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On The Sport of Lacrosse

I'll confess to having a minor fascination with the sport of lacrosse; not just the sport itself, but also the culture it breeds and its meanings for American life in the twenty-first century.

It's ostensibly a perfect sport, combining finesse and skill with speed and force, team and individual play, and a fair amount of randomness. It also offers a healthy balance in scoring, mediating the gulf between soccer's doldrums and basketball's hyperactivity. And John McPhee has written about it beautifully.

The sport's roots as a Native American pastime, nay deeply meaningful ritual, and its subsequent subjection to white, French-Canadians are pretty compelling. Add to this history its current status as the de facto sport associated with the wealthy, privileged, East Coast establishment types, and you have enough material for a Tom Wolfe novel.

What's interesting is that if you think of sports in terms of accessibility, lacrosse definitely falls below the likes of basketball or baseball, but far above such resource-intensive sports as hockey, polo, golf, or even football. So it's really the sport's culture of upper-crust prep-schoolers that has perpetuated these associations, and nothing really intrinsic about the sport itself. Meanwhile, throughout high schools in Ontario and Upstate New York, lacrosse tends to have much more egalitarian aspirations. Don't believe me? Attend a Buffalo Bandit's game.

I'll freely admit that I have a tough time swallowing my enjoyment of lacrosse's on-field heroics with its off-field attitudes and behaviors. And the sport certainly has had its fair share of bad publicity, what with Durham's dystopia and now the Yeardley Love murder.

I'm afraid that some might be overly apologetic about these incidents in the face of allegations regarding 'the culture of lacrosse'. You might say that these behaviors associated with unchecked privilege have nothing to do with lacrosse itself, and they are all isolated, unfortunate incidents. But there's a glimmer of truth behind every stereotype. And just as Hotel students might have lower analytical capabilities than their peers in the engineering school, a casual glimpse at a lacrosse roster will yield more prep school students than you would expect from an otherwise random sample.

But don't take it from me. Take it from somebody who grew up in the same circles as Yeardley Love and George Huguely:

For normal students, going to college is an exercise in broadening perspectives. For lacrosse players, it can often be an exercise in confirming perspectives and values that have been skewed since early in high school. That's a problem.

You might say these are generalizations, but again, I'm only speaking from what I've seen. You don't have to acknowledge my anecdotal evidence as anything more than just that. But keep in mind, I grew up in the same area as Huguely, with many of the same friends, congregating in many of the same places.

And as far as Yeardley Love's death is concerned, this much is fact: George Huguely was an elite lacrosse player that went to an elite prep school, and graduated to join an elite lacrosse program at UVA. If we're to diagnose how and why this happened, those facts bear some relevance.

So I think that if lacrosse does want to become more of a national sport and better capture this country's attention in the sports pages (as opposed to the news section) it needs to think carefully about its associations with privilege and entitlement. The sport is of course welcome to continue to perpetuate its own insular culture, but I would much rather see more goodwill around the sport, because I think it needs it these days.

Now, where does Cornell fit in through all of this? Tangentially. By all accounts, Cornell's program is the class of college lacrosse. I was always impressed with my interactions with Cornell lacrosse players when I was a student, and continue to be impressed by Tambroni's teams as an alum. As I wrote three years ago, Big Red laxers always come across as true scholar athletes. And that's a good thing. And I hope it stays a good thing.

In 2007, Cornell was abuzz with its first trip to a lacrosse final four in twenty years. Now we've been back three times in the last four years. Talk about privilege and entitlement.

Let's Go Red!

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 28, 2010 (#)

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