- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007

It’s been a few days since the NCAA granted Duke’s request to re-instate a year of eligibility for 33 non-seniors who played for the men’s lacrosse team in 2006 when its season was cut short by rape accusations.

The ruling prompted plenty of head-scratching and more in the tight-knit lacrosse world, and for good reason. It was an unusual step for an organization that usually moves slower than a tortoise, it could help keep a championship-caliber team intact (more on that later) and it comes off as a reward for poor decision-making (except for Duke’s 2006 seniors, who are simply out of luck).

There is a target worthy of frustration, but it’s not the players and not coach John Danowski. After all, who can blame a coach for saying yes to getting up to five All-Americans back, or to players for getting an extra year in college. News flash: Durham isn’t the greatest college town, but a few grad school classes sure beats Wall Street.

“If this was Texas-Arlington women’s softball, what would people say?” Danowski said. “The big questions for these coaches is what are you saying? If this happened in your program, you wouldn’t fight for your students? You’d just let them go? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that. I think in all likelihood, of course they would.”

Danowski said he had no idea about the origin of the idea to appeal to the NCAA, which was first reported last week. When the team met Tuesday, a day after losing 12-11 in the national title game to Johns Hopkins, it was difficult for anybody to say goodbye simply because it was uncertain if anyone would actually be leaving.

The only holdover from 2006 to 2007 not affected by the ruling is fifth-year senior Ed Douglas, a graduate student and defensive midfielder who could file another appeal if he so chose. But Tewaaraton Trophy winner Matt Danowski can come back. So can defenseman Tony McDevitt, goalie Dan Loftus and long pole Nick O’Hara.

(Defenseman Casey Carroll is covered by this, too, but since he tore an ACL just four games into last spring, his chances of earning a medical redshirt would have been decent).

There are plenty of basic housekeeping issues that will keep this in flux. How many guys want to come back, since some played sparingly and might not want another season of sitting the bench? Who can secure housing on short notice?

Who can get into grad school, if that is necessary? Is there an academic program that will make a return worthwhile? Is there anyone who is so emotionally spent after the last 15 months that he gratefully checked out for good after Monday’s loss? The list is endless.

Then there’s the question of scholarship money. Lacrosse teams only have 12.6 scholarships available, and there isn’t much spare cash lying around for next year on June 1.

In any case, it is an opportunity for one extra title run, and for Matt Danowski in particular, a shot at some impressive career records if he so chooses.

“At the Tewaaraton banquet, my son talked with two former Hopkins lacrosse and a former Virginia lacrosse player and said ‘What do you think?’” John Danowski said. “And they all looked at him and said ‘I’d go back in a heartbeat.’ That’s obviously not biased. Those guys, they don’t care [about Duke], but their sense is ‘I’m in the business world now, but I’d go back if I had the chance.’”

That still doesn’t account for the understandable criticism that emerged after the ruling. But Danowski offers a curious counter-argument, at least to those who speak only with their competitive well-being in mind (those coaches, by the way, account for some, but not nearly all, of the arguments against Duke).

“If none of the kids return, is it still bad or is it then OK?” Danowski asked. “Or two return or four or seven. [What’s the answer] if you take Duke off the chest and ask what is fair and what is best?”

The overriding sense I get from people in the sport — and from a natural sense of what’s right and wrong — is that individually, this isn’t something worth howling over. The problem really isn’t with Duke’s players, even though many did attend a party with exotic dancers and collectively built up a substantial rap sheet of noise and alcohol violations before the fiasco unfolded. It’s not a group with halos and wings, but they never claimed such status, either.

Rather, the real issue is with Duke itself, the institution. Not with Danowski, a true good guy who impressively navigated a very narrow pass throughout the last year. Not with the players themselves, even though you can bet Dave Cottle and Dom Starsia and Dave Pietramala would prefer not to see Matt Danowski or Carroll or O’Hara playing for an opponent again.

It is the school itself that comes out ahead, and it probably shouldn’t be that way. Not after it displayed such brittle backbone in axing a season in the face of fervent and misled public opinion rather than evidence.

Not after many on campus (and, in fairness, off campus as well) rushed to judgment and displayed their disdain for a little thing called due process (which for the longest time was the biggest loser in this case).

Not after it sent former coach Mike Pressler packing. Not after it tacitly agreed with the verdict handed down by a rogue district attorney. And not after it tried to proceed like everything was normal when the team was re-instated.

The longer-term lesson of this entire mess — beyond realizing what a Molotov cocktail politics, class and race mixed with ambition and anger can be, beyond acknowledging the dangers of a rush to judgment, beyond giving credence to the talk-show banshee who screeches the loudest — is that complex issues cannot be broken down to sinners vs. saints, black hats vs. white hats, perfidious schemers vs. gallant and true knights.

That isn’t real life, but what does fall into the realm of reality is that the possible return of all those seniors has the potential to keep alive a story whose final chapter should be written when district attorney Mike Nifong faces disbarment proceedings.

Should the story maintain its pulse? Is that good for the 13 seniors on this year’s team? For a coach who might have to mix five classes together? For other players who have waited their turn to play? And more importantly, for all the people even tangentially involved in this case who want nothing more than to move on with their lives?

The waiver seems like another easy fix in a saga filled with simplistic thinking and actions. After it was the victim of such posturing last spring, the lacrosse program should not be taken to task for being the beneficiary this time around.

Still, I can’t help but to think that if Duke makes another final four run next year, questions inevitably arise about how false accusations helped make a title chase possible. And if those issues are hashed out again, there will be many people — on the team, or even just in the lacrosse world — who will wonder if an extra year of eligibility for everyone was the right panacea after all.

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