DURHAM, N.C. Duke University President Richard Brodhead apologized Saturday for not better supporting the men's lacrosse team and their families after three players were falsely accused in last year's highly publicized rape scandal.
Brodhead, speaking at the university's law school, said he regretted Duke's "failure to reach out" in a "time of extraordinary peril" after a woman accused three players of raping her at a March 2006 party thrown by the team.
"Given the complexities of this case, getting the communication right would never have been easy," Brodhead said. "But the fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they were most in need of support. This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it and I apologize for it."
Brodhead spoke at a school-sponsored forum on legal and ethical issues common to high-profile cases, and he received a standing ovation following his speech. He left afterward, and school officials said he would not be available for further comment.
As authorities began to investigate the allegations, Brodhead and the university initially suspended the highly ranked team from play. He later canceled the remainder of its season and ousted longtime coach Mike Pressler. Meanwhile, Durham County prosecutor Mike Nifong labeled the team "hooligans" as he searched for suspects.
But even as Nifong won indictments against players Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans, it became clear the allegations had no merit.
State prosecutors determined in April the accuser's story was a lie, and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper called the three players innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."
Nifong was disbarred in June for more than two dozen violations of the state bar's rules of professional conduct, including withholding results of critical DNA tests, and resigned from office. He spent one night in jail earlier this month after a judge held him in criminal contempt of court for lying to a court about having provided those test results to defense attorneys.
In the early days of the case, Brodhead was generally cautious in his comments, saying the players should be presumed innocent while also insisting the crimes alleged had no place at the elite private university.
Brodhead said Saturday he worried that making numerous public comments could be interpreted as an attempt by Duke to "influence the judicial process," especially since Nifong was insisting a crime had occurred.
That may have created an impression that Duke did not care about the accused students, Brodhead said, which he said was untrue but still something he regrets.
"Duke needed to be clear that it demanded fair treatment for its students," he said. "I took that completely for granted. If anyone doubted it, then I should have been more explicit, especially as the evidence mounted that the prosecutor was not acting in accordance with the standards of his profession."
Brodhead also said the school could have done more to show that some members of Duke's faculty who were openly critical of the lacrosse team did not speak for the university as a whole.
Duke has reached private settlements with Pressler, now the coach at Division II Bryant in Rhode Island, as well as the three cleared players and a teammate who was not indicted but accused a professor of giving him a failing grade because he was a lacrosse player.
Brodhead said the university is planning a national conference of lawyers, educators and student affairs leaders to discuss how schools should deal with students facing serious criminal charges.