TV Review: ESPN’s ‘Fantastic Lies’

ESPN 30 for 30 Fantastic Lies
Courtesy of ESPN

Scheduled on the 10th anniversary of the incident that triggered the Duke lacrosse case, “Fantastic Lies” is an especially powerful ESPN30 for 30” documentary, one more peripherally connected to sports than most. In her detailed re-creation of what happened, director Marina Zenovich (“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”) explores the “Molotov cocktail” of societal factors that made the story a media sensation, as well as a searing example of journalistic malpractice and prosecutorial abuse. Given the sensitivity of the subject matter, the project walks a delicate line in a spare, thought-provoking manner.

Coming in the wake of Rolling Stone’s discredited rape story about the University of Virginia, “Fantastic Lies” (a phrase uttered by one of the accused) and the other high-profile cases of false allegations that have emerged create mixed feelings, inasmuch as they risk heightening the mistaken sense that unfounded complaints are frequent. Yet as the film makes clear, understandable concern about victims has to be balanced against the rights of the accused.

In methodical fashion, Zenovich lays out the issues of race, class and political opportunism that surrounded the case, with Duke – dubbed “the Harvard of the South” – representing a bastion of privilege on par with the Ivy League schools, juxtaposed with the city of Durham. It was, as author Don Yaeger notes, “ready-made for the kind of controversy that happened,” one so tantalizing that press outlets pounced on it, throwing caution to the wind in a way that former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent dubs a “journalistic tragedy.”

Perhaps foremost, it’s hard to ignore the parallels to the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” at least in terms of how perceptions were largely shaped and fed by an ambitious prosecutor, Mike Nifong, who became so wedded to the idea that the lacrosse players were guilty as to downplay, dismiss and ignore exculpatory evidence. Throw in questionable police behavior; the eventual fate of Crystal Mangum, the troubled woman who leveled the accusations; and Nifong’s eventual disbarment, and the story contains elements of tragedy and hubris that would be difficult to convincingly script.


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Certainly, the situation looked grim at first for the players, about 40 of whom had held a party and hired two strippers, one being Mangum. As Zenovich illustrates, Mangum’s contention that three of the men had raped her yielded across-the-spectrum outrage, from Jesse Jackson to Nancy Grace to Duke students and faculty, stoked not only by Nifong’s statements to the press but by the slowness of the university’s administration to respond.

Many of the most emotional interviews come from the parents of those accused, at first unsure about what had transpired, only to become increasingly agitated as the evidence appeared to be unraveling. Zenovich also elicits striking mea culpas from some of those who covered the story, conceding that the mix of factors at play caused many to race to conclusions.

At its best, “30 for 30” prods fans to look beyond the often myopic preoccupation with wins and losses and see sports through a larger cultural prism. And the network will give this entry a helpful push by scheduling its telecast to follow coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament pairings.

Given that lacrosse doesn’t possess quite the same heft as the big-money college sports such as basketball or football, that link between the games people watch and society at large might be a bit more tenuous. But that doesn’t make “Fantastic Lies” any less significant – or compelling.

TV Review: ESPN's 'Fantastic Lies'

(Documentary; ESPN, Sun. March 13, 9 p.m. ET)


Produced by Lightbox.


Executive producers, Jonathan Chinn, Simon Chinn; producers, P.G. Morgan, Marina Zenovich; director, Zenovich; camera, Wolfgang Held, Thorsten Thielow; editor, Greg Finton; music, Jeff Cardoni. 120 MIN.

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  1. Mark Taylor says:

    This case always turned my stomach. When racial bigots like Jesse Jackson and The New Black Panther’s get involved, the despicable race baiting media, the Duke administration, the leftist’s hate American professors at Duke and the radical feminist’s, they all positioned themselves and used these innocent students as cannon fodder. Many times their have been black athletes raping white women around the country and its quickly buried by the detestable media. To leftist’s, its ok if a black woman is raped as long as its another black doing the rape. A black life is only worth something if a white cop takes it. Nifong was disgusting and got what he had coming. The reporter that wrote an apology piece earned my respect. The parents of the woman that claimed she was raped seemed like good people too, my sympathies for them being used as pawns by people who should know better. Never accept the lie that liberals are all about justice and fairness, they will destroy innocent lives to advance their radical agenda the truth be damned.

  2. Deh says:

    Wow, I remember the case, however, I didn’t know all of the facts. I am just so disgusted that this could happen to anyone’s son in this day and age! The people this effected and then railroading these boys! One year was stolen from these boys and their families. Sick people! This is why the media and politics really stink!

  3. suetiggers says:

    THIS story should be a cautionary tale, especially for the media but really for all of us, to be patient and willing to wait to see where the “evidence” takes the case….as long as there’s a trustworthy prosecutor, that is. Too few people in America know how easy it is for someone to be falsely accused and convicted. As a long-time feminist and woman who has cared greatly about the issue of safety for girls and women in this country, my personal experience has taught me that it does not help us for men who are innocent to be wrongly accused and then assumed to be guilty. Thanks to the filmmakers who did a great job in the way they showed how this situation escalated into mob “justice”, something that has happened before in America and something too many of us are susceptible to. But, the media has deteriorated terribly since the time of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as the film stated and not enough Americans understand this. The media has been bought… with few exceptions. I personally feel that Lawrence O’Donnell and RACHEL Maddow are the best we have right now. They’re both smart,gutsy and have something else too much missing….i.e. integrity.

  4. Susan Sims says:

    As someone who lives in the community on Long Island, watching this documentary brought back all the false lies that surrounded this case. Discussion of it at the time forced us to have to defend 3 INNOCENT young men because they were white athletes on a college campus surrounded by a poor black neighborhood where the DA decided it would be advantageous to prosecute a case so racially charged so he could win re-election. How utterly disgraceful & painful for those boys and their families. The press should be ashamed of themselves for claiming “Guilty by Virtue of Being White” instead of “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”. It made my heart heavy to see this, but thank God someone had the GUTS to make this film and show the corruption that changed all these lives forever, but more importantly, it EXONERATED these boys!

  5. ECortes_Esq says:

    The most painful & disturbing thing about this case was the complete & utter disregard for a fundamental pillar of our society: the presumption of innocence.
    Moreover, if the DA could do this to these boys, how many other times had he done it in the 300 or so felony trials he’d had before?

  6. Eddie GOGO says:

    Lacrosse is Gateway Sport – No Concussions , No PEDS , No Gambling Line – Teaches Complex Team Algorythem –

  7. rabbit says:

    Universities are suffering from a wave of false rape allegations and lawsuits centered on lack of due process, perhaps owing to the manufactured panic of “rape culture.”

    Thus this case is as pertinent as ever, and should not be forgotten.

  8. David Cook says:

    “and the other high-profile cases of false allegations that have emerged create mixed feelings, inasmuch as they risk heightening the mistaken sense that unfounded complaints are frequent.”
    The mistaken sense that unfounded complaints are frequent, is NOT mistaken. You do great harm to your reputation by refusing to believe the growing evidence that unfounded complaints are VERY common. Quite simply, your power of discernment and rational thought is called into question if you are unable to accept the EVIDENCE which is accumulating that that is in fact the case and your support for the false complainers makes you as guilty as those who failed in this case originally

  9. cwmfm says:

    Since it so contradicted media narrative – and after Iraq casus belli was American media’s biggest public blunder – the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax has been dropped down the memory hole. Looks like this film brings it back to life with that element so absent in today’s information industry – truth.

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