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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Friday, April 07, 2006

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LaCrosse's alleged culture of elitism

Seeing that the author is a former high school "jock," as was, technically, SMQ (he was a mostly quiet jock with no athletic ability), it's disappointing that the headline of Dave Jamieson's Slate offering on the Duke lacrosse scandal trumpets the "boorishness of jocks." The article itself, though, especially for a lacrosse novice far from its exclusive Atlantic habitat, is a good primer for why, exactly, this seemingly isolated incident has blown up into a near race riot.

SMQ fancies himself somewhat cosmopolitan, but lacrosse is a sport so foreign to his Southern sensibilities that it took him more than a paragraph following the reference to realize Jameson's confusing use of "lax" to describe "a perennial contender for the state championship" didn't mean the team was lacking in rigor, strictness, or firmness. His only previous encounters with the sport included maybe half an hour, total, over several years of watching pieces of NCAA championship games (always, it seemed, involving some combination of Virginia, Syracuse and Princeton) and, later, the look of alienation on the face of a New Jersey transplant in our freshman dorm who met only with apathy and confusion after a few minutes walking around the hall with the fundamental piece of lacrosse equipment SMQ will refer to for lack of a possible proper term - and with complete awareness of this description's high potential for adolescent vulgarity - as his stick.

Which is why the hype surrounding the Duke lacrosse scandal has been so stunning - because, really, weren't the Colorado rape and sex-for-recruits scandals, widespread over time and implicating official-type, adult university representatives or, worse, athletic department procedure, a more terrible story? - as has the ignition of the testy relationship between this "elite" schools and the community it apparently makes at least token efforts to improve. Because when some kids collaborate to commit a heinous act, one that's obviously far, far outside the knowledge or sanction of anyone in any official capacity at the university, and that's quickly condemned with severe and tangible consequences, and residents still protest as if the school teaches Racist Gang Rape 101, then there's something way beyond this isolated incident going down there.

What's really strange to SMQ is that it was sports, usually among any school's closest connection to outsiders, that lit the powderkeg. Jamieson explains how:
Lacrosse players hail from the privileged, largely white pockets of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. They unite and form tribes in Eastern prep schools, where they can be spotted driving SUVs with "LAX" stickers affixed to the rear windows. Many grow addicted to dipping Skoal and wearing soiled white caps with college logos on them. They gain entry into top colleges by virtue of their skills with the stick. They graduate, start careers in New York, marry trophy wives, and put lacrosse sticks in their kids' cribs.

More than any other sport, lacrosse represents the marriage of athletic aggression and upper-class entitlement. While a squash player might consider himself upper-crust, he can't prove his superiority by checking you onto your ass the way a lacrosse defenseman can. And while lacrosse may share with football a love for contact, it is far more socioeconomically insulated than the grid game (except in odd places like Maryland, where it's managed to cross class lines). Some aficionados take pride in the fact that their sport was invented by Native Americans, but I don't imagine many members of the Onondaga Nation end up playing lax at Colgate.

Still, how could college lacrosse players be any more misogynous than your typical football-team steakhead? Perhaps it's because, unlike their football brethren, an unusually large proportion of college lacrosse players spend their high school years in sheltered, all-boys academies before heading off to liberal co-ed colleges. Most guys from single-sex schools are able to adjust. Others join the lacrosse team. The worst of this lot become creatures that are, in the words of a friend of mine, "half William Kennedy Smith, half Lawrence Phillips." In the warm enclave of the locker room, safe from the budding feminists and comp-lit majors, their identity becomes more cemented. How else to explain the report in a Duke school paper that, roughly two weeks after the alleged rape, members of the team were spotted drinking in a Durham bar, chanting, "Duke lacrosse!"

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Someone should have seen this coming

This is a good answer to SMQ's longstanding confusion about the failure or lacrosse - and also Olympic-style wrestling - in the South. With hockey, there's an obvious climate barrier. Aside from the running, everything about soccer flies in the face of American values. And with lacrosse, Jamieson explains, it's rich WASPy snobbery.

We have our own sordid history of rich WASPery, but non-East coast, non-prep school, non-elitists are wholly unfamiliar with the idea of athletes in a team sport being stereotyped as "upper crust" in any fashion. Here, that's reserved for golf or tennis, but baseball is mostly redneck, basketball is mostly black and football and track/cross country are both. Soccer, to the extent it's recognized at all, is for weirdos (for all his futbol-bashing, it should be noted that SMQ was a long-time soccer player prior to high school). Athletes may be arrogant and act entitled, but they're not elitists; sports, in fact, are generally as inclusive and meritocratic as society gets.

SMQ's not about to indict an entire sport and every one in it, especially one he's so unfamiliar with. But if Jamieson's assessment mostly hits its mark - and the surprising tumult in Durham would suggest to SMQ that it does - then lacrosse's failure to amass broader appeal at least makes more sense.
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8:03 PM

Actually, Syracuse has had more than its fair share of members of the Onondaga Nation. The staff is currently recruiting two members of the tribe to its team for next year and the team's primary offensive cog - Brett Bucktooth - is a proud Onondagan.

Also, it is interesting to note that Syracuse's mascot change -- from Bill Orange (a Native American) to Otto the Orange -- was spurred on by a former captain of the SU lacrosse team, who just happened to be a member of the local Oneida tribe (I believe).

I think Jamieson is making some broad strokes with his pen in this instance.
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