University of Virginia Lacrosse Player's Death Plays Out in Public

PHOTO University of Virginia mens lacrosse player George Huguely, 22, a fourth-year student from Chevy Chase, Md., is shown in a Nov. 2008 booking photo

On the eve of the NCAA men's and women's lacrosse tournaments, the most high-profile time of year for the sport, lacrosse is in the national spotlight again for something that took place off the field.

The murder of University of Virginia women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love and the arrest of her ex-boyfriend, Virginia men's lacrosse player George Huguely, has rocked the lacrosse community and threatens to cast another dark cloud over a game that perhaps has become more well-known nationwide for scandal than for sport.

VIDEO: George Huguely gave police chilling details about his attack on Yeardley Love.
New Details From UVA Lacrosse Suspect

The Virginia men's team is the top-ranked team heading into this month's NCAA tournament and many lacrosse experts have projected them to win the title. The women's team is also expected to be competitive in the tournament.

But as both squads begin their quests for the championship, the media coverage will be dominated by questions of what happened between Love and Huguely and what this tragedy says about the sport and culture of lacrosse.

There are differing opinions about whether the tragic death of Love is first and foremost a "lacrosse story" or a story about domestic violence or both.

"I think we really do need to look at it as not specific to this sport," said Christian Cook who won two NCAA titles playing lacrosse at Princeton in the late 1990s. "More than [lacrosse players] they were both students at the University of Virginia who had bright futures ahead of them."

 Video: College student says she was sexually assaulted, boys say it was all a joke.

One thing that is certain is that the incident has reignited a heated conversation about the stereotypes of lacrosse players and the sport's overall image.

Four years ago, lacrosse and its culture entered the national conversation because of the scandal at Duke University. Three varsity lacrosse players stood accused of raping a stripper the team hired to perform at a party. The charges against all three were eventually dismissed when the accuser recanted her story, but the drama played out for months in the media, where many automatically deemed the three athletes guilty.

It did not take long for the comparisons to begin between the Virginia murder and the Duke lacrosse rape scandal, even though the two are entirely different matters.

Many in the lacrosse community believe what happened four years ago in Durham is a factor in the media coverage of this story today.

"Duke and Virginia essentially have identical twin lacrosse programs. Such sensational headlines always receive overwhelming coverage in today's media age, but in this case I think the way in which the Duke controversy became one of the worldwide stories of the year is making this incident bigger than it would normally be," said Robert Carpenter, publisher of Inside Lacrosse Magazine and a former lacrosse player at Duke. "Without Duke happening I believe this would be seen as nothing beyond a tragic, stray incident involving two individuals."

Maryland men's lacrosse head coach Dave Cottle, who has been a head coach at the college level for 27 years, said the Duke scandal stigmatized the sport.

"I think that played a major role. Those kids were guilty when it first came out and everybody was ready to place guilt on them," he said. "The [sport's] image can't be good right now."

ABC News reached out to several coaches and former players from top lacrosse programs but they declined to comment for this story citing the sensitivity of the issue and unanswered questions about what happened at Virginia.

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