College Sports

On sport's biggest weekend, lacrosse again on defensive

It didn't take long, Miles Harrison said, for the familiar lacrosse stereotypes to resurface. Within a day after a University of Virginia lacrosse player was charged with murdering a female player, the Baltimore surgeon said somebody told him, "'There are those lacrosse guys again."

Harrison, a member of the US Lacrosse Foundation board whose son, Kyle, starred at Johns Hopkins, was left to defend a sport that is thriving on the field while coping — again — with fallout from a criminal case.

It is both an exciting and trying period for lacrosse, which holds its national collegiate championships in Baltimore over the three-day holiday weekend. The games are expected to draw as many as 120,000 people to M&T Bank Stadium for semifinals and finals in men's Division I, and the Division II and III championship games. Another 14,000 may attend the women's Division I Final Four — it includes No. 1 seed Maryland — and the championship game at Towson University.

The games will face off less than four weeks after the death of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love of Cockeysville — allegedly at the hands of Cavaliers men's player George Huguely, her ex-boyfriend. While Huguely was ordered held without bond, his top-seeded former team has continued its season and will play Duke on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

Men's team members say they have dedicated the remainder of their season to Love and her former Virginia teammates, who fell one game short of advancing to Towson's Johnny Unitas Stadium for the women's Final Four.

Last week, Virginia men's players wore black, oval-shaped patches on the fronts of their white jerseys with Love's initials and her uniform number ("1").

"There are things that are going on, you know, bigger than lacrosse and more important than lacrosse games," said Virginia coach Dom Starsia, who admits to wondering during Sunday's 10-9 win over Stony Brook if his players might be too emotionally spent from the events to perform well. "I don't think these young men need any additional pressure on themselves, but to dismiss that these things are in mind would be naïve."

There is a sense that Virginia is still staggering — that the wrenching events have exacted a physical toll. "A while back I said to somebody, circumstances have changed lives forever for a lot of different people involved here," Starsia said. "I'm not exactly sure what normal is these days."

Salisbury coach Jim Berkman said he accepts that the weekend environment will be affected by the Virginia case. "Obviously people are going to talk about [Love's death]," said Berkman, whose team plays Tufts on Sunday in the Division III title game. "I don't think it's going to put a black eye on [the sport] forever."

The Virginia case reopened a debate in the media and Internet message boards about whether lacrosse fosters well-to-do athletes with inflated senses of entitlement. Huguely had run-ins with authorities before this year. In 2008, he tussled with police in Lexington, Va., and had to be subdued with a Taser.

The sport's promoters are familiar with — and often frustrated by — the debate over lacrosse "culture."

"It's inaccurate and shortsighted to say the tragedy is directly related to the culture of lacrosse," said Steve Stenersen, president and chief executive officer of US Lacrosse, the sport's Baltimore-based national governing body. "That's an attempt to sensationalize a tragedy by some in the media."

After Love's death, Stenersen posted a blog entry on the organization's website. He described being "overcome with emotion" thinking about Love's murder as he prepared lunches one morning for his children, ages 10 and 12, who were eating breakfast nearby.

Two lacrosse fans quickly posted replies, one criticizing the "protection status" lacrosse players allegedly receive "because they are white and rich."

Andrew Sharp, a Washington-based editor for the sports blogging site SB Nation, subsequently wrote that "it's fair to say that lacrosse is a chosen sport for sons and students of the Establishment. And with that comes Entitlement."

About 92 percent of male and female college lacrosse players are white, and 1.8 percent are African American, according to NCAA statistics.

US Lacrosse says the sport's demographics are changing as it extends its reach. It says more than 560,000 people played on organized teams in 2009, up from about 250,000 in 2001.

"The game has far outgrown the stereotype," Stenersen said. "In the DC-Baltimore market, let's face it; there are far more public schools that play lacrosse than private schools. It's also true there are some very good programs that have been around for some time in the private-school sector."

Miles Harrison was one of the founding members of the Morgan State lacrosse team of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His son, Kyle, won the 2005 men's Tewaaraton Trophy as the college player of the year.

"There is still the perception that somehow a preponderance of lacrosse players are privileged people," Miles Harrison said. "We are in the process of diversity."

A similar debate over lacrosse culture unfolded after now-discredited rape charges were filed against three Duke lacrosse players in 2006. North Carolina's attorney general found that no attack occurred at an off-campus team party in March 2006, as an African-American stripper invited there had alleged.

A Duke faculty committee concluded nevertheless that team members had a history of committing "socially irresponsible" acts while drinking — an issue that has also arisen with the Virginia men's team. Many Duke players said they entered the 2007 Final Four at M&T Bank stadium trying to prove to the world that it was wrong about them. Duke lost, 11-10, to Johns Hopkins in the championship game.

Privately, parents of Duke lacrosse players are angry that references to the case have surfaced in the media during coverage of Love's death. The Duke case, they say, was built on lies and perpetuated by media outlets that couldn't resist a story that seemed to be about race and class.

Duke coach John Danowski said this week that the Virginia and Duke cases are "apples and oranges."

Danowski suggested that it's hard to liken a tragedy such as Love's death to any other event before it.

"On so many levels we can't get our heads around this any better than anyone else can," the coach said. "We're not experts in crisis management. There are so many emotions."