REVIEW: Many words, but little new in latest lacrosse book

May. 31, 2014 @ 01:55 PM

“The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, The Power of the Elite,
and the Corruption of Our Great Universities”

By William D. Cohan (Scribner, $35)

William D. Cohan’s “The Price of Silence” is the fifth book about the Duke lacrosse case. Why another? Cohan, a Duke graduate who has written books about Wall Street, claims to have unearthed new viewpoints, but critics can’t find any.
What is the price of silence that William Cohan writes about in this new book on the Duke lacrosse scandal of March 2006?
Cohan is not explicit, but hints that the price of silence was the “$100 million” that Duke University paid to settle lawsuits brought by lacrosse players and others involved in the fiasco. In actuality, the amount was much less, although it can’t be revealed under terms of the settlements.
On page 568 of this 653-page epistle Cohan claims that Duke paid the money to buy silence of the claimants, but sources point out that there would have been no need to pay damages if the students involved had been found guilty. The payment was for damages inflicted on the students, partially through the university’s sloppy handling of the situation.
Having spent a lot of time with former Duke President Terry Sanford in interviews for his biography, I couldn’t help but wonder how he would have handled the Duke lacrosse scandal.
“He would have handled it head-on. No delays and no sleight of hand,” his former public affairs editor, Bill Green of Durham, told me.
It’s not as if the lacrosse case is the only time the university’s reputation came under national scrutiny. When Sanford took over as president in 1970 he found the campus in an uproar.  Students had been protesting the Vietnam War and the university’s treatment of black workers and taken over the Allen Building, the school’s administration building, on Feb. 12, 1969. Duke’s then-president, Douglas Knight, called the police, who used tear gas to break up a crowd of protestors.
Sanford was called in to “restore stability to the Duke campus and rebuild student and faculty confidence in the administration….” (He served as president until 1985 and then became a U.S. senator in 1986, serving until 1993. He died in 1998.)
But Cohan never mentions the troubles of 1969 and focuses instead on the seamy side of the 2006 mess.
Indeed, the case continues to attract national attention. And Cohan’s book has been praised and criticized in many national magazines and newspapers and on the web.
The juicy scandal has all the elements of a modern day potboiler: Rich kids absorbing plenty of alcohol and hiring a stripper to entertain them; charges of rape and racial insults; incompetent police and laboratory work; a prosecutor determined to find evidence and then hiding some of it; an overzealous Duke faculty group rushing to judgment that the players must be guilty; a hesitant university administration trying to cooperate with police, but failing to step into the situation strongly to try to prevent further damage to the institution’s reputation; and so on. (Only the dozens of lawyers involved seem to have emerged as winners, although they claim their fees were far less than the $3 million to $4 million Cohan asserts.)
In a New York magazine interview published April 24, Cohan countered the charge that nothing new is in his book: “I think a lot of what I reported in the book [is new] from police reports, to medical reports, to reports that Duke had done, to email traffic, including an email where one of the players, Matt Zash, said [after the party] that he ‘didn’t split dark wood.’ ”
Cohan does indeed give exhaustive detail, including new interviews with disbarred prosecutor Mike Nifong, who still claims that “something happened in that bathroom,” but Cohan has to admit there is no evidence that any type of crime had been committed.
Some observers say that the book is not about the price of silence, but the price of leaping to conclusions, not adhering to the principle that all of us are innocent until proven guilty.

Marion A. Ellis is a Durham-based author who has written several books and is currently helping former Gov. Beverly Perdue write her life story.