April 20, 2006

Lacrosse Isn't As Bad as It's Perceived

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If I was going to be a varsity collegiate athlete today, I’d be a lacrosse player.

Boo. Hiss. Boo. Hiss.

Honestly, it’s true. Even after the calamity now known as the Duke lacrosse scandal, in which accusations are being thrown out like Easter candy and everyone has their own secret, secret story and alibi, I’d want to be a lacrosse player.

Have you been to a lacrosse game? If you haven’t, you should’ve been to the exhilarating Cornell-Syracuse contest at Schoellkopf Field on April 11 where almost 5,000 people were in attendance. It was what lacrosse is supposed to be – a mixture of power, speed and grace that takes aspects from more familiar games like basketball, football, soccer and hockey. It’s a sport in which you can check your opponent, dodge by them with the ball and wind up as hard as you can and shoot for glory.

Even though I did not experience much of it back home in Singapore, where rattan canes outnumber lacrosse sticks, it has become my favorite sport to watch as a reporter and a fan while on the East Hill. Senior Joe Boulukos’ seven-goal performance last year against the Orange at the Carrier Dome will rank among my all-time favorite Cornell sporting moments, when I was biting with my hand trying not to cheer (press box rules) as Boulukos and the Red scored gorgeous goal after gorgeous goal – playing the game at its finest.

As seen in the past few weeks in Durham, N.C., people generally try to fit things in lines – black and white, rich and poor, exploiters and victims. It is undoubtedly true that a good portion of lacrosse players today come from privileged northeastern families who can afford to put their children through private school. As my esteemed and eloquent colleague Zach Jones noted in his column yesterday, “The rich, boorish and abusive fraternity boy is one of the worst clichés going, but the Duke lacrosse players have sadly lent it a renewed vitality.”

Two Duke lacrosse players were formally arrested on Tuesday on rape charges, but with the circus-like coverage surrounding the issue, it might as well have put the game of lacrosse on the trapeze as well. By now, no matter how valid or invalid the claims are, this trial and the build-up to it has scarred a sport that Sports Illustrated plastered on its pages as the “Fastest Growing Sport in America” just a year ago.

Contrary to some public stereotypes, lacrosse has expanded to approximately 186,000 players under 15-years-old, according to S.I.’s Alexander Wolff in that particular article. While eastern teams still dominate college lacrosse, there are other teams, such as Midwest squads Denver and Air Force, that have crept onto the scene.

And though it is true that a majority of players at the college level come from similar, well-off backgrounds, the sport has expanded to non-traditional hotbeds such as California, Texas, Colorado and Minnesota, among other places. Additionally, organizations such as Major League Lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League have brought more exposure to the sport.

As a reporter who has covered Cornell men’s lacrosse for the past two seasons, I can tell you for a fact that head coach Jeff Tambroni’s players are some of the brightest, most well-spoken, most polite people (not just athletes), you will ever meet. They will thank you and shake your hand after an interview – win or lose, return your annoying phone calls and make sure you get everything you need – thanking you again for writing a story about them.

This particular squad is one of the most active in the community, holding its annual Save the Day program to benefit the Central New York Dream Factory, its “#21 Run” to promote local literacy efforts and its “21 Dinner” in New York City to raise money for Teach for America. Some individuals, like senior Mike Pisco, go further, traveling to Nicaragua last summer to teach English and something he knows best – lacrosse. And this is all besides the fact that on the field, Cornell has one of the best teams in the nation.

I would venture to say that other squads around the nation have similar outstanding individuals whose accomplishments (such as the fact that the Duke women’s team is the No. 1 ranked squad in the nation) and characteristics have been grossly overshadowed by the Duke lacrosse saga.

Just to note, while I know that they are subjected to the same vices as any college kid would face, I’m not supporting the actions of the members of the Duke team. As varsity athletes, they are immediately even more accountable than regular students for their actions even if the rape and sexual assault charges are cleared. They were clearly irresponsible on March 13. And though people around here would like to think so, I’m not saying our athletes are flawless as well.

However, what is also at stake – besides the next 20 years of two lacrosse players’ lives – is the state of lacrosse today. The issues surrounding Duke lacrosse have stunted the game’s growth. People unfamiliar with the sport will turn their ambivalence into assumptions and situations could occur where parents could conceivably take their kids out of the sport for lacrosse’s “culture” and playing the game could be looked down upon. Furthermore, the players and coaches will tacitly be pelted with stereotypes, which in most cases are irrelevant, unknowing or untrue to their real characters.

Native Americans, the game’s creators, used to play lacrosse, often to settle tribal disputes with as many as 1,000 men a side and games lasting as long as two to three days starting at sunrise and ending at sunset. Goals could be placed miles apart and there were no boundaries among the trees and rivers – it was free and effervescent.

Today, while there are sidelines and referees, the game is still played with the same flair. It is not unusual to see an attackman whip in a behind-the-back shot, a defenseman (or even a goaltender, as seen last year) go end-to-end to score, or a player sending a ball carrier down to the ground with a rattling check. Just go to a game. It’s a beautiful sport and you might be able to see why its potential in the United States is endless.

Let these two Duke lacrosse players face trial for their crimes and hopefully, some justice will be served if needed.

Just don’t take lacrosse and the hundreds of thousands of people who play the game down with it.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Senior Writer. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao