When Duke lacrosse captain Dave Evans was indicted on rape charges along with two other players in 2006, even his lawyer thought he’d committed the crime. “Most people accused of crimes are guilty,” attorney Brad Bannon recalls in a new film on the scandal that shook the foundation of college sports. “I had absolutely no problem believing that rich, white, elite young men would take advantage of a young African-American woman that they had hired to come and perform for them.”
Neither did the rest of America. Fantastic Lies, the latest entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, chronicles the country’s swift outcry over what appeared to be a textbook collision of privilege, racism, and rape culture in athletics at an elite university. Duke had long had a strained relationship with its hometown of Durham, North Carolina: The former fancied itself “the Harvard of the South”; the latter struggled with crime and poverty rates typical of a small Southern city. When 28-year-old mother of two Crystal Mangum accused three white lacrosse players of raping her at a party where she’d been paid to strip, the town’s tension snapped. In Fantastic Lies, Ruth Sheehan, then a columnist for the Raleigh-based News & Observer, calls Mangum’s allegation a “Molotov cocktail that landed in the community.”
Watching the scandal unfold a decade later, viewers will undoubtedly spend much of the film trying to pinpoint where it all went wrong, where the momentum of a country hungry for justice overtook any serious investigation of the alleged crime. (All three players were cleared of the crimes in court and in overwhelming public opinion, though Mangum still maintains that she was assaulted.) The film, which premieres Sunday, March 13—exactly 10 years after the lacrosse team’s fateful party—comes down hard on district attorney Mike Nifong, who would eventually be jailed and disbarred for intentionally withholding evidence in the case.
Fantastic Lies also points a finger at the media entities that salivated over a story that hit so many pressure points. The scandal hit just as news consumers were beginning to regard online news with as much credibility as print. They were watching in real time as the New York Times ran a story with the headline “A Team’s Troubles Shock Few At Duke.” Newsweek published a notorious cover emblazoned with the phrase “Sex, Lies & Duke.” “The only accurate word there is Duke,” the story’s author, Susannah Meadows, admits in the documentary. “It was a journalistic tragedy to see how the best journalists in America could be so wrong about something,” says former New York Times public editor Dan Okrent. Sheehan, who was sexually assaulted when she was in college, wrote an apology column after the three players were vindicated.
Even so, it’s a bizarre experience to watch a documentary that expects the viewer to root for a bunch of accused rapists. Fantastic Lies follows the arc of most mainstream sports movies: There’s a coach with a heart of gold—Mike Pressler, who tells the team, “our darkest days are upon us” and gets several minutes of praise from former players and their parents in the film. There are fresh-faced athletes fighting inauspicious odds, and having each other’s backs, and all that. There’s even a pep talk, though it comes from an older attorney who assures Bannon that he’s “great” and “different” to pump him up before he eviscerates the prosecution’s manipulated DNA evidence at trial.
But the underdogs who eke out a well-deserved win in this sports flick are actually a bunch of wealthy white guys who ended up with multimillion-dollar settlements from Duke and jobs in investment banking. The lacrosse team did have that party with those dancers, whom they paid with the money the school gave them to subsidize their meals during their on-campus spring break. Players did use racial slurs to describe Mangum and her fellow dancer. One did write an email less than an hour after the alleged attack that said, at the next party with strippers, “I plan on killing the bitches as soon as the[y] walk in and proceding to cut their skin off while cumming in my duke issue spandex.” Nifong and his enablers did the three indicted players a grave injustice, but it’s hard to muster a full 90 minutes of righteous anger on their behalf.
The case has left a shameful legacy, Jessica Luther writes at Vocativ:
Today, someone need only say the word “Duke” in a discussion about sexual violence and for all listening it invokes the specter of a false accuser who cries rape and ruins the lives of innocent men. The case is mentioned during sexual assault trials by defense attorneys whenever they can manage to work it in; a mere mention of “Duke Lacrosse,” even if ultimately objected and sustained, plants a seed of doubt in the jury’s mind about the victim’s credibility.
Fantastic Lies director Marina Zenovich seems to be aware of that trend, which could color her film’s reception. She writes:
I…want to emphasize that this film focuses on a case where men where falsely accused and where a DA engaged in serious professional misconduct. This should not in any way detract from the fact that the vast majority of reports of sexual assault are true. To use this case as representative of a wider issue would be a profound injustice to the real victims who have the courage to come forward.
Instead, the case should be a reminder of the danger of hanging all hopes for race, gender, and class restitution on a perfect story that might not hold up. “Every person with every agenda wanted it to be true,” says the mother of indicted player Reade Seligmann in the film. Thanks to the bungled misdeeds of a media-happy district attorney with an eye on his own reelection campaign, they got no catharsis—they got scammed.