May 7, 2010 -- 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. 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."
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.
Lacrosse Stereotypes Back in the Headlines After Virginia Tragedy
Love's murder and Huguely's arrest has sparked a heated debate online, on college campuses and in the media about "jock culture," and the stereotype of lacrosse players as hard-partying, white and privileged.
The popular sports blog Deadspin.com, which often takes edgy positions that spark fiery debates in its comments section, took it one step further and boiled it down to this question earlier this week: "Are The White Boys of Lacrosse Predestined to Be Dicks?"
But backing up a few steps – what is the stereotype of a lacrosse player?
Surf internet message boards and blogs and you'll find a composite of a preppy, white, upper-middle class athlete from a private school somewhere along the East Coast. Need a picture? Pastel shorts, wrap-around sunglasses and flip flops. Proclivity to drinking and partying? That is part of the overall image as well.
In the wake of his arrest, details about Huguely's dark past are coming to light. The Virginia senior has a lengthy criminal record that includes multiple arrests for public intoxication, underage drinking and a 2008 altercation with a police officer who says Huguely threatened to kill her.
The Virginia men's lacrosse team is now coming under greater scrutiny for its off-field behavior. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that eight of the 41 players currently on Virginia's men's lacrosse team, including Huguely have been charged with alcohol-related offenses during their careers at the school, according to court records.
Cottle admitted that the reputation of lacrosse players "sometimes is accurate, you hate to say it," and said perhaps the sport has had a "checkered past."
Deadspin.com's Katie Baker surmised that one origin for the stereotype is how "white and homogenous the sport is" and said that any story involving a problem in lacrosse will have "an added 'class' component."
She wrote that "insularity" – because of the geographic and socioeconomic concentration of athletes - breeds some of the pack mentality and generic stereotyping.
"The new lacrosse freshman on campus probably knows half his team already, as well as half the women's team," Baker wrote. "Think about the person who grew up in upscale suburban Baltimore, for example, went to an all boys school, was good at sports, got involved in lax, which in these "hotbeds" really is the hot thing, and ultimately got recruited at 4-8 schools, all good ones, most likely, and all places where he probably has former teammates there to tell him how SIIIIIIICK it is."
Huguely fits into that stereotype of a lacrosse player. He hails from a prominent family and was a star multi-sport athlete at the Landon School, a tony all-boys prep school outside of Washington D.C. that costs nearly $30,000 a year. Coincidentally, one of the three accused Duke Lacrosse players also went to the Landon School. Huguely was a senior in high school when that occurred.
Cottle and others in the lacrosse community took issue with the depiction of collegiate lacrosse players all coming from a handful of elite prep schools.
"The first problem that I have is the stereotype that they're all private school kids," the Maryland coach said. "This is a sport where there is a wide range of private schools that participate and probably a high percentage of the private schools that participate are at the high end of the sport and that's probably why it's perceived the way it is."
Cottle noted that in some of the big hotbeds of the game, like Washington DC and Baltimore, the top teams are private schools but in areas like Long Island and upstate New York, the public school teams dominate.
Carpenter said the notion that the game is played just by "rich white kids at prep schools is so outdated."
"That overlooks the fact that over the past fifteen years the game has additionally been latched onto within every state and every demographic," he said. "Of course the people who played the sport then are still playing now. It's just expanded. Gone are the days when every roster was loaded with prep school players from Baltimore and New England"
Christian Cook played at powerhouse Princeton in the late 1990s but he started out playing the sport in high school in Denver, which back then was not the hotbed it is now. Cook points to programs like Winners Lacrosse program, a nonprofit organization founded in 2000 to bring lacrosse to youths in underserved communities, as ways that the game is expanding and potentially erasing the stereotype.
Do Athletes Get in More Trouble, Commit More Crimes Than Their Peers on Campus?
Beyond the debate over the accuracy of stereotypes of athletes is perhaps the more critical discussion about athletes, crime and violence as Huguely's own criminal past comes to light.
"They travel in packs and herds so they're noticed when they do something wrong and noticed when they do something right," Cottle said of college athletes.
According to Richard Lapchick, the founder of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, "There has never been a thorough, scientific study conclusively showing that athletes are more inclined than others to commit assaults."
Jarrod Chin, the Director for Violence Prevention and Diversity at the Center for Sport in Society, said crimes involving athletes earn greater attention and notoriety because of their profiles on campus.
"On a college campus you know who the athletes are. If a non-athlete is going out there and getting into fights on weekends, that is not going to make the paper unless it makes the police report," Chin said. "You could go out on a college campus on any weekend and probably see a bunch of fights but it's that one time a college athlete engages in violent behavior that people point and say, oh athletes are more violent."
Chin said the focus needs to be less on Huguely as an athlete who allegedly committed a crime and more on Huguely as a man allegedly committing a crime against a woman.
Tragedy Casts Dark Cloud Over Lacrosse Community
The murder of one of its own has cast yet another black cloud over the sport, according to several people in the lacrosse community.
Cottle lamented the fact that the negative too quickly outweighs any positives.
"You do 300 hours of community service isn't on the front page of the paper," he said. "You hurt somebody , it's on the front page and that's just the way it is. I think there's an awful lot of good things going on in the community shared by lacrosse teams."
Cook acknowledged the negative press but said he does not see this incident as a "lacrosse-specific problem."
"I still think that it's a couple terrible situations that have happened that have highlighted this sport that unfortunately all the positive things that people do on a daily basis that are involved in this sport – those just don't get coverage," he said.
Inside Lacrosse's Carpenter said he wishes the media's focus was better placed in the telling of this story.
"This is a teachable moment, and dialogue should focus on awareness, self-improvement and trying to prevent this from happening again. These are large problems facing society, and while we're in tragedy's wake is when that type of discussion will resonate," he said. "Love's community is suffering to such an extent right now. I'm taken aback that people take this moment of tragedy and sorrow, and morph it into a referendum on a group of people with which they don't identify."
One group that is using this as a teachable moment is the WINNERS Lacrosse program. Executive Director Jon Kornfeld said that the staff and parents are explaining to the players that what happened at Virginia as a tragedy and not a lacrosse specific incident.
"It's not a blanket 'lacrosse players do X, Y and Z because of what happened at Duke, what happened at UVA,'" Kornfeld said. "This is not a lacrosse specific tragedy, trying to encourage them to not look at it in that manner."
Over at Maryland, Cottle is also having long talks with his team this week to help them work through their feelings on what happened at their rival school.
"Let's be honest, it affects [us]. We have guys on our teams who knew the accused and we have guys on our team who were friends with the victim," Cottle said. "I talked to a kid today after practice who said he hadn't been able to sleep for days. It really bothers them."
But beyond the emotional factors, Cottle echoed Carpenter's sentiment that this tragedy is a teaching moment for coaches and players.
"We talked about the next group of guys that get in trouble are really going to hurt the sport, their university, their parents and their program," he said. "We're talking about making sure we do everything, we act with character, we act with virtue and we stay out of all trouble."
"All of us as coaches have a responsibility to educate our players on the importance of doing things the right way," Cottle said.