William Cohan on the Duke Lacrosse Scandal, How the School Is Like Goldman Sachs, and the Campus Rape Epidemic

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Photo: Scribner

Everyone knows some version of the story: In 2006, three white players from Duke’s lacrosse team were accused of raping a black woman hired to strip at a private party off-campus. The fallout included heinous, American Psycho–style emails, numerous contradictory convictions in the court of public opinion, a canceled season, fired coach, and eventually the disbarment of lead Durham County prosecutor Mike Nifong. The accuser, Crystal Mangum, is now in prison, convicted of killing her boyfriend in an unrelated incident, while the three Duke students, deemed entirely innocent, received settlements reportedly totaling $60 million.

Eight years later, Vanity Fair contributing editor William Cohan, the best-selling author of Money and Power (about Goldman Sachs) and House of Cards (Bear Sterns), aimed to, “in the cool light of day, just gather up everything I could about what happened.” The result is The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, which comes in at 653 pages and has managed to whip up the same intense emotions that originally came with the case. Cohan spoke to Intelligencer about how far universities and the media have come since then. The answer, he says, is not far at all.

Why bring this case up again now?
I’m a Duke alum. Before I worked on Wall Street, I had been a reporter at the Raleigh Times. I won two investigative reporting awards back to back. I followed the case from afar, reading the media, and I felt like I was being whipsawed like everybody else. One minute the kids were guilty — there was a rush to judgement — and then there was a rush to judgment to find Crystal Mangum and Mike Nifong guilty of accusing these innocent kids. The easiest thing for me to do would be to write another book about Wall Street, but I was interested in the issues raised — all of these hot-button issues involving young people and underage drinking and elitism and the special role athletes play at places like Duke and Stanford and other places that try to be academically and athletically at the top of the charts.

Aside from just being curious, I wanted to know what happened myself. In the cool light of day, just gather up everything I could about what happened, talk to anybody and everyone who would talk to me, and just start at the beginning.

Did you find out what happened? A frequent criticism of the book has been that you haven’t “unearthed new evidence.”
I respectfully disagree with that. 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.”

I’m not a prosecutor. I don’t have subpoena power. A lot of records have been sealed, including [North Carolina Attorney General] Roy Cooper’s records. I didn’t seek to uncover new damning information — I sought to coolly and rationally and dispassionately tell an amazing story, something that became a national story on the order of Flight 370 and Bridgegate all combined.

How many of the problems with the case originally were because of the way the media covered it?
There was a bouillabaisse, if you will — I’m really mixing metaphors here — of a perfect storm. The media just seized on this in a way that they don’t seem to be seizing on, for instance, the [rape accusations against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston]. I’m just reading some unbelievable emails among frat guys at American University that are now online, talking about what might have happened to a woman there. For whatever reason, the media seized on this — in large part because of certain schadenfreude regarding Duke athletics, not unlike the New York Yankees in their prime. People, for whatever reason, love to hate Dukies. It became irresistible to the media, to Mike Nifong, the prosecutor, and the Duke administration was like a deer in the headlights.

Today, you see consequences of the Duke case. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cy Vance Jr. dropped the DSK case because of what he saw happened in the lacrosse case. Maybe there’s some spillover into the Florida State case. It’s a little like what happened during the financial crisis, like what I’ve said about the crash of Bear Stearns: Part of the reason it happened was a lack of imagination — people could not imagine that Bear Stearns going out of business in a week could actually happen. I think, honestly, I don’t think people could have ever imagined that this story would have created the passion that exists on all sides even to this day.

How is covering Duke as an institution similar to reporting on Goldman Sachs or Bear Stearns?
Even though Goldman Sachs or Bear Stearns or even Lazard were public institutions, they’re basically private institutions for the purpose of trying to figure out what really goes on there. I competed against Goldman Sachs for 17 years when I was a banker. I then spent two years writing a book about it, and I still don’t know how they make 90 percent of their money. It’s still a black box to me! I’ve probably spent more time thinking about Goldman Sachs, except for the people that work there, than almost anybody.

They all have their customs, their myths, their wealth, their privacy, and Duke is no different. It’s, like them, a very powerful institution — it’s got its myths, its mores, its customs. Goldman’s endowment is 72 billion in equity capital; Duke’s endowment is approaching 9 billion. Both try to be world-class, international institutions. It was easier for me to get the cooperation of Goldman Sachs than it was to get the cooperation of Duke University.

How did being an alum affect the way you covered it?
I followed the story where it lead. Unlike others who have written about it, I spent four years there. I understand some aspects of the university and Durham — it’s part of my DNA. I understand Duke’s ambition as a university. I understand what the “work hard, play hard” culture that I wrote about in the book is all about. I understand that firsthand.

You quote District Attorney Mike Nifong as saying that “something” happened to Crystal Mangum in that bathroom. What do you believe happened at the party?
The first thing that has to be said, and it’s apropos of Errol Morris and his new film about Donald Rumsfeld, is that it’s a known unknown. Because there was no trial and because Roy Cooper’s investigation was secret and he’s not making it public, we’re not going to know what happened in that bathroom. Part of the settlement with Duke was that these three kids are not going to talk about it.

If we can stipulate up front that we’ll never know what happened, then I can sort of layer upon that the fact that Crystal Mangum, the victim-slash-accuser, as she later became known, told me when I visited her at the Durham County jail that she still believes she was sexually assaulted. She still believes something happened. All I know is that the police believed her, District Attorney Mike Nifong believed her, and the rape nurse Tara Levicy believed her. I am convinced something happened.

The question is, do you believe that all of that was made up and was all a fiction and that nothing even remotely like any of that ever happened? That it was all just made up and everyone was in on the conspiracy? Or that, as I like to say, something happened that none of us would be proud of?

How has what’s happened to Crystal Mangum since affected how this case will be remembered?
[Deep sigh.] Obviously Crystal proved herself repeatedly to be not the most reliable witness of what happened to her. Obviously she suffered something traumatic that night in the bathroom. Whether she was able to remember what is unclear. She was clearly traumatized. She told a lot of different stories at first, and then settled down into one version of the story. Then in December of 2006, she could no longer be sure she was assaulted by a penis, so they dropped the rape charge. When I saw her five years later, she told me a different version of events that included the use of a broomstick to assault her. She’s not the most reliable witness, but she obviously still believes something happened to her and that she was assaulted in that bathroom. Again, I am trying to be an unbiased, nonjudgmental, dispassionate investigative reporter of this incident.

William Cohan.

Is there a racial aspect to these cases when the athletes accused are white men, as opposed to black men?
I don’t know whether it’s a white or black issue. The more dispositive fact here is that, for better or worse, these defendants, these three players, were able to afford incredibly skilled attorneys. Their attorneys did an incredible job. They exploited every opening. They took advantage of every mistake that Mike Nifong made, and he made them. And every twist and turn in the Crystal Mangum story, and she provided plenty of fodder. These attorneys earned every penny they got. But the justice system is not supposed to be able to be subverted by clever, well-paid attorneys. The system is not supposed to work this way. I’m not saying the outcome of this is wrong; I’m saying the diversion of the process can’t be a good thing.

Nifong is quoted heavily throughout the book, but some have said the statements, his first since his career crashed and burned, were left “unchallenged.” Do you think you let him off too easy here?
No, I don’t at all. I have to laugh to myself when Joe Neff wrote that at the News and Observer. Obviously he covered the case extensively. I don’t think Nifong ever talked to him — maybe he was frustrated that Nifong didn’t talk to him but talked to me. It’s a 600-page book; 580 pages of it are a condemnation of [Nifong’s] behavior and his decisions and his judgements along the way.

Then there are a bunch of pages when he’s finally given a chance to talk. He came across to me as an honorable man, somebody who just wanted to do the right thing. Did he make mistakes? Yes, he did, and I think he’s paid for them dearly. I don’t see how it’s anything but fair to give him a chance to defend himself. Good for him for agreeing to speak to me. Good for Crystal.

What did you make of the reactions of Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson, who wrote their own book exonerating the players, and each wrote a very negative review?
I’m not surprised that they had the reaction that they had to the book. They have a vested interest in their version of events. My version is much more complete than their version. I wasn’t writing a polemic. I wasn’t trying to prove that these kids were innocent, as they were. I’m not surprised at all by their viewpoint. What I was surprised at was that a reputable publication like The New Republic allowed Stuart Taylor to review my book, or whatever he did — destroy my book — and reputable publication like Commentary allowed KC Johnson to do the same thing.

You mentioned the FSU case. Do you think the country has made any strides in these areas — sexual abuse, binge drinking — in the years since the Duke scandal?
Not at all. I don’t even think Duke has made any strides in this area since the Duke case. It’s clear that we have not. I included examples at Wesleyan, Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, the Naval Academy, now this American University thing and the FSU case … I think there’s a reason President Obama in January pulled together this task force, because this really is an epidemic. I would say we’ve made pretty much zero progress on this one.

What have you learned about how our society treats the accusers in these cases? In the New York Times exposé on the FSU matter and in countless other examples, there’s a lot of people in authority positions asking these women, Are you sure you want to do this?
This is part of the epidemic. I don’t know why this happens. I can’t imagine that if the [Duke] players had been black instead of white, and the victim had been white instead of black, that it would have happened the same way. We’ll never know. It’s really part of the epidemic, and it’s not getting better at all. We have not seen any advancement in our ability to deal with this.

This interview has been condensed and edited.