This is a true story about two men named Mike, both of whom lived in Durham, North Carolina, two years ago. Both had ambitions and dreams, but that is where the similarities end. One Mike sought to build lives, and the other sought to tear them down. One Mike nearly destroyed the life of the other, and for no good reason except that the destruction of the first Mike and his family would help him win an election, and that was reason enough for a member of the political class.
The "Mikes," of course, are Mike Pressler and Mike Nifong. Pressler was the lacrosse coach at Duke University, a man who had taken a program that consistently lost and built it into a national powerhouse. Nifong was appointed as the Durham County district attorney, but after promising the governor he would not run for that office, he changed his mind after finding out that if he won the next election, he would gain an extra $15,000 a year on his pension.
How the paths of these two men crossed is a story that has been told many times on this page and elsewhere: the Duke Lacrosse Non-Rape, Non-Kidnapping, and Non-Sexual Assault Case. It was in Durham two years ago that Mike Nifong declared that a number of athletes who played lacrosse for Mike Pressler had brutalized and raped Crystal Gail Mangum at a party at which she was hired to do a strip show.
The accusations were a lie, a transparent lie, but that did not stop Nifong from pursuing them, and inflaming the local community and putting Duke’s hard-left campus leaders in an uproar. Although I have written much about this sorry event, nonetheless the story of Mike Pressler needs to be heard again and again.
Pressler had been coaching at Duke for 16 years. In the 2005 NCAA lacrosse finals, his team lost to Johns Hopkins by a single goal and his 2006 team, which was returning most of its starters, was favored to win the national championship. He was recognized as one of the best lacrosse coaches in the country — if not the best. Duke had rewarded his efforts with a new contract and a big raise. His players also did well in the classroom, and he was highly regarded at Duke University. That is, until it became convenient for the administration of Duke to disown him.
When the rape charges became public, Pressler soon was a pariah. His players were falsely accused of being rapists, and he was the coddler of rapists. Duke’s administration swore to the press that his was a team "out of control," and that Pressler had been on everything but double-secret probation. (The problem, of course, was that there was no documentation to back these claims, despite the fact that Duke’s leadership was insisting that the coach who had been rewarded with the new contract really was not deserving of all of the accolades given him less than a year before.)
It was not long before the press piled on. The Raleigh News & Observer, which had jumpstarted this whole crisis with the wholly bogus "Dancer Recalls Details" story, an interview with Mangum that assumed that every word she spoke was true. (The reporters, Samiha Khanna and Anne Blythe, called Mangum a "victim" and wrote — with straight faces — that Mangum, who was a well-known prostitute in Durham, had just started "exotic dancing" just a few months before to pay her bills.)
From there, the situation veered out of control. Despite the players’ denials, and despite the lack of evidence, officials from Duke and Durham chose to believe a drug-addicted stripper with a criminal record. Ruth Sheehan, a columnist for the News & Observer, demanded that Pressler be fired and on April 5, 2006, Duke did just that.
As I wrote in my review of Pressler’s book, It’s Not About the Truth, it was clear that the leadership at Duke was not interested in what happened, but only in continuing the "narrative" of race, class, and sex that had permeated the entire affair:
The title comes from a statement that Duke Athletic Director Joe Alleva said when he told Pressler that he wanted his resignation. When Pressler said, "We must stand for the truth," Alleva replied, "It’s not about the truth anymore." He went on, "It’s about the integrity of the university, it’s about the faculty, the city, the NAACP, the protesters, and the other interest groups."
To understand just how craven an act this was by Alleva and his boss, Duke President Richard Brodhead, Pressler clearly had cooperated with the police, the Duke administration, and had made sure that everything regarding his team was done with integrity. Faced with a crisis, he did not stonewall or stretch the truth; he demanded that his players be truthful with him, just as he was truthful with everyone else. Duke rewarded his integrity by lying and making sure that he and his family would be in the community crosshairs. In my review, I wrote:
In reading this book — which can be done in a day, despite its length — I could not imagine the stress and outright fear that must have been a daily portion of the lives of Mike Pressler and his family. Threatening telephone calls were on the regular menu, as well as signs placed in the yard demanding that the entire team confess to the alleged rape. Finally, in fear for his life and for the lives of his family, his wife and children moved out of the house to a safe place.
But that was not all. Pressler received two threatening emails from Duke student Chauncey Nartey, a black student who had been born in Africa, and was a favorite among the Duke administration. For writing an email that threatened Pressler’s daughter, Brodhead “punished” Nartey by having him attend Duke functions as an example of a “prized” student at the university. (Yes, the administration requested that Nartey “apologize,” but he faced no discipline.)
So, one of the best coaches in the country in any sport was unemployed, humiliated, facing daily death threats, and his family was under attack as well in Durham. Despite the fact that there were many collegiate openings in lacrosse, not one Division I institution even would return his phone calls.
Finally, in the late summer of 2006, Division II Bryant University of Rhode Island took a chance and hired him. For a D-I coach — and especially one as accomplished as Pressler — to be forced to take a D-II job (if he wished to remain in coaching at all) was a major statement about just how much his star had fallen. One might recall that Indiana University fired Bobby Knight after a number of off-the-court incidents, yet Knight ended up at Texas Tech and coached there for many years.
Other coaches who have been caught lying and cheating and who have lost their jobs have turned up elsewhere in D-I, such as Bob Huggins, now of West Virginia. Pressler never had engaged in illegal recruiting practices and his off-the-field conduct was exemplary, yet here was the major collegiate establishment treating him like a criminal. To make matters worse, John Burness, who then was Duke’s main liaison with the community and the press, told Newsday a few days before North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that the rape charges were dropped and the players were "innocent" that Pressler’s replacement at Duke was a "mensch," a guy who "gets it," as opposed to Pressler who, apparently, did not "get it." (The Burness comments, as outrageous and dishonest as they were, led to Pressler’s suing Duke for defamation, and the litigation continues as of this article.)
Yet, despite the fact that he had to be away from his family for nearly a year while they tried to sell their house in Durham and while his oldest daughter — a championship volleyball player — finished high school, Pressler revived the old magic he had produced at Duke. Within a year, his Bryant squad, which had known only losing seasons for years, won its conference, and repeated its championship the next year. (In Pressler’s second year, Bryant made the D-II "final four" in lacrosse, a major accomplishment.)
About a week ago, the leadership at Bryant saw what apparently the "wise" people at Duke did not: Pressler was a major asset to the university, and rewarded him. Declared the university’s athletic director:
"Coach Pressler has done an exceptional job with our men’s lacrosse program in his two seasons at Bryant. Under Mike’s leadership our lacrosse program achieved unprecedented success both in the classroom and on the field. We won two consecutive NE-10 Championships and excelled in the classroom as demonstrated by the highest ever team GPA. Because of these factors and many others, I am pleased to announce this contract extension which will keep Mike Pressler a member of our Bulldog family well into the future. I would not want any other coach to lead our men’s lacrosse program into Division I."
Mike Pressler has distinguished himself in a way that most people cannot imagine. Here was a man whose players were falsely accused of a terrible crime, a coach who was treated as scum by a university president who apparently thought it was just fine to believe a lie, but a man who also possessed character that seems to be absent from the leadership at Duke and in Durham’s government. If F. Scott Fitzgerald was correct when he wrote, "Character is fate," then Pressler’s recent success should come as no surprise.
However, as the title implies, there also is another Mike in this story. Michael B. Nifong certainly seemed to be better off on April 5, 2006, than Mike Pressler. Here was a man who was in demand, someone who was about to win the biggest election of his life, and someone who would have his phone calls to the New York Times returned upon request.
Nifong could smirk at the lacrosse players and their attorneys in court, be featured on major news stories, and receive favorable press across the country. The adoring press portrayed him as a crusader for justice who was trying to ensure that a poor, black woman would not have to worry that some spoiled, rich, white, preppy athletes who had beaten and raped her would be able to skirt justice because of their social status.
When he secured indictments against Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty on April 16, 2006, the press was there to record the "perp walks" of these two defendants and Newsweek even put the story on its cover, complete with mug shots of the two young men. Nifong had David Evans indicted three weeks later, and when he strode into court for hearings on the case in the spring and summer of 2006, he did so confidently, knowing that the judges would not question his comments or his judgment.
In May, 2006, he won the Democratic primary in Durham County by gaining huge majorities of votes in the black wards, and he would win the general election the following November. In the spring of 2006, this "Mike" was "up," while the other "Mike" was as far down as one could get.
It did not stay that way, however. As readers know, Nifong’s case fell apart and ultimately the charges were dropped and Nifong was disbarred for many of those comments in the spring of 2006 to that adoring press and for hiding exculpatory evidence and lying in court. Soon after, he was removed as Durham County prosecutor and currently is unemployed. The success of 2006 turned into the horror of 2007, and now he faces lawsuits from three different sources, all regarding the lacrosse case.
Now that his name is synonymous with prosecutorial abuse, Nifong is as much or more of a pariah than the man whose Duke career he helped to ruin. One important difference between the two men is that Mike Nifong is wallowing in self-pity. Where Mike Pressler took a tough situation and turned it into a success, Nifong has been blaming everyone else but himself.
In trying to avoid judgments in the lawsuits, he declared bankruptcy. His recent court filings have denied any culpability at all, and he seems incredulous that anyone would want to sue him for wrongdoing. And, as if to be trying to provide comic relief, his two-person "Justice for Mike Nifong" Committee has been circulating a petition declaring that the bar hearings were a farce, and demanding immediate reinstatement of his North Carolina law license. My Durham sources tell me that Nifong and his friends in Durham are insisting that the rape charges were genuine and that his legal troubles are due only to "politics."
Indeed, it would seem that Michael Byron Nifong is a poster child for Fitzgerald’s "Character is fate" quotation. Here is someone who lied and gained false indictments against innocent people simply to help win an election. In fact, his media barrage began only after Durham police officers told him that they had no evidence in the case and that the investigation was at a standstill.
Nifong, incredibly, wants us to feel sorry for him. He wants there to be a groundswell of people who will demand he be given back his law license; he wants to continue telling the lie that three young men raped and beat Crystal Mangum, and he wants the rest of us to think that he has suffered his current ordeal only because he "stood up for justice."
So, I leave it to the reader to decide which Mike is the better human being and which Mike has received justice. Mike Pressler was forced to start over again because of lies told by Mike Nifong. Ironically, Nifong’s own lies ultimately cost him his own job. If criminal investigators from North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Justice had any integrity, most likely Nifong would have been charged with felonies and would be facing a possible prison term. Indeed, character has been fate in this tale of two Mikes, but the fate of Nifong still has not been severe enough to meet the bar of justice.