The timing of the marches, protests and vigils was coincidental, yet cruelly ironic, as if the ACC’s unprecedented domination of the women’s basketball Final Four required a counterbalancing dose of ground truth. This was provided by members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team, whose debauchery allegedly culminated in sexual and racial depredation.

The story of rape, of verbal and physical abuse by children of the white elite, remains in the national news, thoroughly and understandably overshadowing their school’s fourth visit to the women’s Final Four since 1999.

“I feel like this is a time for celebration for our team,” Duke coach Gail Goestenkors protested mildly before departing for Boston and her sport’s ultimate weekend. “Although we’re happy, I know there’s a lot of tough things going on around campus.”

Under the best of circumstances, collegiate athletic competition involving women–most often condescendingly called “ladies” or “girls” by the sports media–routinely commands second-class coverage. Not until Duke, Maryland and North Carolina gave the ACC an unprecedented three teams in the NCAA Final Four did Triangle dailies bother to reprint the tournament brackets that appeared almost routinely while men competed.

Radio and television reportage and commentary, both local and national, harped incessantly on “the tournament” but only as synonymous with the men. “What must it be like for these women and their coaches when the male-dominated mainstream media continue to refer to ‘the tournament’ as if there’s only one?’” Christine Brennan asked in USA Today. “Or when that pesky little adjective ‘men’s’ still is sometimes not used to differentiate one tournament from the other, while the adjective ‘women’s’ is never forgotten?”

The off-field excesses of the Duke lacrosse team (men’s) are more wound than insult, more eclipse than shadow, providing a dark and hurtful reminder of larger truths about sex, race and privilege. How must female athletes, black and white, look at their male counterparts after such an episode, or rather how must they imagine their male counterparts look at them? And, if boys-will-be-boys is tolerated by athletic administrators, where does a woman turn for support?

Many a researcher has drawn links between the macho world of sports and sexual violence, particularly when alcohol is involved. “You find this behavior among the violent sports where there’s contact and an air of hyper-masculinity,” said Earl Smith, a Wake Forest University sociology professor.

There is no denying the collegiate locker room remains a bastion of female derogation. Among the greatest slurs that can be visited upon a male player, denoting unforgivable weakness, is to call him a “pussy.”

Duke is hardly the only place where such an ethic holds sway. But it is revealing that the university has never made it an overt priority to place women, or African Americans, in positions of authority within its athletics department. Taking guidance from an assistant coach is one thing; being answerable to, and observing, authority figures who are female and/or black provides more sweeping lessons.

“I think we have a responsibility to provide role models every step of the way,” said Virginia’s Craig Littlepage, the first and only African-American director of athletics in ACC history. In contrast, Duke AD Joe Alleva has been more notable for his silence than his leadership.

If Duke President Richard Brodhead is serious about his professed desire “to face up to the profoundly serious issues that recent events have brought to light and address them in a positive, substantive, and ongoing way,” as he wrote to the Duke community, he must include an examination of the implicit message embedded in the school’s athletic power structure.

Meanwhile, in what is surely another lesson for athletes, violence remains an accepted sub-theme on collegiate sidelines. The same coaches who are their universities’ most visible representatives, lauded as teachers and role models, think nothing of publicly and loudly berating student-athletes for transgressions as simple as failing to recognize a zone defense.

A violent manner is no handicap to finding a high-paying coaching position. Bob Huggins, one of the most verbally abusive men ever to command a collegiate basketball program, was fired at the University of Cincinnati in 2004 shortly after an arrest for drunk driving. He was paid $3 million to go away after years of low graduation rates, numerous off-court misdeeds by players, NCAA violations, and 399 victories in 16 seasons. A dismaying number of fans and media commentators blamed Huggins’ dismissal not on his own excesses, but on the perceived prissiness of Nancy Zimpher, the university’s female president.

Late last month, Huggins was scooped up by Kansas State as its new head coach.

Blemishes of most any sort seem forgiven when winning is assured. Duke men’s lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, allowed to resign last week, obviously placed inadequate stress on his players’ comportment away from the field. But he had the compensating virtue of winning about two-thirds of his games, and took the Blue Devils to the 2005 national championship game.

A few days after Huggins landed at Kansas State, North Carolina native Kelvin Sampson was hired to coach Indiana University, which ran off abusive Bob Knight in 2000. Listening to the praises sung by college basketball’s TV shills, you would never guess Sampson’s Oklahoma program was plagued by low graduation rates and is about to go on NCAA probation.

Both Huggins and Sampson figured in speculation about who might replace Herb Sendek at N.C. State even before the Wolfpack coach fled to Arizona State, culminating a decade of lukewarm acceptance but unquestioned rectitude at Raleigh.

Talk of intensifying pressures to win accompanied George Mason University’s unexpected advance to the men’s Final Four. Many observers proclaimed a seismic change in the game’s tectonics, with early NBA defections allowing disciplined, experienced lower-profile teams such as the Patriots to benefit from a leveling of talent.

The evidence is hardly conclusive, but high-profile coaches quickly leapt to the logical conclusion their mid-level colleagues would now face the sort of unreasonable demands that chased Sendek.

Administrators know they cannot buy the exposure that four NCAA victories brought George Mason, where the campus bookstore sold 30,000 T-shirts in March, new corporate sponsors came calling, and both season ticket sales and interest in undergraduate admission soared. No wonder 334 schools in 49 states now play Division I basketball, with Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central about to enter the lucrative NCAA tournament lottery, abandoning their roots, traditions and good sense in the process.

Some within women’s sports foresaw a similarly corrupt future once 1972 federal legislation forced universities to invest in creating equal athletic opportunity. Enhanced support under Title IX brought more scholarships and support, but the infusion of dollars doomed the lenient, honor-driven Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Within a decade, the previously dismissive NCAA seized control, displaying the avarice of a Speaker of the House catching scent of a cash-rich lobbyist.

Base behavior was quickly rewarded. “A lot of women in this game are awfully naïve,” lamented one basketball coach in 1979, “not only about how big it’s gotten, but about each other.” The University of Tennessee, soon a national power, was mockingly nicknamed the “University of Transfer” because Pat Head Summitt, the UT coach now revered in her sport, took advantage of AIAW rules to lure players from other programs to play immediately for her.

Naïveté is as obsolete in the modern women’s game as are Final Four appearances by small schools such as Immaculata and Cheyney State, once perennial participants. Typically, the 2006 NCAA women’s Final Four involved only schools from power conferences, most prominently the ACC.

The season, and the Final Four, marked a basketball breakthrough for ACC women, who for years chased Tennessee and the dominant Southeastern Conference. Equally impressive, the women outshone their male counterparts in both the polls and the NCAA tournament.

For only the fifth time in the past quarter-century, no ACC men’s squad reached the Final Four. Three ACC women’s teams got that far. Only Duke ranked among the top six in the final Associated Press men’s poll. The North Carolina, Maryland and Duke women ranked among AP’s top four, winning 98 times between them, with a single loss coming outside league competition.

North Carolina finished atop the AP poll and lost twice in 35 games. Both defeats were delivered by Maryland, the second coming in the national semifinals. Duke won 31 and lost four times, twice to UNC and twice to Maryland. The Terrapins finished 34-4 and became the second ACC women’s squad to capture the NCAA title (after UNC in 1994), rallying to win in overtime after tying Duke late in regulation play during the national championship game.

But celebration of the ACC women’s transcendent season was cut short by tales of racism, alcohol abuse and alleged sexual assault perpetuated by male Duke athletes. In this, too, the lacrosse team and its excesses served to victimize women.