Let them play … and other thoughts heading into Memorial Day Weekend

By Michael Spinner

In the shadow of this weekend's Final-Four, Duke University is attempting to gain an extra year of eligibility after seeing much of the 2006 season cancelled. It is an unprecedented move that will undoubtedly be one of the hot topics in Baltimore this weekend, and spark debate across the sport (and perhaps all sports) as the NCAA considers this move. This is going to be one of the hardest decisions the NCAA has ever made and no matter what they choose, emotions will be high.

On one side you have those supporting this move (including a majority of the ACC membership since the appeal to the NCAA has to be approved by the conference first). This side will talk of the injustice the Duke Lacrosse players suffered a year ago not only in losing what was supposed to be a National Championship season, but having their good names dragged through the mud during one of the most fraudulent sports scandals in our nation's history. They'll talk of opportunities lost, unfairness, and the horrors this group of young men went through a year ago. They'll say that an extra year of eligibility is the "right thing to do."

On the other hand, the detractors, including Virginia Head Coach Dom Starsia, according to The Baltimore Sun, will say that an extra year of eligibility is simply unfair. After all, Duke University chose not to field a Men's Lacrosse team for the second half of the 2006 season. They made the decision to cancel the program last year as opposed to some NCAA sanction. Nobody forced them to do this. The NCAA did not make a peep. And since half of their season was played, why should the athletes get another year? After all, a Duke team with likely Player of the Year Matt Danowski playing a fifth season, three key defenders and a veteran goalie coming back (should they elect to use an extra year of eligibility) would probably be the hands-down favorite to win the National Championship, and perhaps be one of the best teams we've ever seen. Perhaps, most importantly is the precedent. Countless athletes have lost half of a season to injury, hardships and yes quite a few false accusations and have not received an eligibility exemption.

This is one of those situations where both sides are right and seek some degree of fairness. The arguments are all good which makes it even harder to make a decision.

Personally, I would give these young men at Duke the opportunity to finish what they started. Let them complete the careers they expected to have when they chose to attend Duke and play lacrosse. The NCAA should let these young men play an extra year, all of them, even Seligman and Finnerty, wherever they land. And even David Evans if he wanted to play a grad year somewhere. Regardless of what this means for the rest of the Division I landscape, and no matter what precedent this sets for college sports, an extra year of eligibility is the least the NCAA should do - even if the Blue Devils win the National Championship this weekend.

The reason for this is simple. These are kids. In March of 2006, they threw a party where underage drinking took place. Every college kid attends these. Strippers were called. I have yet to hear of one college other than Duke banning stripper parties as a result of this event. Google it. Nothing.

How many times per year are college athletic teams charged with alcohol violations? I'd venture to say that every college, everywhere, has at least one team per season that commits such a violation and that is a massive understatement oh ye who live in Denialville. The difference here, of course, was that stemming from this party was a series of awful accusations, national media coverage, and tremendous pressure on the Duke Administration to act quickly. They did just that… wrongly. The Duke Administration folded like a cheap suit because anything less would have put their reputation at risk. And when it comes to colleges and their well-being, reputation means applications, recruiting and retention, donations and endowment. At the time, it didn't matter that the accuser would fail a lie detector test if asked her own name. The school took the second hand word of a drugged up hooker over the consistent pleas of 40 great kids that they personally vetted one at a time for inclusion at their precious and most elite institution. They breached a trust. They weren't the only one. The Durham County DA had the moral backbone of a snake and the legal aptitude of the Public Defender in My Cousin Vinny. That didn't matter. Some in the Durham public and Duke community held countless vigils; Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton did their thing and the New York Times called for action. The kids on the team were victim to all these people.

Two absurd extremes: A poster in the first days on campus asking for people to pressure lacrosse
players to talk and a pro duke lax stripper party at another college that doesn't even play lacrosse

At Duke, the concept of innocent "until proven guilty", was discovered, well, the day after the kids were proven innocent by the new DA in March. And while, perhaps, the lacrosse team should have been punished for some bad decisions, they lost much more because of the frenzied liberal moralistic wrath of the Duke academia. It was an education for the rest of us, believe me. Now, these young men deserve to have back what they lost. They will take back their own dignity, but an extra year of eligibility is a good start by a Duke University badly needing penance. I would think that if Duke fails to restore the eligibility of every kid, a lawsuit will follow every graduation of every kid, and should. Duke is just lucky these kids didn't all abandon them and go somewhere else to win a championship. These kids might deserve a championship but the school deserves far less. It is stunning that the AD and school President still have jobs, much less the 88 faculty who literally harassed and abused these children at their most vulnerable moments. Duke could win the title, hell, they could win every title in sports and there would still be at least 90 total losers on the Durham campus.

In this case, for these young men who received the highest level of injustice from the very institution they represented, the right thing to do is to let them play one more year if they wish whatever it costs. Granted, the cancellation of the 2006 season was not an NCAA decision, it was a Duke University decision but Duke. Perhaps the solution is a pass by the NCAA for the kids and a sanction against the school administrators for taking us all here. I think every fan would be ok with that.

Other thoughts surrounding Memorial Day Weekend:

  • Speaking of bad precedents and doing the right thing for the kids, if there an award for "jerk of the year" in College Lacrosse, I would give it to the administrations at Butler and Ohio Universities. Their respective Men's & Women's Lacrosse programs worked all year since September to prepare for the 2007 season, and literally on the eve of the opening of the campaign, they cancel the programs. Somewhere in the mission statements of both institutions, there must be a line about preparing for the future, teaching lessons, or developing character. How exactly did either of these institutions live up to their mission statements with such decisions? Both schools did something that all college athletics departments do from time to time, and their decisions probably made fiscal and practical sense. But couldn't they have waited a few months to make the announcement? Would waiting until after the season have hurt so much.

  • It seems to me that the NCAA Tournament is becoming less of a quest for the nation's best program and more of an effort to have a tournament that a lot of people will watch every year. I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's hard to call this weekend's winners the "National Champion." They're the NCAA Tournament Champion, but are they really a national champion if the championship game is not between the two best possible teams? Cases in point: The fact that Duke-Cornell is a semifinal game is a travesty. With all due respect for Johns Hopkins and Delaware, Duke and Cornell were the rightful top-two seeds. And in Division III, last week Salisbury defeated Gettysburg in what was the de facto NCAA Championship Game because the Division III seeding is based on geography. Cortland had an amazing run this season and their trip to the Finals after losing much of their team and Head Coach last season is simply spectacular. But these are not the top two teams playing on Sunday.

  • I am rooting for Duke this weekend because John Dannowski deserves a National Championship more than any other coach in the nation. He's always been first class, all the way. But his handling of the media surrounding the Duke Lacrosse program put him in a league of his own. John Danowski is a championship coach whether he ever earns the trophy or not.

  • I think Duke University should buy Mike Pressler a National Championship ring if Duke goes all the way this weekend. Duke would not be in the Final Four but for his efforts. The coach and team have said it. The school should make some amends as while they were being victimized by the false accusations they in turn victimized a coach and his family.

  • If Duke does not win it all, I hope Delaware finds a way to do so. These days, how many NCAA coaches stay put for 30 years? It's rare, and in honor of the old guard coaches who spent decades at a school and never won it all (Jack Emmer, Tom Hayes, countless others), I certainly would not mind seeing Bob Shillinglaw win it all.

  • I'm off to Philadelphia on Friday to cover the Women's Division I Final Four where Northwestern will attempt to continue their stranglehold on Division I Women's Lacrosse. I don't see them losing this weekend. Considering the number of outstanding programs located in lacrosse hotbeds, a Northwestern three-peat this weekend would be one of the biggest and most inspiring stories in lacrosse history, if it isn't already.

  • Speaking of great stories, did anybody realize that Franklin & Marshall won the Division III Women's Lacrosse Championship last weekend, capping an undefeated season? In my mind, that is the story of the year in Women's Lacrosse? Congratulations to Head Coach Anne Phillips who is as smart and humble as they come. Oh … and the Diplomats will not skip a beat next season either. They return a ton of talent!

  • Predictions this weekend:

    Division I Men - As much as I would like to see Duke win it for John Danowski, I am predicting a Johns Hopkins upset of Duke in the Championship Game.

    Division II Men - LeMoyne will sneak by Mercyhurst

    Division III Men - Salisbury over Cortland by 10. This is not the great 2006 match-up.

    Division I Women - Northwestern over Duke. How could you bet against the Wildcats?

May 25, 2007

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