Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Lacrosse Grabs America's Attention

Commentator Frank Deford talks about the oldest sport in North America: lacrosse. He says the sport's popularity is growing rapidly, and it's shedding its elitist image.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host

It's difficult for a sport to find a larger place for itself on the crowded American sports calendar. Despite all the money thrown at soccer, it remains on the second tier. Lacrosse has come under a dark cloud for some, because of the scandal involving the Duke men's lacrosse team. But commentator Frank Deford says the sport itself, the oldest game in North America, is the new hot game.

FRANK DEFORD reporting:

The old Indian sport, named by a French missionary because the sticks resembled the bishop's crosier, has always had pockets of popularity. It's Canada's official summer sport. In the United States, it was big on Long Island and on some upstate reservations, but it was most in evidence in tony New England prep schools and in Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins was the perennial college champion.

As prominent as it was in Baltimore, though, even there, lacrosse remained mostly a private school game. Ironically, as hard and grueling as this brutal, old Indian game is, lacrosse retained a reputation as, sort of, polo without the ponies. Lacrosse was an extended eastern family, run rather informally.

The Iroquois hand-fashioned all the sticks out of wood, leather, and catgut. You didn't carry the ball, you cradled it. And the preppies took the game off to the few colleges, which funded their rather expensive sport: sticks, pads, and helmets. The young ladies who went out for field hockey in the fall played a more genteel women's version of lacrosse in the spring.

Suddenly, in the '90s, all this began to change. Easterners who moved west took the game with them. Title IX made it more attractive for colleges to include the women's game. Schools across the nation began to add the sport. It's now the fastest growing in the land--participation up 300 percent in a decade. Lacrosse got around to actually establishing a national governing body, just like grown-up sports. Two pro leagues--one outdoor, one for arenas--were established. Places like Denver and Toronto sell out crowds of 17,000 for their indoor teams. A franchise will go into Madison Square Garden next year. Only basketball draws larger crowds to its college championships. Last year at the Eagles' stadium in Philadelphia, 125,000 showed up for three days of the men's playoffs.

So, can the sport keep growing? Well, like soccer, it's obviously good exercise for kids. We've already got, yes--lacrosse moms. The modern plastic molded sticks with nylon netting make it much easier to catch and cradle and throw. It's starting to attract minority athletes, although it's a surprise bit of history that, perhaps, the greatest lacrosse player ever was Jim Brown. Yes, that Jim Brown, of Syracuse. He told me once that he thought he was even better at lacrosse than football.

Some of the upper crust still lingers in lacrosse, though. The recent scandal at Duke brought out the information that, unlike other Duke athletic teams, the Blue Devils' lacrosse team was predominantly made up of northeastern preppies.

Lacrosse is compared mostly to hockey and soccer, but it offers much more scoring than either of these sports. That and its manual dexterity makes it more appealing to American audiences than soccer. I've always thought, though, that in many respects, lacrosse more resembles basketball with its picks and backdoors. In that vein, like basketball, major league lacrosse counts two points for a long goal and has a possession clock.

The greatest drawback to the sport is that it's played on a large field with a little ball you can barely see because it's usually being cradled in somebody's net. But, the sleepy old sport is wide-awake. The pros are using orange balls. By any standard, it's a lacrosse la boom.

MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford. His latest book, The Old Ball Game, is out in paperback. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford