When I played baseball in high school, there was a week or two during the frosty New Jersey preseason when we ballplayers had to split time in the gym with the lacrosse players. Our lax team was a perennial contender for the state championship, and its players rarely left their cockiness on the field. Walking into the gym with my glove and bat bag, through their gauntlet of mesh-covered testosterone, I sometimes felt less like an heir to the national pastime than a gangly, underclass T-ball player.
"Hey, that's a sweet bag," someone jeered at me during one such walk. I turned to find an assistant lacrosse coach, who must have been about 30 years old. "Whadd'ya got in there?" he pressed on, to the delight of his stick-wielding protégés. "A shotgun?" Even in the sometimes savage world of an all-boys high school, I never thought I'd be mocked, albeit unimaginatively, for being a member of the varsity baseball team. And certainly not by a guy who might someday write me a college recommendation. But lacrosse guys are a different breed.
The scandal at Duke University that's been dominating the news the last few weeks—white lacrosse players have been accused of raping a black student from neighboring North Carolina Central University—has stained one of the nation's top colleges and highlighted racial tensions in Durham, N.C. The controversy has also exposed the culture of an elitist and relatively obscure sport.
I was shocked when I heard about the alleged rape. But I can't say that I was surprised to hear that 15 of the 47 players on the Duke lacrosse roster have arrest records that are laced with alcohol-related crimes. (Disclosure: I was guilty of the same sort of alcohol-related crimesin college.) Five members of the team are alumni of the private Catholic high school I attended in North Jersey. One of them is Ryan McFadyen, the player who wrote an e-mail the night of the alleged assault detailing his fantasy to invite some more strippers over and then kill and skin them.
McFadyen may not have committed a crime, but he is guilty of a common lacrosse sin: puerile meatheadedness. According to court documents, a search of McFadyen's home turned up a poster that apparently pays homage to the crude sexual maneuver known as "the shocker." (For those of you unfamiliar with the nuances of the shocker, consult Wikipedia, or, better yet, your local lacrosse squad.)
Students, faculty, and Durham residents have carried out near-daily protests on Duke's campus. But if any of them are wondering how alcohol-fueled misogyny could fester at one of the nation's top schools, then they simply don't know lacrosse. A brief sociological account is in order. Lacrosse players hail from the privileged, largely white pockets of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. They unite and form tribes in Eastern prep schools, where they can be spotted driving SUVs with "LAX" stickers affixed to the rear windows. Many grow addicted to dipping Skoal and wearing soiled white caps with college logos on them. They gain entry into top colleges by virtue of their skills with the stick. They graduate, start careers in New York, marry trophy wives, and put lacrosse sticks in their kids' cribs.
More than any other sport, lacrosse represents the marriage of athletic aggression and upper-class entitlement. While a squash player might consider himself upper-crust, he can't prove his superiority by checking you onto your ass the way a lacrosse defenseman can. And while lacrosse may share with football a love for contact, it is far more socioeconomically insulated than the grid game (except in odd places like Maryland, where it's managed to cross class lines). Some aficionados take pride in the fact that their sport was invented by Native Americans, but I don't imagine many members of the Onondaga Nation end up playing lax at Colgate.
Still, how could college lacrosse players be any more misogynous than your typical football-team steakhead? Perhaps it's because, unlike their football brethren, an unusually large proportion of college lacrosse players spend their high school years in sheltered, all-boys academies before heading off to liberal co-ed colleges. Most guys from single-sex schools are able to adjust. Others join the lacrosse team. The worst of this lot become creatures that are, in the words of a friend of mine, "half William Kennedy Smith, half Lawrence Phillips." In the warm enclave of the locker room, safe from the budding feminists and comp-lit majors, their identity becomes more cemented. How else to explain the report in a Duke school paper that, roughly two weeks after the alleged rape, members of the team were spotted drinking in a Durham bar, chanting, "Duke lacrosse!"
Campus activists and intellectuals generally pay lacrosse players little mind, except when they're griping about how ghoulishly they behave in the cafeteria. In the eyes of their bookish classmates, lax guys occupy the far end of the dirt spectrum, even beyond hockey players. The lacrosse player's unparalleled reputation has spawned some wild rumors over the years. My favorite is the one I heard about how half a college team contracted herpes because they all made love to the same crack in their group-house couch. Urban legend? Sure. And yet, I've heard the tale many times, and it's always lacrosse-specific. That's no accident.
Consider the sport's lone pop-culture icon: Steve Stifler of American Pie. Stifler is the boneheaded lax star who speaks in the third person and beds girls by preying on their insecurities. Never let anyone tell you that Seann William Scott isn't a great actor. His brilliantly cartoonish portrayal is so spot-on that I'm convinced that he shadowed a half-dozen guys I know to prepare for the role. Anyone who knows lacrosse players knows a Stifler. Put him in a football uniform, and the character's magic is gone.
No charges have yet been filed against the Duke players. Who knows? Maybe they'll be exonerated, win next year's NCAA championship, collect their degrees, and go on to have successful careers in Eastern cities. That's the trajectory I've seen for most lacrosse players I've known, including those who remain good friends of mine today. Even if the Duke guys end up in court, I'm sure they won't disown the sport they love. I'll bet that 20 years from now, their sons will be playing lacrosse.