsympathetic hindsight, Johnson and his followers have castigated Duke’s administration for failing to silence faculty members with bad things to say about the lacrosse team. Some people think the season shouldn’t have been suspended, which is ludicrous. It’s all unfair.

That said, would the administration today have plenty of little things it could’ve done differently? Sure.

And now, I’ve come to think Mike Pressler should’ve kept his job. I’ve become less enamored of the idea that coaches are responsible for players’ behavior. If I’d hired a stripper when I was at Duke or sent a frightening email, would they have fired the Wind Symphony conductor?

The definitive word on Pressler, from a report cited twice below: “Although some administrators claim that they communicated their concerns to Coach Pressler, there is no evidence that they adequately did so.”

– Duke faculty. At a reunion, I spoke with a friend of mine who was in the “Group of 88” — the signatories of a Chronicle ad saying “We’re listening” to people with complaints of racism and sexism. She’s a good, sincere person, and I’ve hated seeing her and some of my former teachers dehumanized by Johnson’s followers. But the tone and timing were perfect examples of ivory-tower thinking. I recall seeing a complaint that these are professors who are experts at using their words. I’d respond that academics have long forgotten how to write to anyone but each other.

I understand what the faculty — at least, the well-intentioned ones like my friend — were trying to say, as they explain to some extent in a follow-up. They didn’t say it well.

Frankly, neither did the professors who responded to the Group of 88. “Tarred and feathered”? Really? (That author, Stephen Baldwin, later apologized.)

They’re not the evil demons you’ll see portrayed on Johnson’s blog. Their timing and phrasing, though, was off.

We must protest this house. From Wikipedia Commons.

– Activists. The film digs up a lot of startling footage from the time. We see the “potbangers” — people who showed up outside the off-campus house where the fateful party happened to bang on pots and pans. They even held up a sign that read “CASTRATE.” In retrospect, that’s not a good look. (Actually, I’m not sure that’s ever a good look, even if you’re addressing a legitimately convicted rapist.)

Coleman: “People treated it like a Christmas tree, and they put their lights on it, and their ornaments. But this is the wrong case for that.”

– Duke and Durham. Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who has presided over the city’s transformation from an old tobacco town to a thriving tech capital, sounded an optimistic tone about town-and-gown relations. As the Cuban Missile Crisis encouraged the USA and USSR to establish better communication, this crisis helped Duke and Durham become better neighbors.

Lacrosse team. Maybe dial back the partying. Don’t hire strippers. If you’re living off campus, be better neighbors.

A conclusion from a sprawling Duke report: “1. The members of the Duke Lacrosse team have been academically and athletically responsible students. In general, faculty who have had lacrosse players in their classes have not experienced disciplinary problems with the players. Over the last five years, however, many lacrosse players increasingly have been socially irresponsible consumers of alcohol. Their extensive record of repetitive misconduct should have alarmed administrators responsible for student discipline.”

Duke students living off campus: From the same report: “Captain Sarvis said the types of student behavior about which residents of District 2 complained included late-night noise and loud parties, excessive drinking, littering, public urination, and some damage to cars parked in the neighborhoods. None of the complaints related to physical assaults of any type. …

“Captain Sarvis said lacrosse players did not represent a special or unique problem in District 2; in fact, none of the houses rented by lacrosse players was among the worst of those whose loud parties attracted hundreds of disorderly Duke students on weekends. Although lacrosse players rented a large house at 1206 W. Markham, Captain Sarvis said it was not among the top 10 houses about which neighbors complained the most. 22 Nor did lacrosse players as a group stand out as the worst student offenders. Captain Sarvis said the fraternity-affiliated houses presented a greater challenge to police than any of the houses rented by athletes. 23 The committee senses that since the March 13th incident, some Trinity Park/Trinity Heights residents’ legitimate frustrations with Duke students have been inappropriately attributed to lacrosse players.”

Come on, kids. Clean it up.

– Journalists and pundits. Don’t be so wedded to “the narrative.” An AV Club review puts it well:

For the most part though, Zenovich gets what’s so queasily compelling about this story. The activists and commentators who used this case to address larger issues weren’t wrong, exactly. If the Duke lacrosse players had been guilty, then the university’s athletic department would’ve had a lot to answer for, from creating an environment where their students felt this kind of party was okay, to presuming that merely forfeiting games in response to the controversy constituted “a severe penalty.” But in retrospect, the media’s demands that the players admit to something that didn’t happen—as well as the general lack of concern in some quarters over the many, many provable facts that didn’t fit into the larger narrative—should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who rushes to hammer alleged malefactors with hashtags, before anyone really knows what they actually did.

Seligmann’s father says there are no more Murrows and Cronkites in today’s media. I can picture Neff, along with the great staff of The Chronicle, saying, “Hey, wait!”

The falsely accused. In a clip after their exoneration, Reade Seligmann said it was eye-opening to see how a rogue prosecutor and police can run roughshod over people. He realized some people didn’t have the resources to hire sharp lawyers who could expose the truth. He and his co-defendants have worked with The Innocence Project to help others who have been falsely accused. Check out Seligmann’s testimony on the project.

At the same time, McDevitt expresses sympathy for rape victims whose burden of proof only got more difficult in the wake of this case.

And there’s a postscript that the film curiously omitted — perhaps my biggest complaint with the film, and something I now see in a totally different light …

Most of the lacrosse team came back to Duke. Star player Matt Danowski’s father, John Danowski, took over as coach. And they did very well. They won the next three ACC championships. In 2007, they made it the national final, losing by one goal to Johns Hopkins — just as they had in 2005, the year before the party. In 2008, they lost to Hopkins again, this time in the semifinals. They made the semifinals again in 2009 and lost to Syracuse.

Finally, in 2010, Duke beat Notre Dame in overtime to win the national championship. Because players who lost the canceled 2006 season were granted an extra year of eligibility (McDevitt used his to pursue an MBA, even as he and other players sued the school), the Blue Devils still included seven players who were on the lacrosse team when all this happened.

They’ve since done it twice more, winning back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014.

At the time, it’s safe to say I wasn’t rooting for the team. Johnson’s followers and the lawsuit left a bitter taste for me.

After seeing this film, I’m proud of them. I’m proud to call them fellow Duke grads, and I wish them well.

Time to learn. Time to move on. Time to heal.

Published by

Beau Dure

The guy who wrote a bunch of soccer books and now runs a Gen X-themed podcast while substitute teaching and continuing to write freelance stuff.

One thought on ““Fantastic Lies” and the lessons of the Duke lacrosse case”

  1. Because of draconian political correctness, and how Blacks are subjected to intentional institutional racism, thanks to the Imam in the half White House Mosque, and fascism by the left, and with help from the communist media, Whites are guilty until proven innocent

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