Thursday, February 23, 2012

In Defense Of Men's Lacrosse

The last time that the Princeton men's lacrosse team played at the University of Virginia was in 2007.

The Tigers lost that game 7-6, and TigerBlog's biggest memory is that there was something of a controversy around the game-winning goal, which came with 26 seconds left. TB cannot remember what it was, and the game recap makes no reference to it.

The box score, though, says that George Huguely scored one of the UVa goals that day.

TB did the game on the radio, which means that he called Huguely's name at least that one time and possibly more and never really gave him any further thought. He was just another kid with another uniform number on another opponent.

Today, of course, Huguely is a convicted murderer, one who is looking at spending more than a quarter-century in prison after the jury in the Yeardley Love murder case recommended a 26-year sentence. He will not be formally sentenced until April.

TigerBlog read several accounts of the trial and verdict, and it was hard to find a headline that didn't include the word "lacrosse" or "lax."

And why wouldn't it? The case became national news because it seemingly had all of the ingredients: a rich white guy who played a country club sport and thought that none of the rules applied to him, combined with a pretty young victim whose deep blue eyes stared back at you anytime you looked at her picture.

This was all about the lacrosse sub-culture, right? Wrong.

This wasn't about lacrosse at all.

If you want a story that's about lacrosse, then read the one TigerBlog wrote about how the members of the Princeton men's lacrosse team have rallied around head coach Nick Bates and his 10-year-old son Nick after the passing of Ann Bates, wife/mother to the two.

This is a lacrosse story.

The sport of lacrosse is filled with people who do these kinds of things every day. Don't think so?

Go to the Lowe's Senior Class Award website and click on any of the 20 candidates for the award, which honors outstanding performance in the 4 C's of classroom, community, character and competition.

Go to any team in the country, and you'll find players who succeed in school, who give back to others, who are nice and polite and funny and friendly. You'll see little kids flock to them in hopes of getting a stick or glove or autograph and almost always come away happy.

You'll see people who play a sport because they love it, not because they're using it as a precursor to a professional career. For the most part, they're not there on a full scholarship.

Yes, many of them traditionally have come from rich backgrounds, but that is changing as the sport grows.

What happened in the George Huguely case is not a symptom of lacrosse. On balance, there is so much more great about lacrosse than bad, and the game continually gets an unnecessarily bad reputation.

Hey, some of the greatest people TigerBlog has ever met in his life have been college lacrosse players and coaches. Many of them are the kind of people you marvel at, wondering how this combination of intelligence, athletic ability, sense of community, sense of team and humility can be wrapped up in one person.

And TB can give you hundreds of examples of people like this, from Princeton and from any number of other schools that he's seen Princeton compete against, even schools that TB wouldn't root for in a hundred years. And yet TB will be the first to admit that their rosters have been stocked with great kids, the kind TB would have rooted for hard if they'd been Princeton Tigers.

That's not to say that the Huguely story is an isolated situation and that college athletic administrators and coaches don't need to look at the larger issue.

It's just that it's not about the sport of lacrosse.

It's about alcohol.

It's clear from any account of what happened that alcohol was a prime contributor, and not just on the day of the murder.

In fact, TB was talking to one of the people in lacrosse he respects the most about this very subject a few days ago, and they both agreed that it's fairly fortunate that there haven't been other stories like this through the years.

The prevalence of alcohol among collegians - and athletes who play all sports - and the pressure that some of these kids feel to consume it are enormous and inescapable.

And the reality is that alcohol consumption changes personalities, makes kids do things they otherwise wouldn't do, over time becomes addictive. There is nobody - prosecutors, jurors, anyone - who thinks that Huguely set out to kill Love, or for that matter would have had he not been drinking all day.

How many other young lives have been affected by alcohol? Maybe not to the degree of committing a murder, but how many DUIs, how many health issues, how many serious car accidents, how many innocents killed by drunk drivers have there been?

There isn't a college administrator out there who doesn't know what binge drinking can do to a campus, and there are no easy solutions to the issues.

The fact is that George Huguely was a few days away from graduating from Virginia, and the odds are good that he was headed down the path of being successful. Now, instead of career, marriage, children and all that, he's headed to prison for a long time.

And let's keep in mind that while that is awful for him and his family, it's not tragic. The only tragedy here is the death of Yeardley Love.

And let's also keep in mind that Huguely is not in the situation he is because he played lacrosse.

It's because of alcohol.

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