Duke grad takes on lacrosse scandal for new book

Apr. 18, 2014 @ 12:55 PM

His publisher wanted him to write a fourth book about Wall Street.

But William D. Cohan, a 1981 Duke University alumnus and business writer, said he felt compelled instead to write an exhaustive book – more than 600 pages – about the 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal.
“I was struck by this case from afar in New York where I live,” Cohan said. “I kept up with the media reports on this on a relatively regular basis. One minute I’m thinking these kids were guilty as sin; another minute thinking they were angelic, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.”
On Thursday night, Cohan shared insights about the book, “The Price of Silence,” with a crowd and a C-SPAN crew packed into the basement of The Regulator bookstore on Ninth Street.
“I know you’re not all here because you’re readers,” Cohan said. “I have a feeling some of you have other agendas and I’m OK with that. I want to embrace that.”
He talked about why he wrote the book, what it meant to him, “what it should mean to all of us.”
The book explores race, class and gender issues, he said. It talks about the oversized influence of sports in universities, the role money and influence in politics can play in the justice system and the hazards of the 24/7 news cycle.
But it also drew so much attention because it is a tale of “sex and violence, flavored with that great accelerator: alcohol,” Cohan said.
It’s a story with flawed main characters, “none of whom covered themselves in glory,” he said.
The lacrosse players – although ultimately cleared of rape charges from that March night when they took Crystal Mangum and another stripper into the house near East Campus – demonstrated boorish, sexist and sometimes racist behavior, he said.
Mangum, first identified as a victim and later known as an accuser, proved a less-than-ideal witness thanks to changing versions of her story and a checkered mental health and legal history, he said.
The district attorney, Mike Nifong, pursued an “Ahab-like quest” after presuming the guilt of the three young men, Cohan said.
Duke administrators looked the other way when it came to the culture of athletic privilege, he said, but then rushed to judgment – firing the coach, canceling the season – “until the winds shifted,” and university officials ended up making an estimated $60 million settlement, with $100 million in overall total costs.
After that, Cohan said, it was a new rush to judgment, this time against Mangum and Nifong, who never got their day in court.
Victoria Peterson, a local activist, asked Cohan: “Why did you, as a white male, write this book and get your community stirred up about this issue?”
He told her that “there was way too much hysteria around this case.”
“I wanted to figure out for myself what happened, without any passion, pulling together all the documents I could find,” Cohan said.
For the book, he spent several hours interviewing Nifong. An audience member asked Cohan if he paid Nifong for his cooperation. The author said that he did not.
“I’m not The National Enquirer,” he said.
Another audience member asked Cohan to share any conclusions he drew about the case.
“I don’t have any conclusions,” he said. “I didn’t want to have any conclusions.”
He wanted to let readers decide, he said.

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