New plan takes field in dispute over state sport

Lacrosse would share honor with jousting

General Assembly

January 16, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,SUN STAFF

An abiding battle of occasionally titanic proportions over what Maryland's official sport should be may be settled once and for all in this 418th session of the General Assembly.

Since 1962, the only official state sport has been jousting. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose great-great-grandfather was a champion jouster and who has used his considerable power to squash previous proposals for alternatives, is preparing a bill that would add lacrosse as the state's official team sport.

"I think it's time to declare it Maryland's team sport," said Miller. "We need to recognize these young people, their dedication to this sport and their accomplishments, especially our many college men's and women's teams who annually receive national recognition for their skill."

Miller acknowledged that in the order of issues facing the legislature, which opened this week, his proposal to recognize lacrosse is "not a bill of major importance."

But the news has created a stir among Maryland's lacrosse supporters.

"I think it's great," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of US Lacrosse, the game's national governing body, which has its headquarters in Baltimore.

John Stude, a Baltimorean who has been active in the campaign to make lacrosse the state sport, was stunned. He recalled that Miller had once written him a letter "saying he would never support lacrosse as the state sport in any fashion."

Like Miller, Stude had his passion stirred by the memory of a relative. His father, Fritz Stude, was an All-American lacrosse player at the Johns Hopkins University in the 1930s. In 1932, he played on the Hopkins team that represented the United States in demonstration games at the Olympics in Los Angeles.

But Miller's link to jousting is older and his political influence on the issue is stronger. Jousting - now a sport in which contestants on horseback try to lance rings - has been popular in southern and rural Maryland for a long time. Its supporters are relatively few, but they are dedicated.

Busch sponsored bill

Michael E. Busch, speaker of the House of Delegates, discovered as much when he signed on to a lacrosse bill as a freshman delegate in 1988, having no idea what powerful forces were behind the jousters.

His bill went before the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired at the time by Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey, who, Busch says, turned out to be a jouster who rode under the name "Sir Will If-you-can." No less a force than the state comptroller, Louis L. Goldstein, came to testify against the bill, asserting that the St. Mary's County delegate whose bill had made jousting the state sport in 1962 had pleaded on his deathbed for Goldstein to preserve the sport's status as a state icon.

Then, Busch recalls, Miller summoned the young freshman to his office to make things clear. His great-great-grandfather, William Page Bryan of St. Mary's County, had won a national jousting tournament in Philadelphia during U.S. Centennial celebrations there in 1876.

But great-great-grandfather Bryan's moment of triumph was short-lived.

As Miller tells the story, in the flush of victory, Bryan started drinking and gambling, and by the time it was all over he had lost everything but his horse and the shotgun that was his prize for winning the tourney.

"He'd lost his train fare, so he had to ride the horse from Philadelphia back to St. Mary's," Miller recalled yesterday. "The horse died of pneumonia on the way."

After hearing the story from Miller 16 years ago, Busch said, he dropped the lacrosse challenge. "It was the last time I ever tried it," he said.

Opposition possible

Miller said yesterday that he had not told Busch of his intentions. Busch did not return a reporter's telephone calls to discuss Miller's recent change of heart.

Miller says he expects to hear from the jousters and he notes he has enemies in Annapolis who might oppose the bill "because of my name on it."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was not a lacrosse player, but he is the product of a prep school, Gilman, and a university, Princeton, that take the sport very seriously.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman, said Ehrlich hadn't heard of the bill but that if it were approved he would "give it every proper consideration."

Miller said he changed his position because the sport has grown extremely popular in Maryland and the state is recognized as a center for the sport. The NCAA championship tournaments were played at M&T Bank Stadium last spring, over a period of days drawing as many people to Baltimore as the recent football playoff game.

Lacrosse has a large and passionate following in Maryland, where some children are given lacrosse sticks shortly after learning to walk.

Jousting does not attract huge crowds today, although Miller says it has been popular for a long time in southern and rural Maryland. After the Civil War, tourneys were among the attractions at fund-raising fairs. Nostalgia for a chivalrous time also made it attractive to Southerners.

But the demographics of Southern Maryland have changed drastically with an influx of commuters who are not tied to the tradition. They are more likely to be soccer and lacrosse fans than jousting fans.

As Stenersen of US Lacrosse put it, making lacrosse the state team sport is "not going to make or break the game, but the recognition is much deserved."

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