Tar Heel Tattler - June 2006

Lax attitude won't nuke Duke's repute
Chris Roush

It’s too early to tell if the Duke University lacrosse players accused of raping a stripper will have any impact on donations to the school, student applications, faculty recruitment and the like. But some experts think the economic effects of the incident may not last long.

Although sports scandals have damaged the reputations of some colleges, the negative results have been usually short-lived. “The Duke lacrosse team has badly hurt the image of the university,” says Richard Lapchick, chair of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program. “However, once the case is settled, I do not believe there will be a long-term impact on enrollment and donations.”

Lapchick says that even spectacular sports successes rarely help colleges with recruiting and fund-raising over the long haul. “Many thought Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass was a boon for both, but no sports incident has had that positive sustained effect. The same is likely to be true here on the negative side. Duke’s brand has been built over too long a period of time. Temporary hurt, yes. Long-term, no.”

Duke is a significant factor in North Carolina’s economy. With a work force of 36,000, including hospital operations, it is the state’s third-largest private employer, behind Wal-Mart and Food Lion. Its annual budget is about $3 billion.

Major financial donors may need special attention from the university. They will want to make sure their money is well managed, not spent on cleaning up problems, says Raymond Sauer, a Clemson University sports economist. “If donors are assured that this is not a reflection of management, they shouldn’t take a big hit.”

Thus far, the university has kept thousands of alumni informed about the case with straightforward e-mail updates. In addition, Duke has asked alumni to urge high school students they know who have been admitted for next fall to accept the university’s offers. Carol Cookerly, a 1978 Duke graduate who owns an Atlanta-based public-relations company, thinks that the university has done well with the communications aspect of the crisis. “The tone has been right. It has expressed the university’s concern to do the right thing.”

But even the best of intentions are not always enough to avoid some unwelcome public-relations developments. Since the story broke into the news in late March, sales of Duke lacrosse shirts by the school have more than tripled.