he most recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary takes its title from Duke lacrosse player Dave Evans’s statement: “You have all been told some fantastic lies.” In 2006 Evans and two teammates were indicted for the alleged sexual assault of an exotic dancer. The opening words of Fantastic Lies—“It’s about race, it’s about class, it’s about privilege”—come from its director, Marina Zenovich, who believes “the vast majority of reports of sexual assault are true.” Any hesitations she felt about applying that assumption to the Duke case arose because, in this instance, the unexamined generalization precipitated an immediate presumption of guilt and a rush to judgment against the team. “It was interesting to tell people I was working on this; everyone thought [the players] were guilty,” Zenovich told Vogue in a recent interview. “It was interesting to find out the facts and go, ‘Well, actually, they were exonerated by the attorney general.’”
Fantastic Lies makes clear that a rush to judgment defined the response to the dancer’s allegations. The credulous pattern was repeated in 2014 after Rolling Stone’s shoddy, mendacious, and ultimately withdrawn story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Journalists, prosecutors, and Duke’s professors and administrators quickly assigned the lacrosse players their role in a morality play based on demographic stereotypes. Even Bradley Bannon, an attorney who ended up brilliantly representing one of the accused players, told Zenovich, “I had absolutely no problem believing that rich, white, elite, young men would take advantage of a young African-American woman that they had hired to come and perform for them.”
The collapse of the story so many assumed was true revealed Mike Nifong, the Durham, North Carolina, district attorney obsessed with publicity and winning election, to be the principal villain. He charged three Duke students with felonies on alarmingly flimsy grounds, then withheld and misrepresented exculpatory DNA evidence.
The media performance was scarcely less shameful. “I guess we should have tamped down our outrage and waited to see what the evidence showed,” one of the leaders of the pack, Raleigh News & Observer columnist Ruth Sheehan now tells Zenovich. The former public editor of the New York Times, Dan Okrent, explained how all the elements of what he called a “journalistic tragedy” were present:
It was male over female. It was rich over poor. It was educated over uneducated. My God, all the things that we know happen in the world coming together in one place. And you know, journalists—they start to quiver with a thrill when something like this happens.
Fantastic Lies lets Duke off too easy, however. According to its handbook, faculty and administrators have a specific duty to treat students as “fellow members of the university community, deserving of respect and consideration in their dealings with faculty.” Even as evidence accumulated of the players’ innocence and Nifong’s corruption, Duke President Richard H. Brodhead refused for eight months to accord three of his students consideration and respect, on the grounds that they faced felony charges.
As the evidence mounted, the narrative shifted. It became increasingly clear that the story of the privileged brutalizing the underprivileged was untenable, that the case was really about false accusation and the abuse of government power. Broadhead ultimately used Nifong’s decision to drop the groundless rape charge as a pretext to reinstate the suspended players, laying bare the moral emptiness of his original stance. The fact that these students still faced felony charges for sexual assault and kidnapping (which Nifong also dropped in short order) refuted Brodhead’s claim that his behavior was governed by principled deference to the criminal justice process. Jay Bilas, an ESPN commentator with a bachelor’s and law degrees from Duke, wrote a letter to Duke Magazine pointing out that Broadhead’s claim to have “‘emphasized’ the rights of Duke’s students . . . fails the laugh test.” The magazine refused to publish it. “I asked [the editor], were you given instructions?” Bilas tells Zenovich. “He told me yes.”
Duke’s faculty either rushed to denounce the students, or stood by silently while their colleagues did. Shortly after some protesters banged pots and hoisted banners (the largest read “CASTRATE!!”) outside the lacrosse captains’ house and others hung “Wanted!” posters around campus with individual photos of the team, the so-called Group of 88 faculty ran a full-page ad in the student newspaper. It commended “the protestors making collective noise . . . for not waiting and making yourselves heard.” So much for critical, evidence-based thinking.
Zenovich doesn’t mention it, but a week after the Group of 88’s ad appeared, one of its authors, literature professor Wahneema Lubiano, published an essay describing the students on the lacrosse team as “almost perfect offenders” because they are “the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus.” Her colleague Houston Baker had already weighed in with an open letter to Duke provost Peter Lange. Baker demanded that Duke order the “immediate dismissal” of the students and coaches of the lacrosse team: they embodied “abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken, white male privilege loosed amongst us.”
Rich with campus villains, the lacrosse case also had a hero: Duke criminal law professor James Coleman, who played two roles in advancing the cause of reason. Officially, he led the university’s inquiry into the team’s conduct during the previous five years. It concluded that while lacrosse players drank too much, they were in most other ways exemplary students: strong scholars with a 100% graduation rate and many more Academic all-Americans than any other lacrosse team in the Atlantic Coast Conference; respectful of the bus drivers, groundskeeper, equipment manager, and others who served the team; and free of bullying behavior, racist talk, sexism, and cheating.
Unofficially, Coleman repeatedly made the point that most deserves to be remembered: when it becomes acceptable to victimize based on stereotypes about race, gender, and class, African-Americans, women, and the poor have the most to lose. Speaking of Nifong in October 2006, Coleman, who is black, asked 60 Minutes, “What are you to conclude about a prosecutor who says to you, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get this set of defendants?’ What does it say about what he’s willing to do to get poor black defendants?”
Fantastic Lies is the latest in the 30 for 30 series of documentaries commissioned by ESPN. Their original purpose was to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary by commissioning 30 films. The topics were on slightly offbeat topics, and the directors were independent filmmakers not necessarily known for their work in sports. Zenovich’s claim to fame, for example, is Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, an HBO film about the director’s sexual misconduct case.
But 30 for 30 was so successful that ESPN decided to continue it. Approaching its seven-year mark, the series is two-thirds of the way into its third 30-episode “volume.” Spinoffs include 13 kindred documentaries, eight “Soccer Stories” timed for the 2014 World Cup, nine episodes of “Nine for IX” on the effects of Title IX on women’s sports, and legions of short films that air on espn.com. The recently released boxed set, ESPN Films 30 for 30: Five-Year Anniversary Collection, offers 114 hours of programming.
30 for 30 is known for its treatment of little-covered sports such as surfing, skating, sky diving, rugby, and BMX. Even the episodes that deal with football, basketball, baseball, and boxing (in that order of frequency) usually approach these sports from an unfamiliar angle. The football episodes, for example, include one on the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, which kept practicing and performing even after the Colts relocated to Indianapolis in 1984. Following the Cleveland Browns’ shift to Baltimore in 1996, the band renamed itself Baltimore’s Marching Ravens.
30 for 30 is rich in meat-and-potatoes topics such as the 2004 Yankees-Red Sox playoffs, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and the Muhammed Ali-Larry Holmes rivalry, but it is not without its share of arugula and Stilton. There are baseball programs on the creation of Rotisserie Fantasy baseball and the 1982 Kirkland, Washington, Little League team. Basketball appears in an episode on the 1951 Boston College point-shaving scandal, featuring Henry Hill, the low-level Mafioso who orchestrated the scheme, and narrated by Ray Liotta, who portrayed Hill in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas.
Meanwhile, the hits keep rolling. Fantastic Lies first aired on March 13, 2016, the exact tenth anniversary of the Duke lacrosse team party that generated the false accusations. Other topical episodes in the series include a five-parter on the O.J. Simpson murders and trial scheduled for June.
But who knew in October 2009, when the third 30 for 30 ever made first aired, that it would become newsworthy in 2016? Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? chronicles the sudden 1983 rise and equally rapid fall three years later of the United States Football League, a would-be rival to the National Football League. Its initial business plan was to play its season in the spring, when it would compete with other sports for attention, but appeal to football fans prepared to follow their sport year-round, not just from Labor Day until the Super Bowl. That sensible strategy was abandoned in 1986 when the owner of the New Jersey Generals pressured his fellow owners to change to a fall schedule in order to with the NFL. He then organized a $1.32 billion anti-monopoly lawsuit against the NFL on the grounds that the league’s games were shown on all three broadcast networks. The USFL folded (the fall 1986 season was never played) after the jury awarded it $1 in damages—actually, $3 in triple damages and another 76 cents in interest.
The Generals’ owner? Donald J. Trump. “Why did he buy into the league?” asks Bill Simmons, who created 30 for 30 and appears in this episode.
Trump with the USFL has always struck me as somebody that couldn’t get into the NFL, and he was so desperate to own a football team, this was the next thing. It was like a guy who, like, all the Beamers that he wanted were sold out, so he goes to the Saab dealership. Says, “Give me a Saab. Give me any Saab, I don’t care.” And then he complains about the Saab.
Charlie Steiner, the Generals announcer, says, “He figured that he could buy his way onto the back [sports] page of the New York Post, he could move to Page Six, the gossip page, and then ultimately the front page. Donald Trump was no longer a Donald, but The Donald.” Shown that quote on camera, The Donald’s Trumpian response was, “I hope he remains loyal but if he doesn’t, let me know and I’ll attack him.”
In a bonus feature on the boxed-set disc called “Who is Donald Trump?” USFL commissioner Chet Simmons says of Trump, “He would try to bully you. . . Somebody like Trump doesn’t care about family or happiness as long as he’s happy. . . . He couldn’t care less about these other guys if it came down to it. He’d kill them all, leave them in blood on the street. . . . He was disturbing, he was irascible, he was the worst thing in the room.”
Trump’s own verdict? If the league had lasted, “it would have been small potatoes. . . . I actually think I got the league to go as far as it went. I think without me this league would have folded a lot sooner.” Change “the league” to “the Republican Party” and it’s no longer 1986. It’s 2016.