DURHAM — Lacrosse is a spring sport. Duke lacrosse is a year-round obsession.
On Wednesday, Duke began the delicate task of trying to slide the season out from under the case.
Three men's lacrosse players and their new coach met with the media at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They wanted to talk Duke lacrosse without DNA evidence, exotic dancers and Mike Nifong. They hoped to shift the focus from the trial that is expected to be scheduled for this spring to the trials of this spring's schedule.
Practice starts on Jan. 27. The opener is Feb. 24 at home against Dartmouth. The players think the program, suspended last spring and once in danger of termination, will come back as a top-10 team again.
But there was no escaping the connection between the season ahead and what happened or didn't happen at a team party March 13. There's no way to talk offense and defense without also discussing the alleged offenses and the counterclaims of the defense.
The players, all seniors, declined to speak about specifics of the case. They wouldn't even say if they were at the party where a hired dancer alleges she was sexually assaulted by three players.
But the players addressed a wider issue. They spoke about how they felt to be branded "hooligans" by the Durham prosecutor and depicted in the media as privileged louts who thought they could abuse without consequence.
The three players, Matt Danowski of Farmingdale, N.Y., Ed Douglas of Baltimore and Tony McDevitt of Philadelphia, sat about the room simultaneously taking questions for more than a half-hour. They were well spoken, thoughtful and different from the caricatures of Duke lacrosse players who arose in the emotional weeks after the charges arose.
"Our whole lives have changed for sure. You have to watch your step. It's like walking on broken glass almost," said Danowski, whose father, John, has come from Hofstra to replace Duke coach Mike Pressler, who resigned after the scandal broke.
If instinct instead of lawyers had prevailed in those first weeks, if the players were allowed then to speak as they wanted, this scandal that probably will surpass any in college sports history would never have gained the fuel it found in their silence. But the players didn't speak. People filled in the blanks from afar and from as close as the student in the next desk.
"I think the danger of any characterizations, be it of the lacrosse team or any student group, is that they will dangerously overgeneralize and compromise the individual characteristics of the group," Douglas said. "In that sense, it has been very hurtful to see some of the terms that have been used that I know patently to be false."
During fall practices, Coach Danowski said he thought the players were pressing for perfection, trying to acquit themselves with how they played.
"Maybe they were going to prove on every pass, every shot, every save that they weren't deserving of some of things people were saying of them as group," he said.
The shell of silence, suspicion and presumption is being slowly and belatedly cracked by the sound of the truth coming out. The rape charges have been dropped. The rush to judgment is being questioned.
"In the beginning, everybody was trying to find out anything possible that we do wrong and why we were a terrible bunch of hooligans and we just sat back. We knew what we were about. We weren't talking at the time," McDevitt said. "Now you get back down here, you're playing lacrosse and the case is kind of moving along as you thought it would. For us, it's a continuation of getting back to normalcy."
The lacrosse players may not want to get all the way back to what was normal. There were problems with the team's and the school's culture. Matters of race and sex were issues, even if not criminal ones. A few players may yet be found to have committed crimes at the party. But what clearly was in error was the proportion of this case, a hugeness and heat provoked by grievances rooted far beyond Duke lacrosse.
Columnist Ned Barnett can be reached at 829-4555 or email@example.com.