Lacrosse has always seemed to me to be a sport for upper middle-class white boys who were somehow too Abercrombified to play soccer and tennis and golf like the rest of us upper middle-class white boys.
I grew up in upstate New York -the sport’s Mecca – but all my life, lacrosse has been this off-putting afterthought in my consideration of American sports. It is seen by many as a leisure activity, reserved for privileged preppies – polo for guys who don’t like to ride on horses. That view is pretty common in the east, I think. Some guys play lacrosse and absolutely love it; a lot of other guys don’t get it and resent the sport and its culture.
But what about here in the Midwest? I got a chance to take a look at the Michigan lacrosse team this past weekend, and it reminded me that lacrosse is a lot of fun and deserves to receive more attention. It is at least as good a game as soccer in terms of complicity, pace, necessary skill and required athleticism. There’s scoring, which Americans can’t do without and a degree of contact and violence that would surely satisfy the popular appetite when football and hockey (tame as they really are) go into hibernation.
My hope is that, as lacrosse spreads in popularity west of the Appalachian Mountains (where it has been, until recently, relatively unknown), a new generation of athletes will find a way to make it a game for everyone.
Currently, there are 37 players on the Wolverines’ active roster; 18 hail from Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts or Maryland. Not only are they predominantly New Englanders, but they are also from some of the nation’s wealthiest hamlets like Chappaqua, N.Y. and Weston, Mass. They went to schools at places like Fordham Prep. and Milton Academy. Not to take anything away from these Michigan athletes, but in a way they represent that elitism of lacrosse that keeps the sport from achieving real cross-cultural and cross-country popularity.
I spoke with Michigan coach John Paul, who assured me that the sport is growing in cities such as Baltimore and New York. He said that the success of schools, like Maryland, Johns Hopkins and Loyola (MD), has prompted inner-city athletes in Baltimore to pick up a lacrosse stick. That news was very encouraging.
Paul conceded, though, that here in Ann Arbor, the high school athletes who are choosing to play lacrosse are … I could have guessed … white and upper-middle class.
But what if Michigan, like Maryland and Johns Hopkins, was a premier D-I team? How might that affect the sports popularity among minority and economically disadvantaged athletes in Ann Arbor and Detroit?
Lacrosse ought to be embraced in America because it is truly American. It has its origins in Iroquois culture, but has been adopted by contemporary non-Native American athletes.
I think part of why lacrosse hasn’t caught on nationally is the stereotypes (stereotypes grounded in reality) surrounding it of a sport that is both culturally and geographically elite.
The Michigan Athletic Department is a number of years -perhaps as many as 20 – from promoting its lacrosse team to full varsity status. When it does, a new tradition could be born – one that is as far removed socio-economically as it is geographically from upstate New York and the Abercrombified culture of prep lacrosse.
I was impressed by Paul’s awareness of these negative stereotypes -negative realities, really – surrounding his sport and believe that, with him at the helm of this program, it could be a model of Midwestern lacrosse and a true champion of the West.
David Horn can be reached via email at email@example.com.