Sunday, March 20, 2016

Knowing How To Stay Out Of Trouble

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
                                                                                         -Mark Twain

This has always been one of my favorite quotes. It seems that the longer I observe the world the more it rings true.

I saw two movies this weekend that confirmed that Mark Twain knew what he was talking about.

The first, The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis's best selling book, about the mortgage debt meltdown, actually uses this quote to open the film.

The movie chronicles a handful of investors who did not follow the pack, who did not buy the hype about the supposed safety of mortgage-backed securities and had the courage of their convictions to bet against Wall Street's biggest players.

Almost everyone on Wall Street believed that there was nothing safer than investing in mortgages. People would do almost anything to avoid losing their home. Of course, the risk of default was small when people had to put 20% down on a house, a stable income and good credit.

That was the case when Lewis Raineri developed the idea of packaging home mortgages and selling them as securities to large financial institutions. A lot of Wall Street bankers got rich. However, the idea proved so successful that the demand for the instruments exceeded the supply. Underwriting standards were loosened until eventually almost anyone, with any credit rating, and with nothing down, could qualify for a mortgage. We now know how that turned out.

The few who did not accept that they knew "for sure" that those mortgage securities were safe, got very, very rich. The others got themselves in trouble (and most of the rest of us as well) as they drove the entire economy into the ditch. What they thought they knew "for sure", just wasn't so.

The second movie that proved Twain's point was an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the Duke Lacrosse scandal. It has been exactly 10 years since a team party gone wrong at a small house just across the street from Duke's East Campus erupted into one of the biggest stories (sports or otherwise) of 2006.

You can access the documentary movie, "Fantastic Lies" on YouTube here. (1 hour, 45 minutes)

40 Duke lacrosse players, with presumably nothing better to do during Spring Break when most of their fellow students had left campus, paid two exotic dancers to entertain them at the party. The dancing lasted about 10 minutes of what had been expected to be a 2-hour show.

Each player had chipped in $20 to pay the dancers the $800 agreed price. Predictably, some of the boys were upset because they felt they had been ripped off. Coarse language and some vulgarities ensued. The girls went into the bathroom and then left to some more unpleasant language.

It certainly was not what you would expect from athletes at one of the nation's top universities. However, what came next is what consumed headlines for most of the Spring of 2016. One of the strippers accused three of the players of sexually assaulting and raping her in that bathroom.

As each day went by the media attention of what went on in that small rental house in Durham, North Carolina accelerated. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, CNN, Fox News and almost everybody else covered the story incessantly. The story had a mix of elements that were captivating--white vs. black, rich vs. poor, advantaged vs. disadvantaged. All of it taking place with elite college athletes at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

When I first heard about the story I was shocked but I was also intently interested in everything about the case. A big part of that was the fact that my son was a lacrosse player himself and was a senior in college at the same time. Fortunately, he was not at Duke. However, he had attended the Duke Lacrosse Camp run by Coach Mike Pressler and many of the Duke players were his lacrosse contemporaries that he had seen or may have run across at various recruiting camps during his high school years. That made all of this a more personal experience for me.

Could that be my son?

The early days of the media coverage left little room for doubt about their guilt. These rich, privileged lacrosse kids were guilty as hell. Why weren't they cooperating? It is just another example of pampered college athletes thinking they can get away from anything. What is their problem? Throw the book at them. They deserve it.

However, as the days went by and I listened to the some of the facts trickle out, a lot did not make sense to me. Something did not add up.

Hearing who the accused kids were, the high schools they attended, and the families they came from, only raised more questions for me. I have known a lot of lacrosse players over the years. These kids are generally a cut above most high school athletes. Most are good students from great schools. They generally come from supportive families because lacrosse is an expensive sport to play and excel at. It made no sense to me that three boys from these backgrounds would suddenly and sadistically rape a poor, black stripper in a bathroom in a house with 30 or 40 other guys in the next room.

Yes, these guys were all incredibly stupid in paying strippers to come to a party. Yes, I could see some bad language being exchanged as they realized they may have been ripped off. Yes, male college students do some stupid, idiotic things. However, does that make them guilty of rape?

Of course, there were very few people asking the questions I was asking. Many Duke students, most of the Duke faculty and almost all of the national media tried and convicted these guys every day in the media for months. Why wait for the facts in evidence? They knew "for sure" those three players were guilty and would have to be brought to justice. Right now.

That rush to judgment ultimately caused Duke's lacrosse season to be cancelled (the prior season they had been the NCAA runner-up), the coach forced to resign and the accused players expelled from school.

As days and weeks passed, the evidence I saw and heard seemed to suggest I was right in believing in the innocence of the Duke lacrosse players. It seemed inevitable that the charges would have to be dropped. It never happened.


There had to some other evidence that District Attorney Mike Nifong had that caused him to continue to push forward with his prosecution? Why else would he refuse to drop the charges?

We now know that Nifong had absolutely nothing. He had no evidence. He was in a tough election battle and he wanted the publicity and he wanted black votes in Durham. Justice was not on his mind. In fact, he went so far as to conspire with the lab that he used for DNA testing to attempt to hide the fact that four other men had DNA evidence on or in the accuser. Not a trace of DNA of any Duke lacrosse player was found on her.

The three lacrosse players were later fully exonerated by the State of North Carolina.

D.A. Mike Nifong was convicted of contempt of court for lying to the court and was disbarred.

The three wrongly accused Duke lacrosse players ultimately won what was rumored to be a multi-million settlement in a civil action against Duke University.

The remainder of the Duke lacrosse team that year also reached some form of financial settlement from Duke University for the cancellation of the season and the emotional distress they were put through.

All told, I saw one report that suggested that Duke University may have spent as much as $100 million in cleaning up the mess of the Duke Lacrosse Scandal.

What about the media? What about the faculty members and the campus agitators who were quick to jump on the bandwagon to convict these players without any evidence?

Mary Katherine Ham writes about this in an article in The Federalist.

To this day, most of the Duke faculty and leadership who prejudged the lacrosse players remain in their positions and have never apologized. Media figures who apologized or retracted are few and far between. Instead, most coverage offered grudging reporting on the dismissal of charges.

One media figure that I remember vividly hammering those boys night after night was Nancy Grace. To this day I don't think she has ever uttered anything close to an apology for dragging their names through the mud each night.

Another media figure I remember from those days covering the case was a young reporter named Megyn Kendall for Fox News. She was one of the few reporters who seemed to bring a balanced view in her reporting on the case. She was a lawyer and really seemed to know what she was talking about. I was impressed with her reporting, her legal perspectives and her balanced view of the case.

Ten years later Megyn Kendall is now Megyn Kelly. She has come a long way in ten years.

Of course, Donald Trump undoubtedly does not agree with my assessment of Megyn who has now taken to calling her "Crazy Megyn" in his Twitter tirades. Does he know that "for sure"?

If I could give The Donald one piece of advice I would probably tell him to remember that,

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

In fact, that's good advice for anyone who wants to stay out of trouble.

Spend more time thinking about how you may be wrong than thinking about why you are right.

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