DMA 7-22 Sports

March 6, 2010 9:48 AM

Lacrosse Nation -- and Its Issues

hoplax.jpgDave Pietramala, the men's lacrosse coach at Johns Hopkins University, was on the radio in Baltimore in mid-February waxing it up about the excellence of the Blue Jays' stick program - traditionally one of the tops in the country.

The Blue Jays join Duke, Maryland, Princeton, Notre Dame and Loyola, all 2010 Top 10 lacrosse programs for Baltimore's annual convergence of Lacrosse Nation at the Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium. The Face-Off Classic has come to symbolize the frenzy over lacrosse in the Mid-Atlantic and along the East Coast. Some 20,000 diehards will be in attendance.

Baltimore, you see, is lacrosse country, and Hopkins, one of the nation's more scholarly institutions of higher education that regularly turns out doctors, political scientists and physicists, is at the heart of that from the historic, preppy Homewood section of the city.

When Pietramala -- a native of HIcksville, NY and himself a 1990 Hopkins graduate and lacrosse standout -- was on the radio touting his program and the sport, Baltimore was starting to soak it up again. The Saints-Colts Super Bowl was barely history, a great 2010 NBA All-Star game was soon to tip off, the Vancouver Olympics was taking center stage on NBC, and pitchers and catchers were ready to head south to open spring training. But in Baltimore the major pub was about lax.

Like doctors, political scientists and physicists, lacrosse is also synonymous with Hopkins. The school, established in Baltimore in 1876 in the name of wealthy entrepreneur, philanthropist and abolitionist Johns Hopkins, has captured 11 NCAA lax championships in 18 championship game appearances. In fact, the US Lacrosse organization, a national governing body for men's and women's lacrosse serving 300,000 members, and its Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame are located a stone's throw from the Hopkins campus.

And while schools in New York state such as Syracuse and Cornell along with others like Virginia also are lacrosse kingpins, the sport's universe still revolves around Hopkins. (The Sunday after the Face-Off Classic, No. 1 Syracuse and No. 2 Virginia were set for a clash of titans in Charlottesville, VA.)

In his radio interview, Pietramala went on about how Hopkins lacrosse is like Notre Dame football, about how when teams play the Blue Jays it is their Super Bowl, about how lacrosse rivalries are like the Yankees and Red Sox. Lacrosse, really?

And the coach was so giddy as to brag that his team got practice in during the back-to-back, 20-plus inch, 100-year snowfalls that paralyzed Baltimore earlier in February. While you could not get in and out of city streets around Hopkins, I guess it was good to know that the turf of Hopkins' Homewood Field was plowed so the lacrosse teams could their work in.

So where I am going with this lacrosse stuff?

I write my blog on the RealClearSports platform to offer thoughts about events of the day in sports, which I love, mixing in perspective with journalism on things I have given much thought. You read my columns and you will see I seldom write in first person. I prefer to write about topics, rather than injecting myself directly into them. But let me rant some about lacrosse. This is my chance.

I like to think I love all sports - as comfortable watching the Ravens and Orioles as watching AAU girls basketball, speed skating in the Winter Olympics, youth soccer, track and field or swimming with Michael Phelps. I love them all and love the competition, almost no matter the skill level of the participants. I also will watch lacrosse. It's competitive, outdoorsy and hard charging.

But help me out here because lax is a sport I can't seem to justify on a number of levels. I don't hate lacrosse, I just have a hard time with it, the way it is marketed, portrayed and disseminated. Maybe I have been in Baltimore too long and need to go somewhere like Arizona where lacrosse does not dominate the local newspaper and TV headlines for February, March, April and May like it does in here.

For the Face-Off Classic, the Baltimore Sun, Baltimore's daily newspaper, was so busy devoting its sports news space to that one event on Thursday and Friday that it was unable to give us an inkling that the Ravens were about to acquire Arizona Cardinals' wide receiver Anquan Boldin in what might be the franchise's most important trade ever.

Womanlax.jpgMy first issue with lacrosse has to do with scope. How can you extol yourself as a national sport when you are covering only a third of the country at best. Then look at the weekly lacrosse polls. Schools like Hopkins, Loyola University, Towson University, UMBC, Cornell and the University of Denver regularly show up for the men's and women's games. Sure, majors like Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland do show up, too, but some of the others aren't even worthy of mid-major status in sports like basketball and football.

Maybe if lacrosse schools were satisfied with winning a "regional championship" I would be more forgiving in my skepticism. One third of the country is far from national. In my view, Hopkins winning the lacrosse championship is not akin to Alabama beating Texas in the BCS or North Carolina and Roy Williams taking out Michigan State in the NCAAs. And, as much as some folks like to bash women's basketball, I'll take what Geno Auriemma and Connecticut do any day.

Then I wonder why lacrosse has to be so preppy. And I wonder where is the diversity. In many respects, these two considerations go hand in hand.

Native Americans -- who first played lacrosse in this country -- are hardly thought of as being preppy. "Lacrosse was one of many varieties of indigenous stickball games being played by American Indians at the time of European contact," noted a piece on the US Lacrosse Web site. "As can best be determined, the distribution of lacrosse shows it to have been played throughout the eastern half of North America, mostly by tribes in the southeast, around the western Great Lakes, and in the St. Lawrence Valley area."

Further historical timeline information at US Lacrosse reveals that a match in 1794 between the Senecas and Mohawks created the sport's basic rules and that the game was last played as an actual Olympic event in London in 1908. Women's lacrosse in the United States was re-established with a team at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore. (Full disclosure: Bryn Mawr is my daughters' school.)

But seemingly forsaking that history, lacrosse today appears nothing more than to provide an opportunity for often marginal private school athletes to get into some colleges that otherwise would have ignored them. Princeton is a great school, for instance, but I am not sure how impressed I am with the term "Princeton lacrosse All American" you see in some bios and on some resumes.

So a marginal athlete gets "recruited" to go to Princeton, Duke, Yale, Hopkins or Virginia for lacrosse and gets set up with a powerful academic degree after four years while better athletes in major sports like football, basketball, baseball or track and field -- who may lack high Division I quality -- have to settle for low D-1 or D-2 or D-3 in order to play their sports. There's an imbalance on that playing field because only certain marginal athletes seem to get the opportunities in lacrosse.

The legendary Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame football player, is also viewed as the greatest lacrosse player ever, playing during the mid-1950s at Syracuse. Here is what a 2005 article said about Brown's lax exploits: "Imagine trying to stop a 6-foot-2, 235-pound tower of muscle in a sport where players wear virtually no protection, except gloves and a helmet, and most stars usually weigh in at around 160 -- soaking wet."

JB2.jpgBrown made his name as a running back on the pro gridiron with Cleveland Browns. As much as he loved lacrosse, as Brown has said, there is no such thing really as a professional lacrosse player because the leagues are insignificant. So a superior athlete will play the major sports so they can get paid.

Yet short of Brown, an African American, where are the modern day minority athletes in lacrosse? Where is the diversity? Where are people of color among coaches, administrators, staff, officials? Remember, this is a game founded by the ultimate people of color - Native Americans.

We're not saying that the Hopkins-influenced preppiness of today's lacrosse game is such a terribly bad thing. But Baltimore is a city today that's, what, 60 percent minority or more. Why aren't you reaching out to those kids too - many of them also marginal athletes who would be great lacrosse players.

We know that some of Baltimore's finest athletes from the past few years - like Carmelo Anthony, Angel McCoughtry and Darrius Heyward-Bey, would never need to pick up a lacrosse stick. They are superb players and athletes who can make their fortunes in the major sports.

But every minority kid is not an Anthony, McCoughtry or Heyward-Bey. What we are saying is bring your lacrosse sticks to these good, young athletes, too. Introduce them to your clinics and camps so they can learn the game. Let them have a chance, too, to be a Princeton All-American. Give them a chance to go to Georgetown and Duke and even Loyola and Towson.

This is a diverse society. This is America. As a sport, lacrosse should expand and get bigger and better. But unless you offer more inclusion, I find it hard to buy.

  • DMA 7-22 Sports is a blog about sports in the Washington-Baltimore market, covering amateurs, colleges and pros. The title DMA 7-22? Means "Designated Market Area," per use of media rating services, signifying Washington is the 7th largest media market in the United States, and Baltimore is the 22nd. You can reach M.V. Greene at

Photos: Hopkins lacrosse (top), Baltimore Sun; Maryland women's lacrosse, Washington Post; Jim Brown, archive photo.

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