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The quiet after the media storm

For a little more than a year from March 2006 to May 2007, nearly everything related to Duke Lacrosse was chronicled ad nauseam by most major news organizations across the country.

Whenever Duke called a press conference, dozens of reporters and camera crews flocked to pepper administrators with questions. When the team returned to practice-we're talking about practice!-in the fall of 2006, a gaggle of journalists trekked out to the West Campus Turf Fields early in the morning just to observe lacrosse drills. When the team played its first game returning from suspension last February, 70 media credentials were issued and ESPNU televised the game live. When the Blue Devils almost won the NCAA title last spring, throngs of media traveled to Baltimore hoping for a Hollywood ending to the Season of Redemption.

And then the media disappeared just about as fast as they came.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone who did not attend the Duke vs. Bucknell season opener Feb. 16, the men's lacrosse team began its 2008 season last week quietly-there was no smoke and tunnel entrance or packed Koskinen crowd as there was only a year ago. For the Bucknell game, just 15 media credentials were distributed, and exactly one news organization (this one) actively covered the event.

It was a far cry from the feeding frenzy that ensued over the first year or so of the case. When the story first broke, major newspapers, magazines and TV news shows flew reporters into town to pursue the juiciest aspects of the story. Reporters got used to the security lines at RDU Airport, the local hotels and the food and bars on Ninth Street.

ESPN's George Smith, the Worldwide Leader's TV reporter on the beat, checked into the Washington Duke Inn and didn't leave for weeks at a time, spending so many days in Durham talking to lawyers and private investigators that he had to file North Carolina state income taxes for 2006. Smith became a regular for lunch and dinner at (of all places) George's Garage and could even be seen at Charlie's from time to time.

Like many of his peers, Smith stayed on the case through the NCAA Championships last spring, churning out some of the best journalism surrounding the story, but he hasn't been back to Durham since. Smith had never covered lacrosse before the Duke case, and said it's unlikely he ever will again.

"We followed the team so closely when they were under scrutiny, I thought it was only fair that we continued to cover them after they were cleared," Smith said late last week, taking a break from covering the Kelvin Sampson saga in Bloomington, Ind. "The problem is that lacrosse just isn't a sport that gets a lot of attention. When it comes to the Final Four, the tournament's on TV and you see it on other networks, but in terms of day-to-day on a national scale, it just doesn't rate with NFL and Major League Baseball.

"I'm not surprised that the team isn't getting a lot of coverage this year. The team and the program went through the wringer, so maybe a lot of people just want to leave them alone. I think that after they were cleared, it was the right thing to do to cover the team for the remainder of the year and how they bounced back from adversity."

Smith isn't the only journalist feeling the Duke Lacrosse fatigue. I recently suggested to another reporter I know that there were still plenty of interesting stories about the team, especially the team dynamics with the return of the fifth-year seniors. He told me, perhaps only partially in jest, that he was looking for stories to cover besides Duke Lacrosse just for the sake of his own sanity.

Another reporter who covered the case, ESPN The Magazine's Jon Pessah, said: "The media attention in lacrosse had nothing to do with lacrosse, a sport most of the media-and certainly the non-sporting media-knew nothing about.... Nobody cared about lacrosse, then and especially now."

This has been especially evident recently, as Duke Lacrosse, on the precipice of a third run in four years at its first national title, is now more often spoken of in Roger Clemens' legal defense than it is in common sports vernacular.

From time to time, the ongoing legal case itself still makes headlines. Last Thursday, Duke Lacrosse was big news yet again around the country, not for the start of the season but for the new lawsuit filed by 38 of the unindicted players from the 2006 team.

The resurfacing of Duke Lacrosse in the national media is a reminder once again of what has been all too apparent for much of this story: that lacrosse only mattered to the media to the extent it could frame and raise the profile of an incident that was too complex to initially understand.


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