Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I've been spending a lot of time over the past few years watching lacrosse, and while I still don't understand everything that's going on, I do like what I see. My sons both play lacrosse. (That's my oldest in the gold helmet in the photos on the left and below.) I kind of wish they played this game when I was a kid, because it looks like a lot of fun.

From a player's perspective, lacrosse has several things going for it. First, it's one of the few contact sports where they also give you a weapon--and believe me, the players swing their sticks like they're billy clubs. Second, it's a game that takes years to master, but also one whose fundamentals can be picked up pretty quickly if you're a decent athlete. Finally--and let's not underrate this factor-- the equipment costs a fortune and most teams make you buy most of it yourself, so it satisfies kids' and teenagers' fetish for expensive brand name crap.

The other thing that's kind of fun about lacrosse is that it's the one kids sport I've seen where the parents pretty much leave the refs alone. The rules are so bewildering that people are too puzzled to whine about a referee's call. People run on and off the field for no apparent reason. Whistles are blown for various and sundry obscure infractions known only to the coaches and the officials (in many instances, the players are as clueless about what they did wrong as their parents are). Sometimes kids get thrown into the penalty box for 30 seconds, and sometimes for a minute. Damned if I know why. All of this is made even more bizarre by some strangely familiar aspects of the game. For example, the referees run around dressed up like football officials and even throw yellow flags when they call penalties.

Lacrosse was invented by the Iroquois. Until recent years, the game was dominated by two types of players: rich white kids from elite, east coast prep schools, and native american kids from reservations. In other words, lacrosse's attraction used to be mostly limited to America's wealthiest people, and its poorest. I say "mostly" because lacrosse has always had broad regional appeal along the East Coast. That's why lacrosse's greatest player is neither a rich white kid, nor a poor native american. In fact, it's just possible that you may have even heard of him, because his name was Jim Brown.

As phenomenal a football player as Jim Brown was, he may actually have been better at lacrosse. Lacrosse was his favorite sport, and he was so dominant that he single-handedly changed the rules of the game. Before Brown, players weren't required to keep their sticks in motion while they carried the ball. Brown would apparently grab the ball, tuck it into his chest, and barrel toward the goal, daring the defenders to knock the ball free. I can't imagine trying to stop him when he got going, and apparently, neither could the game's rulemakers. Anyway, Brown was a two-time All American at Syracuse, and is a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

Jim Brown's not the only sports legend in whose career lacrosse featured prominently. According to Wayne Gretzky's father, his son's experience playing lacrosse may have been a key factor in his success as a hockey player.

Perhaps befitting it's upper class pedigree, college lacrosse has been dominated by upper crust institutions whose names don't typically show up in national sports rankings. For example, Johns Hopkins has won eight national championships in lacrosse, and this year, Cornell is ranked number 1 in the nation. Native American teams also remain a force to be reckoned with, and the Iroquois Nationals are even recognized as a distinct national team in international lacrosse competitions.

Lacrosse has exploded in popularity across the country in recent years, and Ohio is no exception. There are even indoor and outdoor pro leagues. But I think there's a limit to lacrosse's upside. First of all, this is a game that seems to be following hockey's model, with players being required to foot the bill for a lot of their own equipment. That's a problem, because like I said before, this stuff costs a fortune. More importantly, however, lacrosse doesn't play well on TV. If you think it's hard to follow a hockey puck, just wait until you try to follow a little white lacrosse ball.


Vinny said...

Why did it take until 1983 for the Lacrosse Hall to induct Jim Brown, if as it reports, he was considered perhaps the greatest to have played?

Hornless Rhino said...

I think that question would answer itself if you checked out the members of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. The Hall essentially looks like what Augusta Country Club membership directory would look like if they admitted women.

Jim Brown's the only African American in the Hall of Fame. Given the game's history, that's not all that surprising, but what's more surprising is that there's only one Native American in the Hall.