The allegations of gang rape against members of Duke University's lacrosse team has yet again tarnished the perception of college athletes, and dealt a blow to a sport that has been trying to shed its image as an elitist, largely white, niche sport.
On Tuesday, Duke University President Richard Brodhead suspended the team from the playing field until an investigation into the rape allegations is complete.
"Sports have their time and place but when questions of this gravity are in question, it's not the time to be playing games," Richard Brodhead.
On the night of March 13th, a woman allegedly hired as an exotic dancer at a lacrosse team party told police that three team members beat, choked and raped her in the bathroom at the house. No one has yet been charged and team leaders strongly deny the accusation.
The investigation is focused on three white male Lacrosse players, and the allegations have enflamed passions about race and class in racially mixed Durham, N.C. The alleged rape victim is reportedly a black female student at North Carolina Central University and a single mother of two.
"The circumstances of the rape indicated a deep racial motivation for some of the things that were done," said Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong. "It makes a crime that is by its nature one of the most offensive and invasive even more so."
Nifong said today that the 46 members of the No. 2 ranked team are united in silence and refusing to talk with investigators probing the rape case.
Duke University Provost Peter Lange said, "The students would be well-advised to come forward. They have chosen not to."
Critics of sports culture, such as Harvard Sociology Professor Jason Kaufman, believe their silence is emblematic of the culture of team sports, particularly at the college level.
"Any sporting activity is an intense bonding experience. There is a whole social culture that is associated with the team, often based on gender," said Kaufman. "Male solidarity can be very productive on the sports field and very anti-social in campus life."
Leonard Zaichkowsky, a Boston University professor of sport psychology, agreed, saying "That is part of any kind of group or team. Whatever happens here in the locker room kind of stays here. They are into protecting each other because they are so used to doing that."
Zaichkowsky said the allegations reinforce the perception that many student athletes feel they are exempt from common rules of conduct.
"Young athletes may feel they are inoculated from punishment. How can you say that about rape? People in a group behave differently than they would as an individual. They jump on the bandwagon. You see that at sporting events where people act like hooligans [because everyone else is]," said Zaichkowsky.
Kaufman contends that in college sports, criminal behavior has historically been often overlooked at times. Such incidents have made headlines repeatedly in recent years.
This year, charges of gang rape were filed against football players at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. In 2002, football players at the University of Alabama, were punished for inviting strippers on campus.
And at the University of Colorado, football coach Gary Barnett ultimately resigned after his players were confronted with more than a half-dozen allegations of sexual assault.