Commentary

Wilson: File this Duke lacrosse rehash under fiction

CorrespondentApril 4, 2014 

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Karl Marx famously said history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

So from the tragedy of the 2006 Duke lacrosse debacle now comes the farce: “The Price of Silence,” a 650-page attempt to resuscitate disgraced former district attorney Mike Nifong. Author William D. Cohan, a Duke graduate, promises the true story of what happened.

Cohan is a former Wall Street maven who turned to business journalism, so his cachet imparts an undeniable gloss to the lacrosse story as seen through the eyes of its leading actor, Mike Nifong.

Let’s remember first off that nothing Nifong says about his execrable attempt to railroad three Duke lacrosse players on sexual-assault charges can be taken at face value.

But as the N&O’s Joseph Neff discerned in an interview with Cohan, the writer is one of the few who believe that one or more of the Duke Three raped Crystal Gail Mangum, an exotic dancer and alleged N.C. Central University honor student: “Something did happen in that bathroom.”

Except that it didn’t.

No DNA or other incriminating evidence proved that one of more of the three players had sexual contact with Mangum. No, she saw her meal ticket in the players, all from well-to-do Northeast families, and if it took lying to extort money from them, let the games begin.

Mike Nifong was integral to the success of this scheme. He withheld exculpatory DNA evidence from the players’ attorneys, among other offenses against the North Carolina bar.

It cost him his law license and descent into bankruptcy (he claimed liabilities of $180 million, based on countersuits by lacrosse players). He even spent 24 hours in purgatory, aka the Durham County Jail, in 2007.

As lop-sided as Cohan’s depiction of Nifong the wronged public servant may be, his take on Duke’s campus culture might be the book’s sole redeeming feature.

Cohan sees the Duke of 2006 as an ambitious Ivy League wannabe buying its way into the elite tier of American universities and by extension, the world. Top-ranked athletics burnishing the Duke brand – the men’s basketball program, for example – was a vital part of the plan.

By the time of the lacrosse affair, Duke had cemented its reputation as a “work hard, play hard” launching pad into the professions. Its campus culture took a hit about that time in novelist Tom Wolfe’s roman-a-clef, “I Am Charlotte Simmons.”

Any criticism of Duke in Cohan’s book can hardly be worse than what Duke brought upon itself as it convulsed in vengeance ginned up by the Gang of 88 faculty members and the university administration. A street rally organized by radical feminists prominently featured a sign calling for the Duke Three to be castrated.

This combustible presumption of guilt extended from President Dick Brodhead downward – a stain on the university that will long outlive its players – but the lies at its center soon undermined the whole construct.

After an investigation, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the Duke Three innocent – no ifs, ands or buts. Innocent.

Cohan is one of those true believers who just can’t let it go, odd because he is such an intelligent writer. He knows that Mike Nifong has zero credibility.

Former Deputy Attorney General Jim Coman summed it up when he said of Nifong, “These characterizations are figments of his imagination.”

Amen, brother.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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