IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Rape controversy tarnishes Duke Campus

Accusations of gang rape by members of the Duke lacrosse team have the campus and the community in turmoil. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asks the tough questions of Duke's Vice President of Public Affairs John Burness.
/ Source:

With the allegations of rape against members of the Duke lacrosse team, many are concerned about Duke’s response. 

The administration has gone on record, saying they were investigating this incident within 24 hours of the report.  And, yet, there was no public comment by the university until nearly two weeks after the party, when Duke was forced to forfeit two games last Saturday.  

John Burness, senior vice president of public affairs for Duke University joined ‘Scarborough Country’ to discuss the University’s response.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, ‘SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY’: I want to start by asking you about the university's response, that you all did not make this public quickly enough. 

JOHN BURNESS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS, DUKE UNIVERSITY: Yes.  I'm happy to have an opportunity to clarify that. 

We learned from the Durham police, who are the investigators on the case, on the 14th that the alleged incident had occurred.  Immediately, a representative of our student affairs staff met with the students, urged them to cooperate completely with the police. 

The students told her and have consistently said since that there was no sexual activity, consensual or otherwise, during the time that the young women were at—at the house.  As far as I know, and as far as they have told us repeatedly, they have been in contact with the police and provided different information at different times. 

It is also true that they did get a lawyer, and their lawyer has advised them not to talk.  And, since that came through, that has been the case.  The issue of when the university knew and then when the university talked about it, it was not until the 23rd that there was really discussion about this, whether it was from the police or anything else. 

If you look at the local media coverage of this, there were stories that might two inches or maybe three inches long, all relatively small, with no names, with no sort of information.  And it wasn't until the 23rd that the police issued a public statement saying that the students, in their view, were not cooperating, and they had invited 46 of the 47 students in to provide DNA testing to be photographed, etcetera.

SCARBOROUGH:  So, what does the university do about the fact that the police are saying that members of Duke's lacrosse squad are not cooperating?  This is a lacrosse squad, of course, I'm sure you have seen, that one out of every three members had already had a previous arrest record. 

Do you all, instead of just suspending the entire season, suspend these players until they start cooperating with police, especially since physical evidence has come in saying that there was, in fact, a rape that occurred? 

BURNESS:  The physical evidence was known on the 23rd, when the police issued the initial warrant.  So, there is nothing that is just now coming in on that.  That has been out there for some time.

It was part of the warrant.  And all one needs to do is see that to understand it. 

I think the issue is, in terms of the—the players, based on information we could confirm, we actually suspended two games.  And that information was that the students acknowledged to us that they hired exotic dancers and that underage drinking was occurring at the house. 

And we felt that alone, given the fact that they represent Duke as a team, and we hold them to a higher standard, that behavior was inconsistent and incompatible with what we thought was appropriate.  And those two games were immediately forfeited. 

The decision yesterday by the president to suspend the remainder of the season until there is clarity on the legal issues and I need to emphasize that no one has been charged of anything by the police at this point, or the district attorney. 

The allegations are out there.  And there is a lot of reports in the paper.  And one of the dilemmas that we have to deal with is that we have one set of information from the students, which have totally denied the other side.  We don't know the which version of the events is true or not.  And it's why the police investigation is so important. 


BURNESS:  We are all awaiting.

SCARBOROUGH:  And it is an important investigation.  I mean, the police are saying they don't believe that these members of the team are cooperating.  I know that everybody needs to be afforded due process. 

I do want to ask you something that we do know about, though.  We do know that one-third of the Duke team, this Duke team from your university, had previous arrests. 


SCARBOROUGH:  How does something like that happen?

BURNESS:  Yes.  Let me speak to that.

SCARBOROUGH:  And—who is responsible ultimately for that? 

BURNESS:  Let me speak to that.  The arrests in this case and every case were citations for either underage drinking, obnoxious behavior, those kinds of things.  They are not things we condone in any way, shape or form.  The students were cited for it.  They're—our judicial process dealt with each and every one of those, as I understand it, through our judicial process. 

That is a very different level of claim of behavior than allegations of a rape.

I think it is important to stress that there is a difference between someone going out and drinking and acting obnoxiously, which might be at a misdemeanor level, and someone accused of something as horrific as sexual assault and rape, which cannot be tolerated.

SCARBOROUGH:  There is a big defense.I will ask you again.  Who bears the responsibility?  Is it the athletic department?  Is it the coach?  Is it the president of the university that you have thuggish behavior?  Whether you are talking about underage drinking, whether you are talking about public disorderly behavior whether you are talking about public urination, where does that burden fall? 

BURNESS:  I want to distinguish between something like thuggish behavior, as you characterize it, as people drinking in excess, and someone accused of something far more serious, where no charges have yet been filed.

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, you have done that three times now.

I understand that public drunkenness is in a different league than rape.  I'm just asking how do you have a university with a reputation of Duke having a sports team that has one out of three guys with an arrest record? 

BURNESS:  Well, right. I think the way that this issue we were asked this question, the president was, at the press conference last night, which is, how does this affect, you know, the university's image in the world?

And the issue for us is not the image.  The issue is how will we handle the situation, and, if it turns out that we have very serious charges that turn out to be true, the—the way we then respond to that.  But it—it is really difficult for us right now to be responding, in the absence of clarity about the facts that the investigation is designed to produce.