Duke Lacrosse and the Fog of Scandal
Credit: Michael Krinke / Getty Image

Steel, now sixty-two years old, seemed to be understanding of the "bad boy" behavior that had occurred in the house at 610 North Buchanan. "I think that part of growing up is doing things that aren't right," he said. "That’s how you learn what's right. As I tell my kids all the time, if we have a contest of who’s made the most mistakes, I win. Making mistakes is part of life. Whether I think having bars that have exotic dancers is right or wrong, that's completely legal and they exist in our community and in our society, so you and I can have an opinion. So I made a decision: When I became a partner of Goldman Sachs, I would never go to a strip club again, because I said I can’t go and have some kid from Goldman Sachs see me and tell everyone at Goldman Sachs he saw Bob last night in a strip club, and then me look at a woman employee in the eye, and have her think that I'm going to view her in a balanced way. I can’t, so I have never been since then. My brother's bachelor party, at his wedding, was the last time. I used to joke with my wife: Someday, when all this is over and I don't have a job, I'm going to go to Las Vegas for a week and go to strip clubs so I can make up for it, but I haven't done that yet. So I made that decision... that it's not really what we should do, for a variety of reasons, and my life hasn't been adversely impacted. I haven't missed that much. But I think the idea that kids do dopey things is kind of what kids do. Do I think that it was a pretty heavy dose of dopey things at this event? Yeah, and I can tell it in a way that sounds insidious. I might personally think the cumulative impact of having strippers, swearing, making ethnic comments, using a broomstick as an alleged sex toy, rifling their purses, and things like that – assuming those things are all true – I personally might feel that that’s pretty unattractive. So I do, but kids do dumb things. Did you ever drive after drinking too much? I did. And could something terrible have happened? Could I have injured someone? Yes, and I did that. You know, boy, am I lucky."

As for what he believed happened in the bathroom that night, Steel said, "I felt there was zero chance that there was a group activity, that thirty guys saw something that was incredibly unattractive or whatever. These guys are like your and my kids. They're babies. Someone would've told their parents that 'I saw this' or whatever. I don't believe there’s any group thing that happened,something that they all saw. I just don't buy it, because I just think some kid would've broken to his mom, or some dad [would have] said, 'Tell me the truth or I'm taking away your car.' We have no idea what happened in a bathroom with one person or two persons. I have no clue, no idea. And again, you and I have dealt with things where you don't know, so you have to hope for the best and plan for it not being the best, but I have no idea. Today, what do I thinkI just don't know. And then you get the issue of, there are like seven clicks on this dial of what it could be. I don't need to be graphic. You can imagine seven clicks, some of which you can go, 'That’s not so great,' or other clicks you can imagine, 'That's pretty unattractive.'" Was justice served? "We have a legal system that has a process by which the wheels of justice turn," he said. "I believe that that process, after it wound its way to the right conclusion, I believe that it was an extremely unusual and messy, non-normal process this time, but in the end, yes, the exoneration seems like the right outcome."

Steel said he felt good about most of his decisions along the way and suggested that he had yet to receive the credit he deserved for navigating Duke through rough waters. "My biggest fear, some nights when I went to bed," he said, "was that I used to remember the exact distance, 3.8 miles from Duke was North Carolina Central, and that this could've turned into a very messy black/white confrontation with people driving by, shooting guns and things like that. It could've happened in a second. They had Black Panthers on campus, and things like that. No one's ever written about the management of that dynamic, point one. And there were reports of guns being shot. There were Black Panthers on campus who had guns. And the fear of an incident spiraling out of control. No one's ever said, 'You guys did a good job.' No one's ever said there wasn't anything violent; it never turned into a black-white situation. No one's ever given anybody any credit for managing that. We discussed that a lot. No one’s ever written it. It's fine with me. I don't care."

Then, he said, "Number two, I busted my ass to keep the board on the same page. We've got a lot of strong personalities on the board. You never heard the board break apart once. They were managed to be on the same page, and I must have spoken to every board member a bunch of times, basically saying, 'Listen, what do you think?' because my view was having the board break apart – and there were some people that were more student-sensitive on the board – John Mack [the former chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley] – he’s a handful. So keeping the board together was, I thought, my job, and I give myself a good grade on that.” He said the decision to suspend the season was particularly unpopular. "There are people that will go to their grave being angry at me because we robbed their boys of the ability to play," he said. (Duke successfully appealed to the NCAA to allow the lacrosse players to have a fifth year of eligibility to make up for the lost season.) "So," he continued, "suspending the season, relieving Pressler, very controversial at the time. We had very little support for that from anyone. That was a lonely decision.... And then the decision to hire [as the new coach John] Danowski. We had three or four choices and I think we chose the right guy. I don't need a thank-you note from anybody. I'm just telling you I feel pretty good about it.”

On Memorial Day, 2013, Duke won its second national lacrosse championship under Danowski's leadership of the program, defeating Syracuse 16–10. Steel – who by then had been replaced as chairman of the board of trustees at Duke first by Rick Waggoner, the former CEO of General Motors, and then by David Rubenstein, the billionaire cofounder of the Carlyle Group, the powerful publicly traded Washington private-equity and asset-management firm – was very tempted to e-mail Brodhead. "When Duke lacrosse won the national championship [again that] year, and you looked at Danowski and you looked at the quality of kids, and you say the decision to basically replace the coach, take a pause, have Dick talk to the boys and look them in the eye and explain to them what being an athlete at Duke meant to be, had them think about whether they wanted to come back in this way, and the hiring of Danowski – you know, I sleep pretty well," he said. "But no one is ever going to write me a thank-you note from the 150,000 alumni at Duke and say, 'Good work, guys.'"