Duke Lacrosse: Ethical Reflections

Written by Rusty Wright

The Duke lacrosse story has multiple ingredients for explosive media coverage: sex, race, politics, criminal charges, sports, class, a prestigious institution the list goes on.

Like many Duke alumni, I have personal convictions about the scandal. My Duke experience was and remains positive. So I’m biased. But I’m also realistic. Houston, we have a problem.

As much of the civilized world knows, a hired African-American stripper alleged some white players raped her at a lacrosse party. The accuser attended nearby North Carolina Central University. The accused maintain their innocence. The lacrosse coach resigned. Duke cancelled the season.

During basketball season, it was often “All Duke, all the time” on America’s sports pages. Through much of the Spring, it became “All Duke, all the time” on the front pages.

Nowadays at Duke, quips one professor, historical calendars are not reckoned “BC” and “AD” but “BLC” and “ALC.” “Before the Lacrosse Crisis” and “After the Lacrosse Crisis.”

I’m glad Duke President Richard Broadhead emphasizes the presumption of innocence in criminal law. Travels in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have exposed me to chilling stories about presuming guilt.

At an April reunion, I found the campus buzzing with controversy. Some students conveyed deep personal pain about race and gender issues. At their national tournament in May, Duke women lacrosse players wore wristbands and headbands supporting the men’s team.

Broadhead commissioned an ongoing Campus Culture Initiative emphasizing responsibility and respect. In my view, he’s handled a difficult situation with exceptional grace, dignity, and transparency.

What ethical lessons might come from this episode? Of course, if rape occurred, punishment should ensue.

But setting aside the rape allegations, what about the ethics of hiring a stripper? What principles should determine how we act in life?

When I was an undergraduate, a friend from the fraternity next door excitedly told me the dean had just given his fraternity permission to host a topless dancer at their Saturday night party in university housing.

Fast forward to 2006. On one television program, a woman argued that her own stripping had paid her college bills, and besides, it allowed her to exercise power over men.

Suppose you were a Duke student. Should you host or attend such a party? Hiring a stripper broke no laws. Both the players and the young woman could claim benefit. What’s the harm?

A pragmatist might maintain, “In retrospect, it was more trouble than it was worth.” A libertarian might assert, “Stripping’s OK, if no one gets hurt.” Some absolutists might say, “No. Never.” Feminists could argue either side. Stripping exploits women as sex objects, a negative cultural influence. Yet a woman needs to earn a living.

Duke ethicist Elizabeth Kiss, soon to become Agnes Scott College president, recommends a starting point for answering the classic question, “How should I act?” She notes that the “Golden Rule” appears in various forms in different faith traditions.

Good point. Jesus said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you.”

The Jewish Talmud says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

Muhammad said, “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”

On Duke’s main quadrangle sits a plaque containing the first article of the university’s bylaws. The statement promotes truth, scholarship, freedom, tolerance, and service. It begins as follows:

“The aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God….”

Hmmm. An ethical guideline worth considering?

© 2006 Rusty Wright. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“Real AnswersTM” furnished courtesy of The Amy Foundation Internet Syndicate. To contact the author or The Amy Foundation, write or E-mail to: P. O. Box 16091, Lansing, MI 48901-6091; amyfoundtn@aol.com. Visit the website at www.amyfound.org.

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