Review: “Last Days of Knight” is flawed but essential

Cross-posting at mostlymodernmedia.com 

ESPN is gambling these days.

The new “30 for 30” documentary, Last Days of Knight, gambles on three levels:

  1. It’s being shown exclusively on ESPN+, the company’s new pay service, a good way to draw attention to it but not the best way to get this film the wide audience that many previous 30 for 30 entries have found.
  2. It tells the story of a journalist, CNN’s Robert Abbott, who pursued the story for months. As an Awful Announcing review says, the film attempts to tell Abbott’s story and Knight’s, and it sometimes falls between the two stools.
  3. A lot of people still maintain loyalty to Bobby Knight after all these years.

Others can debate No. 1. The questions here are No. 2 and No. 3, and the disappointment of Last Days of Knight is that we get too much of No. 2 and not enough exploration of No. 3.

Like all 30 for 30 films, LDON is a slick presentation. And the story is compelling, even with the unusual focus on Abbott. CNN’s reporting became part of the story itself, for better or for worse, and you don’t have to be a journalism junkie to appreciate the insights on how everyone involved interacted with the media — Knight as one of several bullies, players and staffers afraid to speak, administrators being weasels, etc. Abbott’s reflections and the nitty-gritty at CNN, including some clumsy threats by people working on Knight’s behalf, provide a new angle to an old story.

But that story bogs down with an extended, guilt-ridden take on the post-scandal life and death of Neil Reed, the player Knight assaulted in a video that hastened his downfall. It’s a sad and yet sweet story of someone who reclaimed his own life and was clearly loved before his untimely death from a heart attack, but its placement in this film is odd, as if it’s suggesting Reed’s death was somehow collateral damage from Knight’s antics and/or the media coverage. Abbott regrets making Reed uncomfortable in his pursuit of the story, but it seems a bit much for him to interpose himself in the family’s mourning process.

And we’re left wanting something more. Abbott and some of his colleagues are seeing the old story in a new light. Anyone else?

Perhaps it’s me — I wrote about irrational mobs in my review of Jesus Christ Superstar — but I really wanted to see some reflection from the people who defended Knight when he was quite clearly indefensible. Knight, predictably, wasn’t interested in participating. But what about the students? Former players? Now that the heat has died down, what would they do differently?

But even if we don’t see such reflection on camera, we have to hope it’s happening elsewhere. It’s not happening in this dismissive review from The Daily Hoosier.

The value of a story like Knight’s is that it holds up a mirror to us. How much are we willing to excuse if a guy wins some basketball games? Can a man impart military-style discipline and behavioral values if he doesn’t live up to it himself or hold himself accountable?

We see hints of these questions in Last Days of Knight. Just not quite enough.

 

What if … colleges de-emphasized sports?

At the Project Play summit yesterday, we all fretted the state of sports in the USA, as Project Play folks are inclined to do.

The basic problem: “Youth sports” in the USA is less and less about getting out and playing — with all the benefits of being active, being part of a team, etc. — and more and more a means to an end.

Sometimes, the “end” is a pro career or something “shiny,” as Olympic hockey gold medalist Angela Ruggiero put it. She was part of a lively panel that also included NFL punter-turned-entrepreneur Chris Kluwe, who framed the discussion in progressive politics: Maybe if parents felt economically secure and didn’t feel the need to chase scholarships and athletic riches, they’d just let their kids … play.

They’re right, and yet there’s something else at play here. See the picture here?

Whose kids are getting out and playing sports? Right. The rich folks.

“Wait a minute,” you might think. “These are the people who can afford college for their kids, and their kids will generally have a sound financial and educational foundation from which they can pursue a multitude of careers. Why would they be caught up in a chase for scholarships?”

Here’s a twist that has stuck into my head since joining the parenting community (otherwise known as “having kids,” which makes you pay more attention to such things): It’s not necessarily about the scholarship. It’s about getting into one’s chosen college in the first place.

That’s not new. I have a story about puzzling college admissions from my high school, and I’m sure everyone else does, too. But in this technological age, we now get semi-private websites with scattergrams that show us the GPAs and SATs of people who get into School X or School Y. It’s not difficult to spot the athletes.

Division 3 school (no athletic scholarships). Maybe it was a really good essay?

I’ll have to toss in the disclaimer here: I seriously doubt any of my kids will be recruited college athletes. I blame their U-8 soccer coach. Which would be me.

But the point here is this: Sports are seen, with considerable justification, as a way of getting into a good school. Little wonder the Ivy League schools, which don’t offer athletic scholarships, more than hold their own in terms of overall sports performance.

We can argue about whether this emphasis on sports is a good thing for U.S. academic life. The question here: Is it good for sports?

The positives: American colleges promote healthy lifestyles. They build nice facilities for the general student body as well as the student-athletes. It’s the old Greek ideal — classroom in the morning, gymnasium in the afternoon.

The negatives: Youth sports are no longer about the love of the game. They’re about getting ahead and making sure you’re part of the elite. If you’re not, there’s no place for you.

And when you squeeze a sport at the grass roots, it can hurt the elite levels — especially in soccer, where the big problem we all see is a lack of access for lower-income families. No one becomes an elite player if they never have the opportunity to play.

So would we be better off — at the recreational level and the elite level — if youth players could just play without worrying about how their game will affect their chances of getting into Duke, Virginia, Princeton or a good D3 school?

Women’s soccer, pro/rel, UConn hoops and taking things for granted

If there’s war between the sexes, then there’ll be no people left — Joe Jackson. (Tori Amos did a terrific cover version.)

I’ve spent too much time on Twitter this week grabbing the third rail. I’ve been in conversations on promotion/relegation, women’s soccer equity, and UConn women’s basketball.

Let’s dispense with the last one first. The “Connecticut is too dominant” issue has reached The Guardian this week, but it’s being fanned by ESPN. You know — the colossus based in Bristol, Conn., founded by people who wanted to watch Connecticut sports.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to point to ESPN’s institutional roots when I’m bringing my own bias to the conversation. I can often toss aside my Duke background — I was disappointed in the way Grayson Allen and Coach K acted as they departed the NCAA Tournament this year, and I’ve been nice and conflicted over the lacrosse saga. But when it comes to women’s basketball, I covered it in the days of drawing a couple hundred people in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and I watched with admiration as Gail Goestenkors built the program into the dominant force in the ACC. My heart still breaks when I think of Kristi Toliver hitting an impossible 3-pointer over the best shot-blocker in women’s basketball to stop Duke from winning the 2006 national title.

Foster's. Australian for stereotypes.
Foster’s. Australian for stereotypes.

So forgive me if one of my better women’s hoops memories involves Jessica Foley taking sweet revenge on Geno Auriemma. The UConn coach had tried to recruit the Australian player, but she opted for Duke instead. Auriemma made some wisecrack about drinking too much Foster’s. Foley got the last laugh.

Does that mean my Duke bias has colored my impression of Auriemma and UConn? Or is just that I have a better memory of him doing things other than winning scads of basketball games?

In any case, I don’t think of him as a latter-day John Wooden. Or Anson Dorrance, who might be accused of having a bit of an ego or competitive streak himself but is always a fascinating interview and gracious to others.

Mike and Mike can tell me UConn is superior because the women work harder in practice. I can counter with first-hand glimpses from other programs of overtrained athletes tearing their ACLs.

Clearly, Auriemma is doing something right. His players love him, and he certainly doesn’t fail to give back to the community with charity work.

But I won’t be watching the Final Four this year. If Dawn Staley, one of the best athletes I’ve ever covered, was leading her terrific South Carolina team against the Huskies, I’d be more inclined to tune in. As a journalist, I’d like to see a good clash of the titans. As a fan, I’d like to see another Jessica Foley moment.

The other big women’s sports topic of the week is women’s soccer pay. I delved into that on the heels of one of the most aggravating promotion/relegation discussions I’ve had in years.

I only mention that because I’ve stumbled into a connection between the two topics. No, I don’t think women’s soccer fans (most of them, anyway) are as delusional as promotion/relegation advocates (most of them, anyway). WoSo fans generally listen, and they appreciate (and argue about) the complexities of the soccer business.

But what’s easily forgotten in both cases can be summed up in one word …

History.

The most zealous pro/rel advocates cherry-pick from history like a corrupt televangelist cherry-picking the Bible. “Oh, see? We had 35,000 people turn up to watch Liverpool play Real Madrid, so obviously, there has always been a huge fan base for soccer in the USA, and the only obstacle to its growth is MLS and its evil NFL owners.”

Argh.

I’m sure I’m already trusting people’s patience here, so I won’t rehash everything I’ve written about pro/rel. In short, there are legitimate, non-evil reasons why it hasn’t happened in the USA, and while a lot of us (including myself) come up with fun pro/rel schemes, it’s a long way from becoming reality. If you won’t take the word of a journalist who remembers the pre-MLS days and has fought tooth and nail to get mainstream media to take soccer seriously, read Offside: Soccer and American ExceptionalismOr Soccer in a Football World. Or talk to the fine folks who’ve poured their hearts and cash into soccer clubs of all sizes across the country. (Not just one guy in San Diego. Talk to a lot of them, especially those who’ve been in the game for decades.)

The fundamental mistake of pro/rel zealots is that they take pro soccer in the USA for granted. They forget what a long, difficult slog it’s been to get things going. It was a risk when MLS launched in 1996, and it was a risk when MLS nearly folded in 2002. It’s still a risk because you can do whatever you want with a U.S. league, and thanks to NBC and the Internet, you can still watch more Premier League coverage here than you can in England. Or Liga MX. Or whatever you like.

At the nadir of 2001/02, MLS had to do something drastic to save the sport. Out of those meetings came Soccer United Marketing.

Which brings us, at last, to the recent flurry of news about women’s soccer and pay equity.

First, read the NY Daily News piece examining the issue. It’s a long read, but it’s worthwhile.

That said, as long as it is, there are plenty of complexities beyond its scope. And so a casual reader can get some false impressions from it. FIFA corruption has little to do with how much revenue the Women’s World Cup generates. (Endemic sexism in FIFA, sure.) No, Soccer United Marketing is not the reason Chuck Blazer had an expensive apartment for his cats. (Not that the piece says so, but the juxtaposition could give you that impression.)

SUM saved MLS. And it helped build MLS to the point at which it can be a legitimate partner for the NWSL.

A more difficult question: How much money is available for women’s soccer? Or should be? Or how much revenue is generated?

The NYDN points out, quite accurately, that it’s hard to quantify the money streams. Everything is bundled — men’s and women’s World Cups, even U.S. national team and domestic league TV rights. Given that, it’s really difficult to come up with conclusions like “Of the $1 billion FIFA doles out in development money every year, only $13 million is earmarked for women’s football.” How much of that money is gender-neutral — say, programs that help men and women? Probably not enough, but we don’t know.

But what we do know is that outside the USA and maybe Canada, the interest in the Women’s World Cup does not compare to the interest in the men’s version. Use any metric you want. How many countries entered. How many people watched.

I covered nine World Cup games in 11 days in Germany, if I remember that whirlwind correctly. Crowds were pretty good. People were excited. It was not the men’s World Cup.

What a trip.
What a trip.

It’s better than it was. Go back to 1995, when the Women’s World Cup was in Sweden. Nigeria vs. Canada. 3-3 thriller. Attendance: 250.

“While we take women’s soccer seriously, everyone else around the world doesn’t,” Alexi Lalas said on Periscope this morning.

Which does not mean women should not or could not be making more. Lalas also said a lot in support of the WNT’s position, and so will I.

But even within the USA, the outlier in which a Women’s World Cup is the media event of the summer, the biggest difference between men’s and women’s World Cup quests is immense. No one’s happy that the U.S. men lost in Guatemala, and even after avenging that defeat a few days later, people are still questioning Jurgen Klinsmann’s job performance. (My favorite: Slate compares Klinsmann’s delusional state with Monty Python’s Black Knight.)

Yet the qualifying gauntlet is intense … for men. More countries enter, so that means more games over a couple of years just to get to the big show. Mexico is still far ahead of the USA in soccer infrastructure. Other CONCACAF countries used to be. And Alex Morgan doesn’t get urine and batteries thrown at her in Central America.

In fact, the U.S. women rarely get anything other hero worship. If Jessica Fishlock thinks Hope Solo was disrespected, she’ll lecture the media (and, by extension, the fans) about it.

It’s a different game.

USSF numbers aren’t as transparent as they could be. I tried to get through the numbers in the Annual General Meeting report, but it’s difficult to get apples-to-apples comparisons. Some charts line up “total national team revenue” next to “total Women’s World Cup revenue.” Some of it isn’t USSF’s fault — last year, the U.S. women played (and won, for the first time in 16 years) the World Cup. The U.S. men did not have an event anywhere near that scale. In 2018, assuming Klinsmann doesn’t totally botch it, the situation will be reversed.

Then figure that the USSF is directly underwriting salaries and office expenses for the NWSL. You’d need a forensic accountant to figure out whether the USSF has a net gain or net loss from MLS. U.S. Soccer has aggressively stepped in to stop another U.S. league from failing.

And some WoSo fans will argue NWSL salaries and conditions should be a higher priority than national team salaries and amenities. Quite possible.

https://twitter.com/HalesBells99/status/715569517263347713/photo/1

But again — we can’t forget how difficult this has been over time. The pay for a U.S. domestic club player in 2005 was $0. That has risen infinity percent.

All that said, when you read about the action the U.S. women have taken to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it’s hard to say they don’t have a point. (Insert my standard reservation about having Jeffrey Kessler represent soccer players here. Safe to say he didn’t impress when he had Sunil Gulati on the witness stand.)

Would a USA-Mexico men’s friendly in Texas draw NFL-level crowds, dwarfing anything we saw on the women’s Victory Tour? Yes. But the “attendance ticket revenue bonus” should ensure the men get paid. Why is it higher per ticket for the men?

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know. But it’s going to be something more creative than simply saying “equal pay for equal play.” It’s not equal play. In some cases, the WNT should get more than the men. The league needs more underwriting to get on its feet. But if the men crash the World Cup quarterfinals and land a massive windfall of money, they should get a fair share, right?

(Maybe the MNT should have lower per-game pay and bigger bonuses? Give them a little more incentive? That’s another rant — and a difficult case to make when a high-paid coach/technical director isn’t being held accountable.)

Just remember: Creative solutions are not evil. Soccer United Marketing is not evil. MLS is not evil.

And look — you can ask all sorts of equity questions. The U.S. women’s softball team has had fantastic success. Why don’t we support it the way we support soccer? Why are U.S. track and field stars and skiers of each gender more famous in Europe than they are here? How many of us even know who Dawn Harper Nelson is? Or Allison Schmitt? Or Ashton Eaton? Or Jennifer Suhr? Or Betsey Armstrong, a goalkeeper with more world championships than Hope Solo?

All of these issues are complicated. And history also tells us USSF could’ve done better for the women’s team in the past, so there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with players drawing another line.

But we need to do what’s best for all parties. Sinking MLS doesn’t help the NWSL. War between the sexes and inflated expectations brought us the WUSA, which sank beneath its excess and returned scores of players to amateur status. Bundling rights for MLS and women’s games with the men’s World Cup is, most likely, a net positive, as complex as that paper trail may be.

We have a lot of boats here. We need a rising tide.

“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.

IS THIS THE LAST WORD ON THE CASE?

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.

LESSONS FOR ALL

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.

lax-house
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.

War on College Sports: Maybe justified?

I love college sports. I’m not so thrilled with the prospect of other students paying for them.

An investigation of the eight largest public universities in Ohio in the Football Bowl Subdivision found that with one exception, college administrators and trustees impose hidden fees and invisible taxes on thousands of students who pay tens of millions.

Source: Robin Hood in Reverse

Single-Digit Soccer: Do players specialize in high school?

At national champion Ohio State, the answer is apparently not.

And this is in high school. In soccer, we’re asking whether our players should be specializing at age 8. From my research so far, the answer is surely not.

A high school sports blog has a good list of benefits from playing multiple sports and quotes on playing several sports from luminaries like Wayne Gretzky, Larry Fitzgerald and the ubiquitous Alex Morgan.

I’m not sure how to verify the “42 out of 47” stat. Is it Meyer’s first two years at Ohio State? The two most recent years? Ohio State did have 47 recruits in 2013 and 2014. Ohio State’s site doesn’t always list every player’s extracurriculars, so I was only able to verify these:

RB Curtis Samuel: Track.
WR Parris Campbell: Track, in a big way.
S Malik Hooker:  College basketball prospect.
OT Kyle Trout: Basketball and track.
LB Sam Hubbard: Considered college lacrosse.
WR Jalin Marshall: State champion long jumper.
CB Cam Burrows: Track.
RB Ezekiel Elliott: Four state championships in track in 2 1/2 hours.
QB J.T. Barrett: Basketball and track.
DT Billy Price: Field events.
WR James Clark: Track.

Other players:

2014 recruiting class

LB Raekwon Macmillan
WR Johnnie Dixon
ATH Marshon Lattimore
CB Damon Webb
OT Jamarco Jones
LB Dante Booker Jr.
DE Jalyn Holmes
OG Demetrius Knox
S Erick Smith
LB Kyle Berger
ATH Noah Brown
WR Terry McLaurin
DT Dylan Thompson
OT Marcelys Jones
K Sean Nuernberger
OT Brady Taylor
QB Stephen Collier
DE Darius Slade

2013 recruiting class

CB Eli Apple
CB Gareon Conley
LB Trey Johnson
S Vonn Bell
ATH Dontre Wilson
DT Joey Bosa
TE Marcus Baugh
OT Evan Lisle
LB Mike Mitchell
DT Michael Hill
S Jayme Thompson
DT Donovan Munger
WR Corey Smith
LB Christopher Worley
DT Tracy Sprinkle
S Darron Lee
DE Tyquan Lewis
OT Tim Gardner

That’s 47 recruits. Somehow, that doesn’t include punter Cameron Johnston, who played Australian rules football.

Also, “invited walk-on” Khaleed Franklin was all-city (Columbus) in basketball. Another invited walk-on, Logan Gaskey, played basketball and has a black belt in taekwondo. (At 295 pounds, that’s not easy.) Joe Ramstetter considered college baseball.

And from the year before, Pat Elflein was a distinguished wrestler and participated in track and field. Cardale Jones, another recruit from the year before, played basketball.

For comparison’s sake, I decided to look at a good women’s soccer program with a good website. Hello, Virginia:

  • GK Morgan Stearns: HS basketball
  • GK Kelsey Kilgore: HS and AAU basketball
  • D Megan Reid: All-conference basketball, track and water polo
  • D/M Meghan Cox: Starting kicker on football team; also played basketball, field hockey and softball
  • M Tori Hanway: HS lacrosse, basketball and track
  • M Morgan Brian: All-state basketball
  • F Kaili Torres: HS track
  • M Campbell Millar: HS track
  • F Mary Morgan: HS basketball
  • D Julia Sroba: HS cross-country and track

So that’s at least 10 out of 24, including a couple of the better-known players and one U.S. national team player.

Now if only we could find enough programs for the kids who can’t make multiple varsities.

(HT: John O’Sullivan)

Single-Digit Soccer: Basketball feels the fear

One unique aspect of soccer development as opposed to football and baseball is that we in the USA are all worried that other countries are doing it better. Little League and Pop Warner coaches surely don’t spend quite as much time absorbing the lessons of Barcelona, Ajax and Tahuichi as those of us in soccer.

In basketball, the USA is just starting to ease into that discussion, thanks in part to one U.S. star raised in Italy — Kobe Bryant, who shook up the basketball establishment a few days ago by saying European players are getting better skill development than the AAU-bred Americans.

This isn’t the first time Kobe has said something like this. Here’s what he told Jack McCallum nearly two years ago (“Chaos Theory,” SI, Feb. 25, 2013 — I couldn’t find it in the online vault):

I feel fortunate that I was over in Italy (from ages six to 13) when AAU basketball (got big) over here. They stopped teaching kids fundamentals in the United States, but that didn’t affect me. Over there, it wasn’t about competition and traveling around and being a big deal; it was about fundamentals, footwork, spacing, back cuts — all of those things. Look at Pau Gasol. Look at the skills he has compared to the guys who grew up playing AAU ball.

The irony is that this is the opposite of our concern in U.S. soccer — to an extent, anyway. We’re worried that U.S. soccer players don’t spend enough time playing on their own. Not enough “free play.” I haven’t heard anyone raise that concern about U.S. basketball players, who typically go to the gym or the playground for some pickup games if they’re not practicing.

Bob Cook thinks Kobe is tilting at windmills:

As long as college coaches use AAU and travel teams, rather than high school sports, as the basis of their recruiting, and parents continue to spend their money and time putting their kids in the youth sports machine to reach lottery-like dreams of a college athletic scholarship, the system will continue as we know it. Plus, in every profession, the road to developing talent and actually getting the job you want is not always the same.

Mike DeCourcy, a soccer guy in his own right, has a few related and sensible prescriptions for U.S. basketball, including more USA Basketball camps for younger players and hockey-style draft rules in which NBA teams can draft players and maintain their rights while they stay in college.

The latter would make sense; therefore, we shouldn’t expect the NCAA to do it.

War on Nonrevenue Sports returns: USOC gearing up

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun isn’t going to give up on Olympic sports in colleges without a fight. He sees the threat of budget cuts and reallocations as athletics departments start paying more for its football and basketball players.

There are so many things that we can do. What we need to do is get together and decide what is our top priority, what are our top three priorities. We have identified a donor who’s willing to support us, subject to us collectively — and by that I mean the athletic directors and the USOC — finding a program that we think is really going to move the needle. … We need to preserve these Olympic sport programs.

College campuses are ideal training grounds for Olympians. They have the facilities, and athletes can live, train and study in one spot. We’ll see if these sports can hang on.

A couple of reports: USA TODAY, Louisville Courier-Journal.

And the previous dispatches from the War on Nonrevenue Sports:

More to come. I hope not, but probably.

Best Twitter exchange ever

With Georgia-South Carolina in a storm delay, CBS is showing the classic 2013 Alabama-Auburn game.

Leading to this …

College athlete unions, paying players and unasked questions

The last thing I want to do is pick an argument with my fellow Duke grad Jay Bilas. He’s a consummate pro when it comes to college basketball analysis, and he’s making an intelligent case for college sports reform.

But I think the man who wrote Toughness is capable of answering tougher questions than Keith Olbermann fed him in the wake of the decision (pending appeals) to let Northwestern student-athletes organize as a union.

Olbermann and Bilas quickly latched on the “pay college athletes” part of the union argument, and we’ll get back to whether that’s actually the central issue here. Then in the conversation on paying players, Olbermann left two statements unchallenged:

1. The “Hey, the NCAA makes a lot of money” argument. If you’ve ever been in the business world or even on a nonprofit board, you know there are two sides to a balance sheet: revenues and expenses. And college sports are expensive. Just think about how expensive one Duke education is, then think about how expensive a Duke football team’s education is.

My former colleagues at USA TODAY summed things up nine months ago: “Just 23 of 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division I public schools generated enough money on their own to cover their expenses in 2012.”

Ouch. Maybe the NCAA as an organization is making money, but the colleges, the story says, are actually subsidizing the athletics departments.

Most of us would say the expense is worthwhile, and we can point to all the intangible benefits a school gets from having a quality sports program. Bilas himself was part of the basketball team that helped turn Duke into a hot college. (This was a couple of decades before everyone hated us.) But we need to be really careful in saying college sports have a lot of money floating around, ready to hand out to athletes.

2. The free market argument. I’m stunned that Olbermann would let this Bilas statement go unchecked, particularly in the context of Bilas’ claim that the NCAA doesn’t really need a “plan” to open up a new marketplace for college athletes: “The free market seems to work pretty well for the rest of us.”

Where is the free market working well with no other regulation? Not out in the real world, where crooked bankers can crash our entire economy and CEOs get bonuses while workers are laid off. (Olbermann is probably more willing to argue that point than I am.) Even Adam Smith, he of the “invisible hand,” believed in some sort of regulation.

Does the “free market” work unfettered in sports? Not in the NFL (salary cap). Not in major league baseball (luxury tax, complex rules on player movement). Not even in European soccer (“financial fair play” and transfer regulations that need a lawyer to untangle them).

So if the NCAA is fretting that it needs “a plan” to go ahead with paying players, the NCAA is right.

In the last two minutes of the conversation, Olbermann asks for a “reality check” to counter the argument that college programs are losing money and that “dressage” (not really a college sport, though equestrian’s “Equitation on the Flat” is similar) will be hurt if football players are getting paid. Bilas makes a valid point here that coaches and administrators are making decent money in the whole business. But let’s skip “dressage” for a moment and ask how other nonrevenue sports are doing. How about Temple, which is cutting seven sports, including a couple for women?

Perhaps the money in college sports isn’t fairly distributed. But it’s also not an infinite supply. And it’s preposterous in the modern day to talk about a “free market” for college athletes without considering who loses in such a system.

Now here’s the funny part: Paying players isn’t even the main issue for the Northwestern players who have lobbied to unionize. On Mike and Mike (click the “podcast” link in this ESPN story), former Northwestern QB Kain Colter says the union decision is “really not” about playing players. Instead, he leads off with … medical care. “A lot of people don’t know that the NCAA doesn’t guarantee that any medical bill will be covered for any college player,” Colter says.

And we can think of plenty of reasonable issues to raise for student-athletes. Summer employment. Rights to one’s own likeness, the issue in Ed O’Bannon’s landmark suit against the NCAA. Sponsorships. Avoiding ridiculous travel, one side effect of these superconferences that force volleyball teams to fly halfway across the country for conference games.

Then a big issue: Why do tennis players, golfers and even swimmers have to choose between “amateur” and professional careers? Why can’t Missy Franklin collect the bonuses she earned as an Olympic champion? Why can’t a tennis player make a few bucks in an ATP event? How would those payments ruin college sports?

The NCAA is full of costly, counterproductive regulations. Bilas has a good suggestion for renewing the organization’s focus: “All they really need to do is administer athletic competition instead of lording over how everybody runs their business.”

If you get the NCAA to back off and trim its rule book, the organization can focus on those competition — encouraging school to field well-rounded athletic programs. If you ask the NCAA to administer a system in which colleges are bidding for athletes’ services, I think the organization will be even more muddled than it is now.

The next few years will be landmark years for college sports. But let’s not shy away from the tough questions, or we’ll miss an opportunity to build something truly good.