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John Smallwood: NCAA gave Duke lacrosse program an unfair shot at title

JUSTICE WAS SERVED. It was the verdict that was delivered on the most level playing field available - the field of play.


It was the verdict that was delivered on the most level playing field available - the field of play.

Some will say that yesterday's NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship game between Johns Hopkins and Syracuse was anticlimactic.

Many thought the only just ending to the 2008 NCAA championship would have been Duke University winning, to provide closure for the hardships endured 2 years ago after false rape accusations and a rogue North Carolina prosecutor left the program in turmoil.

But honestly, had the Blue Devils won the title instead of being upset by Hopkins in a semifinal, it would have been a travesty of sporting justice.

It would have been another example of how certain universities are favored in the eyes of the NCAA.

The NCAA gave Duke a competitive advantage when it made the rare decision to grant a fifth year of eligibility to the 33 non-seniors who were on the team in 2006 when university president Richard H. Brodhead canceled the remainder of the season because of the infamous rape allegations.

That never should have happened.

Duke should have been told "no" when it made the eligibility request in 2007.

As unfortunate as what happened at Duke was, there was no precedent for allowing the players that extra year of eligibility.

Granting an athlete an extra year of eligibility because of devastating injury is one thing, but doing so because a school's president made a rush to judgment? Why should other lacrosse programs have been penalized for that?

And indeed, that has been an undercurrent of the 2008 campaign as Duke went 16-1 during the regular season and never slipped below a No. 3 ranking.

The Blue Devils were prohibitive favorites to win their first national championship. A lot of that was because they had five talented guys back who would have been out of eligibility.

Two of the players granted a fifth year ended up being named first-team All-America by the USILA: attacker Matt Danowski, the 2007 player of the year and all-time NCAA leading scorer, and midfielder Nick O'Hara.

Defenseman Tony McDevitt was second team and goalie Dan Loftus was third team.

That's a tremendous advantage in talent and experience to be gifted back to an already powerful program.

I completely agree that what happened to the Duke program was wrong. That three young men - Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans - were put through a yearlong nightmare because of the actions of Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong was a disgusting abuse of our judicial system.

That coach Mike Pressler was pressured into resigning was wrong.

But the remedies for those things happened with criminal penalties and civil-court settlements.

There is no question that the players on the 2006 team, which was top-ranked when the plug was pulled, were unfairly penalized by Brodhead's actions. But again, the decision to end the season was made by the administration of Duke University, without threat from college athletics' governing body.

It was not the NCAA's domain to straighten out Duke's foul-up, especially since it would dramatically affect the competitive balance of the 2008 season.

Given the NCAA's history regarding fifth-year eligibility, its decision concerning the Duke lacrosse team was extraordinary and wrong.

All of the Duke players, except for the seniors on the 2006 team, got another chance to win a championship. Even Finnerty and Seligmann were invited back to Duke, an offer they understandably declined.

The Blue Devils advanced to the 2007 championship game and lost to Johns Hopkins.

That should have been it, end of story.

The true justice of the 2008 NCAA lacrosse tournament is that Duke was not rewarded for receiving a meritless competitive advantage in the first place. *

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