Duke’s elite epitomizes
the American cult
of The Athlete

Apr 11, 2006 5:31 AM

Back to Duke University and its troubled campus town of Durham, North Carolina, for one final trip.

It turns out now that a number of the guys in trouble on rape charges weren’t southern rednecks, but northern prep school grads, five of them educated at New Jersey’s exclusive and private all-boys Delbarton School. That leafy retreat teaches sons of the rich how to dress, eat, talk, and be macho. But not necessarily how to tell right from wrong.

I happen to know the school because I lived less than three miles from it when New Jersey was my home, and I drove past its pristine beauty several times a week. It is wooded and pretty and expensive, an educational haven for privileged young men. It develops manly types, and has top teams regularly in hockey, football, wrestling and lacrosse.

How its graduates act once they get out of Delbarton is another matter, particularly those who excel in its highly successful athletic program, and especially those who play the rough and tough game of lacrosse. Initiation rites into that small circle include the ability to endure pain and inflict it. Sissies do not play lacrosse. Those who do are part of the American cult of The Athlete, with a capital A.

Five Delbarton graduates were on Duke’s now retired lacrosse team, and were part of the 47 who raised hell at a party in the home they occupy as part of their privileged life in Durham.

Being an Athlete — the capitalized version — in America today carries special rights and privileges, at least in the minds of those who qualify. Those rights frequently are exercised at the expense of women.

The recurring press reports of abuse of wives and spouses, of assaults and petty thievery, of drunkenness and drug use, and of offenses and injuries involving guns, get more media attention, of course, when committed by Athletes. Similar charges against men without muscles obviously occur regularly, but are not usually newsworthy.

In Durham and at Duke, the latest rape charges have been exacerbated because the unhappy incident involves white Athletes and a black woman. The national press has descended on this southern town, looking for every disgruntled citizen it can find, regardless of color. So stories have appeared about sales of highly desirable real estate near the Athletes home because of rowdy parties there, of neighbor turned against neighbor, of rallies and boozing, and of Duke’s slow response to do anything until the situation reached crisis proportions.

The lacrosse coach has resigned. Why he should be blamed or take responsibility for the actions of his Athletes is an interesting question. These are not Little Leaguers or high school kids. These are guys attending a major American university, and they should not need a coach to tell them what is morally acceptable and what is not. Somewhere along the way their parents, rich or poor, should have taught them that, and certainly schools like Delbarton, run by Benedictine monks, should have. But the lessons seem to have escaped them. Otherwise, rape or not, this ugly situation would not have arisen.

Burned in my memory is an incident of my college days, one of those personal experiences that affect your outlook on life ever after. It involved a star halfback on the football team, and a meek and inoffensive student at a hot dog stand that was a late night campus institution. The victim was slight and not aggressive, and hardly could have inflicted any physical harm on the Athlete. I was standing behind the two, and saw no cutting in line, heard no verbal comment, no provocation of any kind, when the Athlete suddenly hit the kid ahead of him with a smashing right that knocked him against the hot dog stand and to the ground. As he got up, the Athlete hit him again, knocking him down once more.

I hated bullies long before that, but have despised them ever since. If there is anything Athletes hate, it is being deprived of the exalted status the American public heaps upon them. For removing that and taking away their toys, Duke University deserves gratitude and praise.