- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

Long-time lacrosse aficionados shake their heads in amazement at how far their sport has come in recent years. Once a regional game mostly confined to a few Atlantic seaboard enclaves, lacrosse has mushroomed in the last two decades into the “it sport” with television contracts at the professional and collegiate levels.

But those in the sport fear one incident — accusations by an exotic dancer that three Duke men’s lacrosse players raped her at a party attended by nearly the entire team last month in Durham, N.C. — could jeopardize lacrosse’s growth and popularity, at least at the college level, even though no charges have been filed.

The impact already is evident at the center of the maelstrom. The accusations prompted Duke president Richard Brodhead to cancel the remainder of the season last week and ultimately cost coach Mike Pressler his job. Meanwhile, Durham is still grappling with the racial, gender, class and political overtones — among others — that have become the hallmark of this case.

Yet everyone else in the lacrosse world is feeling the effects as well, a byproduct of the familiarity of the sport’s tight-knit community.

There is resentment over how those associated with lacrosse have been stereotyped as elitist and privileged, frustration with those who have no experience with the sport having passed judgment anyway and some fear thanks to the realization it could have happened anywhere under certain conditions.

And then there’s the concern the Duke situation will be a scar that lingers around lacrosse for some time.

“You spend your whole life building a reputation and developing character,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia says. “One mistake can cost you the whole tub. You have to start over one drop at a time. You feel that in terms of men’s lacrosse. People are pounding the sport in a general sense. We’re going to have to build back the reputation very slowly.”

Adds Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala: “People who don’t know our sport are sitting around the dinner table talking about our sport and our players and our coaches. There’s this thought they know what it’s about based on one story. That is what’s happening now.”

Perception vs. reality

Plenty of subplots have emerged from Durham in the last month. There are the standard gender issues always involved in a sexual assault case. And there is the status of initially vocal district attorney Mike Nifong, who faces a Democratic primary on May 2 that will determine his political future.

However, two other themes — race and class — have seeped into the sport.

All but one of the 47 players on Duke’s roster are white; the accuser is black. Meanwhile, Duke’s strained relationship with its working class neighbors in Durham has brought accusations of elitism into play as well.

Lacrosse people, as Maryland coach Dave Cottle admits, “have a tendency to be somewhat successful.” It is popular at private schools along the East Coast, and equipment — sticks, helmets, gloves, pads — can be expensive.

That, however, doesn’t mean only the wealthy can enjoy or participate in the booming sport.

“When you have a story like this, it looks like what everyone sees right now from the outside, that lacrosse is a sport of privilege and power,” Cottle says. “[Princeton coach] Billy Tierney is from Levittown, a public school [on Long Island]. Dave Cottle is from Northern [in Baltimore], a public school. [Former Maryland coach] Dick Edell was from Dundalk. [Former Towson coach] Carl Runk was from Patterson [in Baltimore]. Dom Starsia was from a public school on Long Island.

“While that might be the way people outside the sport might look at it, in reality it’s not that way.”

Those blue-collar roots are often reflected in the sport’s toughness, with sticks sometimes swinging wildly and players often emerging bruised and sore from a physical game. They also are cherished by the people who have worked hard to build lacrosse into a more popular game.

And that’s where the charges of elitism add to the sting of vast generalizations.

“I find myself resentful of being painted with the same brush every time the word lacrosse comes up with the word elitist or white or pampered or whatever you want to say,” Starsia says. “I don’t think the incident in Durham is indicative of the people involved in men’s lacrosse at all different levels. There’s a real tendency to lump everyone in the same pot and pan.”

Even more curious is just how the entire sport has come under indictment in recent weeks. Other recent outrages have prompted calls for the ouster of coaches, athletic directors and university presidents — generally, individuals located close to the specific scandal.

Never, though, has the backlash been against the game and all of its participants.

“It’s interesting when there is a rape scandal at Colorado that no one questions college football,” says ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich, who played lacrosse at Johns Hopkins from 1987 to 1990. “When there’s a murder at Baylor, no one blames college basketball. Why is this about lacrosse? To me, it’s not. It’s [about] Duke lacrosse.”

Adds Maryland senior midfielder Brendan Healy: “I feel like some people are jumping on the bandwagon and trying to take down lacrosse down because of whatever. I think it could happen in any sport. Just because it’s a smaller sport, they want to say it’s the whole community rather than just [a few people].”

Growing the sport

Men’s lacrosse remains a mostly regional sport at the Division I level, with only two of its 57 programs situated west of the Mississippi River and only another four located in the Midwest.

But it also plays host to one of the NCAA’s most popular tournaments outside of men’s basketball, drawing nearly 45,000 fans to last year’s title game at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. Many families plan Memorial Day weekend vacations around the final four, arriving for the Saturday semifinals and remaining for Monday’s final.

Three schools — Bellarmine, Robert Morris and St. John’s — have added programs in the last two years, but there are few possible newcomers on the horizon. Title IX, which requires gender equity in federally supported educational opportunities, has hindered schools such as Florida State from elevating solid club teams to varsity status without adding a women’s team.

That obstacle has slowed down the spread of the men’s game (Division I women’s lacrosse, meanwhile, is already flourishing on the West Coast), and there is great concern the rape scandal will be just one more reason to contain the sport.

“If there are some ADs out there thinking about starting lacrosse, they probably put that piece of paper back in the desk and say ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ If they were starting a lacrosse team, I bet some ADs right now are saying ‘I think I’d better think that one over,’” Maryland assistant Dave Slafkosky says. “That’s what it could have done. It makes some serious problems for some people down in Durham, N.C., but it makes some serious problems all across college lacrosse.”

There were no national television contracts in lacrosse when Slafkosky began his career three decades ago. Now, Johns Hopkins has a deal with ESPNU to televise all of its home games and CSTV offers a generous lacrosse schedule as well.

In some ways, a black eye of some kind might have been inevitable in the long run for lacrosse, though certainly not something that has engendered quite this much pain. With greater attention usually comes greater scrutiny, and that goes for business and politics as well as athletics.

“We have to realize our sport is growing, and as much as we want it to be big-time and publicized, these are the things that come with it,” says Pietramala, the Hopkins coach. “We have to use this to make sure our coaches and kids understand the responsibilities we have.”

Meanwhile, the game is exploding at the youth level, and the spread of the sport is now being seen in the college ranks. Matt Kelly, a freshman defenseman who starts for Virginia, was a highly touted football player in Chicago. Matt Drenan, who starts for Hopkins on defense, is a California native.

People in the sport believe — and certainly hope — this trend will not change.

“We can’t gauge what the impact is. It’s an impossible question,” Kessenich says. “The sport is growing because it’s fun to play. It’s a great game. It’s the answer to baseball. Little kids are picking up sticks. Is that going to change? No. It’s a great participation sport that kids like to play.”

Pressure on coaches

The events of the last month have illuminated lacrosse in new ways, but one of the broader themes — the accountability of coaches for their athletes’ actions — will resonate throughout college athletics.

It certainly was the case at Duke, where Pressler resigned last week even though he had nothing to do with the party where the purported incident occurred.

“If it happens in high school, it’s the kid and the parents’ fault,” Cottle says. “If it happens in the pros, it’s the pro’s fault. If it happens in college, it’s everybody’s fault. That’s just the truth of the situation and you know that when you accept the position. It’s everybody’s fault. It’s the school, it’s the program, it’s the athletic department, it’s the coach, it’s the players. Everybody’s involved.”

Pressler was among the sport’s top coaches. He took over a Duke program in 1991 that had won two ACC games in the previous 14 seasons and guided the Blue Devils to the NCAA tournament a year later. He was the USILA coach of the year after leading Duke to its first national title game last year, and the Blue Devils were a popular preseason pick to win a title this spring.

In less than a month, it all disappeared.

“If that isn’t enough to scare you, I don’t know what is,” Cottle says. “Something that occurred over a weekend done by your team could end a season and a coach’s successful tenure at an institution, and ended it without him being an active participant. That’s frightening to any coach.”

Coaches throughout the sport stressed in the last week they have turned the situation into a teaching experience for their players, an illustration of how poor decisions can sabotage the privilege of participating in college athletics. Cottle believes the Duke incident has crystallized the importance of leadership, and he plans to set up a leadership seminar for his players after the season.

For now, the Duke incident continues to dominate discussion in the sport, overshadowing Saturday’s Army-Navy and Johns Hopkins-Maryland rivalry games that usually generate plenty of excitement. It will no doubt continue to do so, but those in lacrosse will continue to logically push for a more balanced view of their game.

“You hear it’s a privileged sport and the kids have been raised with a golden spoon and all that,” Maryland’s Healy says. “To some extent you can say it’s a wealthier sport. The equipment is expensive and all that stuff, but there’s a lot of good people I’ve been around playing lacrosse. You can’t make those [sweeping] accusations.”

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