Sunday Column: The Cult of Lacrosse

NoontimeSports.com will now feature every Sunday a weekly column that gives fans an inside look into the sports world through opinions and investigative reporting. We begin our first of many “Sunday Column’s” with a look at the sport of lacrosse, as well as the fans that are avid supporters of the game.

By Dan Rubin

On a crisp Saturday afternoon in Providence, Rhode Island, the Brown Bears took to the field against a nationally ranked Penn Quaker team with hopes of keeping their chances alive in order to compete for the Ivy League’s automatic bid.

The stands were utterly packed at Stevenson Field with crowds arriving almost two hours before the game’s start. Penn fans traveled from Philadelphia in droves, parking an RV in the stands and starting a tailgate replete with Penn lawn chairs, a Penn Quaker flag, as well as music loud enough to be heard across the field and atop the press box where I sat watching this.

If I didn’t give you the month (or, for that matter, the name of the field), the above story would sound exactly the way the average Saturday during college football season unfolds not only at Brown, but at a number of different stadia across the US.

Instead, though, it was during April, and it was for a sport that much of America hears about, but few know about. It’s about a sport that is treated like a religion within its grounds but sometimes mocked by outsiders. It has attained an almost cult-like following, as parents, friends, fans, and athletes travel hundreds of miles to watch their team. Yet, it barely has a professional league and most casual sports fans have no idea where teams play or what cities are represented.

It is the world of lacrosse.

I spent the past weekend working both men’s and women’s games for Brown, (three games in three days).  And I’ve been involved with lacrosse as a sport since I was a 14-year old freshman in high school.  But, having never played the sport itself, I’ve always taken a unique perspective of a fan that didn’t really understand its appeal. I never understood what it meant to put on the helmet, put on the eye black, and to have my parents rabidly cheering me from the stands. I never really got it, until I stood in that tailgate, next to that RV, and asked the questions.

From what I found, lacrosse has an appeal that no other sport can identify with. It’s a sport driven by passion and intensity. It traces its roots to the Iroquois tribe of Native Americans. The on-field product requires speed, athleticism, and intensity.  Even substitutions of players are on the fly during game, requiring players to go full speed to the sideline while teammates charge into the play with the same velocity.

But that passion is fueled by a love of the game, a feeling that “it’s our sport,” as one parent explained at the pre-game tailgate.  Baseball, they said, had gotten too big, too overblown.  Everybody in baseball is worried about the big payday, but they’re not willing to put their bodies on the line. The stereotype of a baseball player is to conserve energy for a long season, with strict inning and pitch counts, so as to keep players in peak condition for a playoff run. Pitchers, they say, are on a pitch count so their arms stay healthy, otherwise they’re no good to a team. In the image category, baseball is much more rigid and monitored.

Lacrosse requires peak physical condition before the season starts, they say. It takes offseason conditioning, weight training, and everything that other sports utilize. But with a season only 16-20 games long, it requires a player to be ready to go every step of the way.  An uninjured player is one that can fight through sore muscles and pulled ligaments.  Injuries, they say, are serious, and they’re taken seriously.  But there’s a football-fine line between being injured and being hurt. Lacrosse players, they proudly say, admit they’re injured long before they’re hurt.

But there’s more. Lacrosse fans point to their lack of a well-known professional league as proof of passion. Players go out and sacrifice their bodies, putting it all on the line every week when they don’t have to. Major League Lacrosse is relatively unknown outside of its ranks, and the National Lacrosse League barely receives any coverage.

One fan from Boston even pointed out that a prominent local newspaper can spend five pages talking about a two-inning minor league rehab stint by a relief pitcher, but they rarely spend five paragraphs talking about the Cannons and Blazers, (I was very proud to tell him about Noontime Sports’ coverage of the Blazers, by the way).

To them, the niche of lacrosse gives them a feeling of ownership over their sport.  It’s the only sport where its world championships feature a full-blown Native American tribe competing outside the United States’ national team (the Iroquois Nationals are, indeed, one of the best in the world).  Because it’s on the national radar but ranks below everything, including soccer at times, games retain the feeling of family reunions.  The same fans show up, and the parents feel a kinship among themselves.  Players from teams have a genuine dislike for one another, but they have a fervent respect for the game.  They love the feeling of crushing one another, the parents say, but at the end they both respect what the other side is trying to accomplish.

Lacrosse fans tend to not care what outsiders say about the sport, even if what is said a.) has validity and b.) is a major black eye for the sport.  No matter what anybody says about other sports, kids can go outside, pick up a rock and a stick, and play a form of baseball.  Kids from inner cities across America play basketball.  Even kids from rural areas have the ability to go out and tackle one another to unleash football’s aggression.

Outsiders look at lacrosse and say, (ignorantly at times) that it’s a rich, white-kid sport.  Indeed, the names on rosters sometimes read like a law firm’s recruiting list of partners instead.  The parents are, for the most part, wearing slacks and shoes to the game, and the perfectly manicured skin of the mothers makes outsiders turn their nose.  They point to the game and say that it requires money for equipment, requires money for travel, and the best teams are wealthy.  And they’d be right by saying the best schools are not public schools.  Where football has Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma, lacrosse has Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Syracuse, and every school that’s in the Ivy League.  And the fans of these teams usually have the money to travel across the country, following their teams and rooting them on throughout the year.

To a casual fan, that’s the number one reason why lacrosse is never on the radar.  It’s a blue-collar vs. white-collar attitude – almost like town-gown relations in some areas.  The Duke lacrosse scandal galvanized the sport as being a bunch of rich, preppy kids who thought that “Daddy’s money” could save them.  Even though those players were innocent, people still say that it didn’t matter because the lacrosse players came from money and wealth, while the rest of us scraped by.

The scandal is five years old this year.  It’s long forgotten in pop culture, but the name “lacrosse” still brings that perception to the forefront.  When Duke won the men’s national title last year, the first question of the postgame interview started with the phrase, “It’s been a long time coming for this program…”  Everybody knew what that meant, even if 90% of the team wasn’t even at Duke during that time.  The name “lacrosse” evoked the images of a scandal gone wrong, and it still evoked a stereotype of a sport that may never shed it.

But to those at the game, they couldn’t care less.  They don’t care what people say about it.  They care only about the speed of the game, the passion of the players, the next road trip where they can park an SUV.  They look at their chance to pack another stadium, root for their team, and hope for a chance at a national title.  On Sunday, Brown’s women’s lacrosse team hosted the #3-ranked Duke Blue Devils (ironically enough).  Duke packed half the stands with a sea of blue to root on their team.  Brown packed a sea of white and brown.  The barely-.500 Bears took a one-goal lead against Duke before the Devils rallied to force overtime.  In OT, the back-and-forth seesaw battle saw the Devils win in the sudden-death 3rd extra frame.  As the girls from Brown walked off the field, both teams’ fans stood and applauded what they saw in a show of mutual respect and admiration.  Duke’s head coach shook her head and smiled at Brown’s head coach as they embraced in the middle of the field.

As the sun slowly dipped and the nighttime sky began to appear, people packed up their cars, and the lights went out on Stevenson.  There were plans to make for next week.