Until a few weeks ago, the fact that I used to play lacrosse was only good for the rare can-you-top-this jock nostalgia session or the even rarer opportunity to explain the sport to someone who happened to be passingly curious.
That all changed when the Duke lacrosse team decided to throw a party. Now any mention of my lacrosse career, three decades past, brings the requisite rape jokes. The newspaper photos of the Duke lacrosse team coupled with headlines about the alleged sexual assault of a stripper have become the overriding image of a sport that most people don't know anything about, other than it's associated with preppies.
I'm not going to start whining about how my beloved game is getting an unfair bad rap. This shit happens. It'll pass. (I should also admit that I haven't played competitively in many, many years.) Still, it's been a bit tougher on the lacrosse community than it might be for another pastime. Uninformed people might see the NBA as a thug haven after Ron Artest slugged it out with a few rows of fans at a Pistons game, but they still know, or should know, that basketball is a wondrous sport. For those who don't know lacrosse other than it's played with those funny-looking baskets-on-a-stick, it's easy to make the equation: lacrosse players = privileged asshole rapists.
I didn't think such an assertion would fly with anyone who had more than a handful of brain cells, though. If these college kids raped a woman, it means that their particular team culture fostered a brutish mob mentality. That they played lacrosse had nothing to do with it.
Then I read a piece by Dave Jamieson for Slate (picked up in the Sun., April 15 St. Petersburg Times) that attempted to make the case that lacrosse players were predisposed to this kind of behavior.
Jamieson contends that a common lacrosse sin is "puerile meatheadedness," that "lacrosse players hail from the privileged, largely white pockets of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic." They're misogynous because an "unusually large proportion of college lacrosse players spend their high school years in sheltered, all-boys academies before heading off to liberal coed colleges."
"Unusually large proportion?" Where did our boy come across this little nugget of empirical data? From his own limited experiences, it seems. Jamieson is a product of a Northeastern private high school, the same north Jersey academy that five of the accused Duke players attended. He was on the varsity baseball team, and it seems that some of the lacrosse guys, and even (gasp!) an assistant coach, liked to have a bit of fun busting his balls in the gym.
Is Jamieson playing payback? Maybe. Is he irresponsibly generalizing? There's no doubt in my mind.
My lacrosse experience was quite a bit different. I grew up in Suffern, N.Y., a middle-class town about an hour out of New York City. I never owned a pair of topsiders or an Izod shirt. During my sophomore year at Suffern High, the new lacrosse coach, John Orlando, started recruiting me while I was scoring a lot of points on the J.V. basketball team. At first, I told him he should go pester a beefy football kid and leave me, the skinny shooting guard, alone. But he wore me down with his pitch: Lacrosse was not just a bunch of wildmen swinging sticks at each other; it was a game that combined finesse, skill, endurance and some physical contact.
I had a fulfilling and decorated career at my less-than-privileged public high school, playing mostly other public high schools, and from there went to the State University of New York at Cortland, about three hours north.
The only way in which lacrosse players were privileged at Cortland was that it was far and away the most popular sport on campus. Some of the guys let it go to their heads, sure, but most were cool about our relative BMOC status. Rather than being put on pedestals like football players at a major university, the Cortland lacrosse guys were more likely going to be standing with the rest of the students at the bar.
And while we may have thrown some wild parties, none of them even approached the brutal extremes that allegedly occurred at Duke.
Here's another lacrosse story that doesn't involve rape. In the '70s, my parents moved to St. Petersburg, so Kurt, the youngest, didn't get the chance to follow in the lacrosse-playing footsteps of his two older brothers. When his son Matt attended middle brother Kris' lacrosse camp in Seattle a few years ago, he fell hard for the game. Problem was, Matt lived in Cookeville, Tenn., where lacrosse was about as common as a Czech film festival.
So what did Kurt do? He started a Cookeville club lacrosse team and became the head coach.
If you ever met Matt, you would instantly know that he is neither preppie nor elitist nor boor. He stands about 5-foot-5 and weighs maybe 115 pounds, and he can play his ass off. He's so quick and elusive that the big dudes can hardly ever hit him. And when they do, he pops right up.
Matt found his sport, one where size helps but doesn't ultimately matter. I hope he doesn't let this blip of bad rap for lacrosse bother him. The good news is that, while the unfortunate association between ugly behavior and lacrosse is currently resonating in pop culture, the sport is on the upswing.
A few days before the St. Pete Times published Jamieson's piece in its Sunday Perspective section, it ran a story in the sports pages about how lacrosse was growing faster in Florida than just about anywhere else in the country.