April 11, 2014 6:30 pm

Notes on a college scandal

‘It is around sports that questions of power, money, racism and culture crystallise particularly clearly’

A couple of decades ago Orin Starn, an American-based cultural anthropologist, went to Peru to conduct a study of a poor Andean community. It was a classic of the genre.

©Shonagh Rae

But since then Starn has made another important discovery: sometimes it is even more interesting to flip the lens and look at tribes in modern American life instead. He recently published a fascinating book on Tiger Woods, looking at golf as a cultural symbol. And as a self-styled “sport anthropologist”, who now works as professor at Duke University, North Carolina, he has also pondered the thorny question of lacrosse.

It is easy to see why. This week Bill Cohan, a banker turned journalist who has previously written exposés on Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns, published an account of a 2006 scandal about rape allegations against Duke University’s male lacrosse team. And after reading his exhaustive, fascinating tale, The Price of Silence, the only thing that surprises me is that there are not more academics working in this nascent discipline of sports anthropology, given how much material there is to explore.

What Cohan’s extraordinary 600-page tome shows is that there is a yawning gap between the lofty rhetoric and grubby reality of American elite universities (as well as much of the legal and media world). It is around the issue of sports that the tangled questions of power, money, racism and culture crystallise particularly clearly – so much so that some modern anthropologists think sports are actually far more interesting than religion in the western world today, in terms of their cultural power and economic might. “If you were starting from scratch at Duke, no one would have imagined an athletics programme where the budget is almost fifty million dollars,” as Starn observes to Cohan in the book. “This huge outlay of expenses and energy and visibility of sports is just clearly out of proportion with what it should be.”

The details of the scandal are worth briefly recounting. While they are well-known inside America, they are not elsewhere; and they look doubly odd to anyone (like me) who grew up in England, where lacrosse is a wholesome, amateur game played mostly by teenage girls at private schools. 

The story starts in March 2006. Duke’s male lacrosse team was in the middle of a successful season when it hosted a drunken party complete with female strippers. (In one telling detail about the sport’s privileged position, it turned out that the coach had given $10,000 to the team for “meal money” shortly before the party.)

After the party turned rowdy and sordid, one (black) stripper claimed that the three members of the (mostly white) lacrosse team had raped her. A crusading local attorney-general championed her cause, citing unpleasantly racist comments from the team. However, the wealthy parents of the lacrosse players hired top lawyers and fought back. Eventually a court rejected the woman’s rape allegations, the lacrosse players were declared innocent and received $60m damages from Duke University.

Subsequently, the crusading attorney-general was disbarred – and there was widespread criticism of the media, which was perceived to have turned the saga into a witch-hunt, playing with emotive issues of racism and sexism. Or as Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke, observed: “The scariest thing to me is that actual human lives were at the mercy of so much instant moral certainty, before the facts were established.”

So far, so shocking. But what is perhaps most striking is the issue which quietly underpins the whole scandal: the extraordinarily venerated status of college sports – sports was the tail which wagged the academic dog. However, this power and elitism were resented – and when the scandal erupted, it was used as a vehicle for a host of previously unuttered grievances. Hence that witch-hunt.

So has anything changed? These days, elite university campuses like to claim it has. Multitudes of programmes now exist to prevent alcohol abuse, sexual assault and “jock” culture; university leaders (and prosecutors) also tend to be more careful about checking proof before prosecuting. But, in reality, cases of “jock” behaviour on campus remain rife and college sports are actually swelling in terms of commercial and cultural power. Hence the frenzy about the college basketball final this week.

Perhaps that is not surprising: as anthropologists know, every society has power networks and rituals that enable groups to coalesce. But another truism of anthropology is that rituals are most effective in upholding power structures – however distasteful – when nobody talks about them at all, be that on Wall Street or university campuses. In that sense, then, the good news about the 2006 scandal was that it spurred debate about standards.

The bad news, though, is that Starn’s question remains largely undiscussed: why should universities be so dominated by sports?

gillian.tett@ft.com

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