A shadow on men's lacrosse

Sport must deal with persistent reports of violence and sexual abuse

May 07, 2010|By Peter G. Prowitt

For years, basketball and football have been characterized as sports played by "thugs" or "gangsters." The prevalence of tattoos, legal troubles and a general "in your face" attitude of the players have become symbols of what is wrong with sports today. Surprisingly, it looks like basketball and football have a new partner in this dubious category: men's lacrosse. Lacrosse's image has suffered greatly in recent years after a string of alcohol- and sex-related incidents both at the high school and college level, culminating Monday with the tragic death of Yeardley Love of Cockeysville, a senior on the University of Virginia women's lacrosse team.

Lacrosse may seem an unlikely candidate for this ugly label. It is a geographically limited sport played mainly by middle- or upper-class Caucasian athletes. However, if ever there was a wake-up call that the culture of sex and alcohol abuse surrounding the sport of men's lacrosse has spun out of control, the case of Yeardley Love is it.

Details surrounding the incident have not yet been released, and more information about Ms. Love's death will likely surface in the coming weeks. It is premature to draw conclusions from initial reports, and the suspect charged in the case, George Huguely of Chevy Chase, is innocent until proven otherwise. But it appears that both alcohol and sexual misconduct may have played a role in the death of Yeardley Love.

While the death of Yeardley Love is shocking, alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct are not new in men's lacrosse. In 2006, three members of the Duke men's lacrosse team were accused of raping a dancer at a party as well as hurling racial epithets at the African-American women. All three athletes were eventually cleared of the allegations brought against them (and their original prosecutor, Mike Nifong, disbarred); however, it was clear that they exercised poor judgment in this incident, and as unfair as it may now seem, their reputations and that of the school will forever be linked to this ugly incident.

In 2009, three members of the men's lacrosse team at Connecticut's Sacred Heart University were charged with sexual assault after an incident in which two of the players were accused of inappropriately touching an 18-year-old girl while she had sex with a third. Their attorney defended the actions of the two players by stating that, "any accusations that a sexual assault occurred in the Sacred Heart University dorm were a gross exaggeration of alcohol-fueled hijinks." This quote seemed to defend this behavior with a sort of "boys will be boys" claim, insinuating that two young men initiating in non-consensual sexual acts with an unsuspecting 18-year-old girl was little more than a poorly crafted joke. Ha-ha.

In 2001, a case emerged involving members of the men's lacrosse team at St. Paul's School near Baltimore. In it, a sophomore player recorded a video of him and a female student engaging in sexual acts and shared this tape in a group setting with his teammates. After the story surfaced, a Baltimore Sun staff writer and St. Paul's father wrote, "While I don't know all of the students involved in this incident, my take is that many of them are good kids who made a mistake." The argument here is essentially that "these boys are too young to know what they are really doing." This argument is not entirely without merit; however, I would also call the readers' attention to the fact that filming an amateur sex tape and showing it to your friends is not "normal behavior." Especially at the age of 16. This is not normal behavior for anyone else, for that matter.

If the above incidents did not register on the national radar that sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse have become problems in men's lacrosse, Yeardley Love's case should. I am a native of Northern Virginia, a hotbed of lacrosse talent, and I will readily defend the virtues of the sport. Lacrosse is America's oldest sport and it combines physicality and skill in fast-paced competition. The sport of lacrosse has produced countless first-rate athletes and first-class people over the years, and I am proud to have friends and family who have played D-1 lacrosse and had fantastic experiences.

It is tempting to write off Yeardley Love's death off as a freak occurrence. But closer study of the culture of sexual misconduct and off-the-field troubles in men's lacrosse reveals a disturbing trend leading up to Ms. Love's case and suggests that there exists and ugly side to lacrosse, as is often claimed regarding basketball and football.

George Huguely, the former UVA lacrosse player charged with the first-degree murder of Yeardley Love, released a statement through his attorney this week characterizing the event as "an accident with a tragic outcome." According to police reports, Mr. Huguely admitted to having "kicked in Love's door" and to "swinging the victim's neck and shaking it violently and pounding her head against a wall." as reported by the blog The Hook.

The facts, when they come out, are likely to show that Ms. Love's death was no accident, nor was it a case that can be chalked up to "boys being boys." It is time that men's lacrosse address this issue head-on, and change its image from the sport of "boys being boys" to a sport where "boys become men."

Peter G. Prowitt is with the Vienna Liaison Office of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly. His e-mail is peter.prowitt@gmail.com.

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