The details you may recall of the March 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal are probably scant. Three members of a lacrosse team were charged with the rape of a stripper after a sloppy if not malicious investigation by the police and the local district attorney.
The lacrosse players weren't cleared until after a rush to judgment by a media and a public quick to frame the allegations of a black stripper against privileged white youth as a symbol of the enduring conflict of black versus white and poor versus rich.
William Cohan's book is as exhaustively researched as it is fair and objective. What makes it a worthy read is the perspective. Cohan convincingly places the scandal within the context of America's most prestigious universities' too-often unchecked ambitions. In the years leading up to the scandal, Duke wanted to position itself as the Harvard of the South and the Stanford of the East. Duke's basketball team had been prominent since the 1980s, and the other sports were catching up, including men's lacrosse.
"Duke had seemingly become the embodiment of a still-credible aspect of the American Dream: the ability to have it all in just four quick years," Cohan writes. "There was the first-rate education; the top-notch Division I athletics; the seemingly infinite job prospects upon graduation, especially on Wall Street; the gorgeous campus; the handsome student body."
Had this growth come at an expense? It certainly would. The scandal ended up costing Duke an estimated US$100 million, including an estimated US$60 million Cohan reports was paid to the three accused lacrosse players.
Cohan, a Duke alumnus, takes us through the scandal as if he's a third-person omniscient narrator in a work as rich as most fiction.
What stands out as you read is how little higher education has changed. Universities continue to accommodate arguably destructive influences, whether in sports or social life, and the results can be disastrous. The Penn State football scandal is well-known, but universities such as Virginia, Cornell, Vanderbilt and Amherst have faced repercussions from incidents involving deaths and sexual assault.
Eight years after the Duke scandal's scorched-earth effect on all involved, scandals intertwining universities with some combination of athletics, privilege or alcohol show no sign of abating.