Not Exactly What Ol' Buck Had in Mind?

(Note: For the benefit of the vast number of effete intellectual types who regularly visit this site, this piece was not inspired by David Brooks's column in the 4/9/06 New York Times. ( In fact, it was rejected by the op-ed folks at the Times on 4/6/06.)

Widespread media coverage of an alleged multiple rape of an exotic dancer by members of the lacrosse team at Duke University will strike readers of Tom Wolfe’s most recent novel—I Am Charlotte Simmons—as yet another example of life imitating art. This latest of Wolfe’s sometimes overwritten and under-edited offerings tells the story of a brilliant young woman from the North Carolina backwoods who wins a scholarship to an elite private university in Pennsylvania where, during her deeply disillusioning first semester in the collegiate fast lane, she is grabbed and wrestled around by a drunken behemoth of a lacrosse player in front of a crowd of tailgaters. Ironically, Charlotte ultimately suffers far more pain and humiliation at the hands of the uber-cool frat cat who rescues her from the clutches of the lacrosse thug only to seduce and then abandon her to the ravages of a drunken, profane, self-indulgently amoral, and insufferably smug student culture that mocks academic effort and achievement, and mercilessly ostracizes or even destroys those who are unwilling or unable to conform. Parts of Wolfe’s characterization seem a bit over the top, but I suspect that anyone truly familiar with college life these days will find it difficult not to wince, at least occasionally, at the elements of truth in his portrayal
Although most of the students I know at the University of Georgia bear little resemblance to Wolfe’s less savory characters, one doesn’t have to hang out around this or any comparable campus too long to find a few who do. Sadly enough, the Duke affair would probably have passed rather speedily off the national radar had it happened at a big-time “jock” school in the SEC or Big Ten, where such incidents have become so distressingly frequent overall that individual cases seem to have lost some of their capacity to induce distress. The basketball program at Duke is as big-time as they come, of course, but ever since 1924, when James B. “Buck” Duke forked over a big chunk of his American Tobacco fortune in order to make what was then Trinity College into a “great national university, ” Duke’s ostensible purpose has been to secure a perch atop the academic rather than athletic rankings.
Its success in achieving national prominence is reflected in a student body that is heavy on impressively credentialed young people from high-achieving families who reside well north of the Mason-Dixon line. In the main, even Duke’s lacrosse guys are less the children of inner-city disadvantage looking to use their athletic prowess to move up and out than the products of private schools and suburban social privilege. Yet, according to one published report, roughly one-third of the team has had prior run-ins with the law over issues such as underage possession of alcohol and its predictable concomitant, public urination. The fact that the alleged victim was a black woman who was reportedly subjected to racist slurs in addition to being raped, sodomized, choked and robbed only threatens to sully the university's image as a citadel of tolerance and enlightenment even further. Regardless of the eventual findings in the rape investigation itself, in the matter of allowing the lacrosse rowdies to develop a reputation for arrogant, abusive, above-the-law behavior that made the allegations entirely plausible, Duke's DNA is all over the place.
This story is doubtless cause for celebration among disgruntled fans of rival basketball programs who have long groused that a chorus of whistles erupts whenever opposing players have the temerity to violate the three-foot halo automatically accorded the oh-so-delicate Blue Devils. However, the response to Duke’s misfortunes will likely be a good deal soberer among administrators and faculty at public universities that are making real progress in beefing up the academic credentials of their own student bodies. The increasing incidence of violent behavior and serious, sometimes fatal, alcohol and substance abuse on our campuses is teaching us what officials at prestigious private schools have known for a long time, but been loathe to admit: Swanky prep-school degrees and an eye-popping SAT scores are no guarantee of the maturity, judgment, and moral sensibility that are essential to maintaining an educational community where young people can realize not just their intellectual potential, but their human promise as well.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim Cobb published on April 9, 2006 3:50 PM.

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