- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sales of merchandise related to the Duke University men’s lacrosse team have increased in the past month in the wake of a sexual assault scandal involving members of the team.

Supporters of the team — or simply those looking to profit from the high-profile case — have been buying up T-shirts and other apparel, sometimes paying large sums.

The Web site for Duke University Stores reported team lacrosse T-shirts to be out of stock. Sales at the campus stores reportedly have more than tripled in the past month, with replenishments of T-shirts and other products arriving every morning. On EBay, more than 100 items are for sale under the heading of “Duke Lacrosse.”

Two players were arrested Tuesday and charged with raping an exotic dancer who had been hired by team members to perform at an off-campus party on March 13. DNA tests failed to connect any of the players to an assault, defense attorneys said. The scandal has rocked the Duke campus and the city of Durham, N.C., attracting national press attention and evoking intense debates over issues of race and class.

Jim Henderson, a lawyer from Charlotte, N.C., and a 1983 Duke graduate, paid $128.50 for a used T-shirt advertised on EBay emblazoned with “Duke Lacrosse” and the school logo.

“I saw it as a way to show support,” said Mr. Henderson, who has never attended a lacrosse game. “I don’t even know what to make of the allegations, but from everything I’ve heard those guys aren’t going to be convicted. It’s a good shirt, and I plan to wear it. Call me crazy.”

He said he wore the shirt earlier this week at a neighborhood grocery store, drawing comments — most of them neutral and centered on the news — from shoppers.

Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Los Angeles, said it is common for people to buy merchandise to show support during a difficult time. He said many people would equate wearing a T-shirt featuring the words “Duke lacrosse” to wearing a “New York” T-shirt in the days after September 11, 2001.

Not all of the merchandise being sold reflects a positive show of support for the Duke players.

On EBay, one T-shirt shows a character from the cartoon show “South Park” uttering a derogatory term about Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong, who pursued charges against the players. Shirts sold on some Web sites bear the title “Duke Blue Devils Lacrosse Party Team” and the slogan “What happens in the house stays in the house.”

Wrote one Charlotte-based seller on Craigslist.com: “If you believe they are innocent, this shirt is funny. If not, it is offensive. Either way, this shirt gets attention, and in my opinion those kids are getting [unfairly charged] by an aggressive DA.”

An advocacy group for victims of sexual assault said it is inappropriate to profit from the scandal.

“I trust that if they are found guilty, the companies will donate all of their proceeds to causes supporting victims of rape,” said Scott Berkowitz, founder of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Some sporting goods stores in the Raleigh-Durham area stopped selling Duke lacrosse merchandise, citing a desire to stay out of the matter.

“We found it to be a very controversial product,” said Jeff Hennion, a senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Dick’s Sporting Goods. “It’s a very small percentage of our business.”

The university, however, has declined to stop sales. The women’s lacrosse team is ranked No. 1 in the nation, and most of the merchandise does not distinguish between the men’s and women’s teams.

Furthermore, stopping sales likely would cause more bad publicity, Mr. Bernstein said.

“I think any attempt by the university to influence this in one way or another would be seen as extending in an inappropriate way,” he said. “Even [though] the stores are Duke-owned, it would be perceived as against the charter of the university.”

Calls to the school requesting comment were not returned.

For Mr. Henderson, however, one shirt is enough.

“I think I’ve blown my Duke lacrosse budget for the year,” he said.

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