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."
Productive on the Playing Field, Anti-Social in Campus Life
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."
Athletes Outside the Rules
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.
"I think star athletes can feel that they are above everything else, that they are not going to be held to the same standards as everyone else," said Prof. Richard Lapchick of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
It is clear, however, that most student athletes don't commit crimes and do benefit from team activities, which often are cited for building character and leadership skills.
"I don't believe that the issues [at Duke] are at all indicative of the college game. These circumstances are contrary to the culture of the sport," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of U.S. Lacrosse, the national association of Lacrosse teams. He notes that lacrosse players have the highest graduation rates of any NCAA sport.
The Lacrosse community is already concerned that the allegations of rape against the Duke team may have tarnished the image of a sport that is still developing its place in collegiate sports.
"We are very concerned about the circumstances at Duke and how it reflects on our game generally. We're hopeful that an incident like this won't create a situation where the entire sport is judged with the same broad brush," said Stenersen.
"People are going to quickly associate lacrosse as being a bunch of thugs. That is not good. You don't want to see that happened, don't want that to be associated with any sport," said Tom Gravante, the coach of Mt. St. Mary's lacrosse team. "We don't want this to be associated with men's lacrosse. Hopefully, there was some poor judgment, that's it."
Gravante is also quick to point out the many benefits of playing sports.
As my coach taught me, it's not so much about the wins and losses," he said. "It's about what character you developed to help you be successful in life. It is a way to prepare you for the rest of your life."
Growing Fast and Widening Its Appeal
Although Lacrosse is considered to be America's first sport and originated with Native Americans, it is now often seen as a sport for the wealthy.
"Originally, it was a poor man's sport," said Zaichkowsky. Its long pedigree may have reinforced its image as a snobbish sport.
But unlike sports like basketball and baseball, Lacrosse gear costs hundreds of dollars per player for shoulder pads, arm pads, gloves, and a stick.
"Lacrosse isn't soccer," said Stenersen. "There is equipment required that has a cost associated with it. Not everybody can afford that."
Stenersen's organization is working to spread the sport to new, diverse communities, but he admits it has a ways to go in appealing to the masses.
U.S. Lacrosse say that today it is one of the fastest growing team sports in the United States and has grown faster than any other sport at the high school level over the last 10 years, with more than 130,000 high school players.
At the NCAA level, Lacrosse is also the fastest-growing sport over the last five years with more than 500 college club programs.
"Eight years ago Notre Dame [University] didn't have a team. California has teams, Texas has teams now," said Brian Reilly, head coach at the Manasquan River Lacrosse Club. "It's now nationwide."
His New Jersey community's team has grown to over 200 youths and started a girls' program last year.
"Baseball teams are seeing a reduction in their enrollment because Lacrosse is growing," said Reilly. "It has become very competitive."
The number of lacrosse players in "under-15" leagues have more than tripled since 1999 to nearly 100,000, according to the U.S. Lacrosse.
It has also become more diverse. Stenersen notes that Kyle Harrison -- a black player -- was named the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Player of the Year and received the Tewaaraton Trophy in 2005 from Johns Hopkins University.
Stenersen worries that the type of visibility the current rape investigation at Duke may have a negative impact on a sport just beginning to gain national fans.
"Unfortunately the sport of lacrosse is not immune from the issues that affect our culture generally, [such as] underage drinking. I'm sure that there will be those that draw a conclusion based on this particular incident…making a sweeping generalization of the sport as a whole," he said. "All we can do is move forward."
For a sport still trying to carve its place in the world of college athletics, that may now be much harder to do.