The tragic death of Yeardley Love, a senior at the University of Virginia and a member of the women's lacrosse team, has once again brought a blitz of attention to college lacrosse. And, once again, the impression that most are left with is rather damning: this is a sport played by white, wealthy kids, and one that fosters excessive drinking, recklessness, and, at times, racism. These sound like wild generalizations, but as someone who played the game throughout high school and college, I'll admit that the observations do, to an extent, ring true.
When the Duke lacrosse scandal dominated headlines and TV tickers four years ago, the nation--and the vapid tornado of cable news in particular--was quick to judge. The team, in the fashion of most squads under assault, hunkered down in silence and banded together. But the broader lacrosse world, even my small corner of it in Haverford, PA, found itself marginally implicated, too, and many of us felt compelled to defend the culture of the game.
In 2006, Duke administrators canceled the remainder of the team's season. When allegations that three members of the team had raped an African-American stripper turned out to be unfounded--forcing the overzealous Durham district attorney to drop the case--the university was ridiculed for its hasty decision.
By contrast, the University of Virginia has allowed its top seeded men's team to continue playing into the post-season. One would suspect that the Duke case has somewhat figured into the University of Virginia's decision. But this is a very different situation. George Huguely V, the indicted midfielder from the men's Cavalier squad, has, for nearly all intents and purposes, already admitted to the crime, and, in my mind at least, also implicated--albeit on a very different level--the culture and friends that provoked reckless excess and failed to take notice of a young man spiraling out of control.
On college teams of this caliber--where players live together, eat together, work out together, and travel together for nearly the entire spring semester--players know the ins and out of almost every teammate's life: their injuries and health issues, their academic standing and classes, their romantic relationships and drinking and drug habits. Having played at a Division III school, I can tell you that this certainly was the case for my team.
So the fact that Huguely was at times reckless and violent, particularly when drunk, and was alarmingly obsessive about Love, would have been recognized by fellow players, and perhaps coaches, too, and certainly should have been addressed. The fact that this was not his first violent interaction with Love is the strongest charge against the friends and teammates that failed to recognize the severity of the situation.
In truth, there are many places in the game's culture where nights like the one Huguely had at Washington and Lee University in November 2008--when he was Tasered after resisting arrest and shouting slurs at a black, female officer who had found him stumbling into oncoming traffic--garner acceptance and credibility. As with other sports teams and fraternities, stories like these are traded like war stories among lacrosse players; they're the battle ribbons of a culture that enjoys hard-drinking and recklessness. They're a kind of proof of one's weekend warrior bona fides.
As UVA coach Dom Starsia told the Washington Post in 1999 after implementing a team policy to limit drinking to one night each week:
Alcohol and lacrosse have gone hand-in-hand since my days at Brown [University] in the 1970s. Whether it is post-game celebrations or just in general, there was something about the sport and alcohol, and Virginia was no different. I always thought alcohol was an issue here, and it is something we talked about before the season began.
Aggression and alcohol abuse, of course, are hardly the province of lacrosse alone when it comes to men's college athletics. But, when it comes alongside lacrosse, there's an implied element of absolute indifference and arrogance as well.
To many, lacrosse is a Byzantine game played in relatively small pockets of country. And those pockets, it often seems, mirror wealth and whiteness. As political commentator Jamie Stiehm observed this week at Politics Daily:
So locked is this group within its own gated culture that they can fail to recognize signs of trouble among their youth -- because of the pervasive sense that nothing like homicide or suicide could happen.
Deadspin, the sports division of the gossip site Gawker, put things a bit more bluntly, with a post titled, "Are the White Boys of Lacrosse Predestined to be Dicks?"
Alcohol abuse and indifference have, unfortunately, become an undeniable part of our sport's culture, and I have to admit to having been a part of it at times. But it's not so prevalent or ingrained in the sport that it should define us, or the game we play. It's incumbent upon the lacrosse world to prevent this narrative from becoming the predominant one, though there's certainly a risk that it already has.
Players and coaches need to take a hard look at the way privilege, indifference, and violence are becoming synonymous with the sport for those outside its seemingly high walls. The story of Love's senseless death will rightfully dominate post-season coverage of both the men's and women's tournaments, and images of the men's team hoisting trophies and one another aloft on the heels of this tragedy would leave many, including those well outside the UVA community, with a bitter taste.
Once again, the nation is looking closely at the culture surrounding the sport and the privileged lives that many who play the game enjoy. And sitting out the post-season to show deference to the life of Yeardley Love is, quite simply, the right thing to do -- whether the world is watching or not.