Lacrosse's history crosses cultural lines

Author writes of a complex past

May 24, 2002|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

When Donald Fisher was still in LaFayette High School, a small school just south of Syracuse, N.Y., a classmate made the comment: "If there was a professional lacrosse league, it would outdraw major league baseball."

Fisher never played lacrosse but was intrigued that so many sons of upper- and middle-class families were playing a sport that was regarded as a Native American game.

In his new book, Lacrosse: A History of the Game, just out from Johns Hopkins University Press, Fisher, now an assistant professor of history at Niagara Community College in Sanborn, N.Y., chronicles the sport's history. Started by northeastern Indians to serve physical and spiritual functions, it came to be known as Canada's national game before catching on in the United States, where it has achieved an almost cult-like following among prep schools and the upper and middle class along the East Coast. And that professional league - Major League Lacrosse - has become a reality.

Fisher spoke with The Sun on the eve of the sport's pinnacle event: the collegiate men's Final Four, which has become a major Memorial Day weekend occasion for the lacrosse community. Final Four weekend, featuring a No. 1 Johns Hopkins squad, gets under way tomorrow at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., and culminates Monday at 11:30 a.m. with the national championship game. All the games will be televised on ESPN2.

What prompted you to write a book on this topic?

I come at this from a perspective of a cultural historian. I have never played. I have never coached. When I was in grad school, I was interested in what lacrosse tells us about the history of white-Indian relations. ... Who likes lacrosse? Affluent whites and Indians. What do those people have in common? Nothing, except lacrosse. ... The book is an attempt to understand the history of the game from a cultural standpoint.

In the book, you talk about how little information is out there about the history of lacrosse. What is the biggest misconception about Native Americans' role in the sport?

From a white point of view, people who have been interested in lacrosse have an interest in real Indians. There is, sort of dancing around in the minds of some people subconsciously, or even overtly, romanticized images of Indians. ... I think much of the appeal from upper- and middle-class white perspective is the rough nature of the game. ... People take the idea of Indians as noble savages. ... On one hand, they might condemn the savage nature of the game, but on the other hand, they sort of looked at it with respect. ... Lacrosse is more than scoring goals. It's more than winning or losing. It's about defining one's masculinity. ...

How did a sport renowned for its pace and violence become known as an elitist sport?

The first whites to become interested in lacrosse were what I would call middle-class Canadians. The guy who creates the first modern set of rules is a dentist. His friends are businessmen, merchants, bankers, attorneys, clerks, people like that. They wanted to borrow this noble Indian game and make it scientific, make it gentlemanly. ... For a long time, there was always an effort to keep lacrosse for the upper and middle class. If you have poor people playing lacrosse, they would have to get paid. But if you are upper class, you don't need to get paid. You have the luxury of going to a university, playing for the sake of playing.

You also discuss the evolution of the women's game. Why is the women's game so different from the men's game?

To understand the difference, you have to acknowledge the culture from which women's lacrosse comes from. Women's lacrosse, culturally, has little to do with the original Indian game. The culture is late 19th-century Anglo-American Victorianism. ... [and] emphasized the idea of separate gender spheres, that men and women have totally different interests.

Women's lacrosse is a game that originally celebrated feminine qualities. That is why they have this imaginary bubble around every player. There is no contact. It is a very Victorian game in that sense. ... Recently, of course, there are a lot of women who want their game to be competitive like any male game. ... I think it is a fascinating debate, and I imagine it is going to define the women's game for quite a while.

You tell a story about how the game came to Baltimore, how a group of track athletes from here saw lacrosse being played in Rhode Island and brought it back with them. But why has Baltimore become such a mecca for lacrosse?

[After those athletes return], a team is born at Hopkins. ... And look how many championships Hopkins has won over the last 100 and some odd years. Johns Hopkins is clearly the dominant power in college lacrosse. ... Hopkins went out of its way to cultivate the game in high schools. They wanted to create a feeder system. ... Whether it was St. Paul's or Friends or other schools, they were always feeding Hopkins with talent. ... It is sort of a monopoly in some sense.

The Final Four games in recent years have been attended by more than 20,000 people. Are you surprised by this growth in popularity?

I think that all the revolutionary changes in the '70s and '80s is producing it ... which includes regional diversity - it is no longer just Long Island or Baltimore - it is the issue of equipment being mass-produced, and just think what happens when more and more players start. Ex-players become spectators. ... The key to lacrosse's growth is whether or not lacrosse players want to become lacrosse spectators.

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