Let us play word association. What one word comes to your mind when I say "lacrosse"?
Duke. You said "Duke," didn't you?
But then again, had I said "lacrosse" to you before March 2006 maybe you wouldn't have said anything. Lacrosse?
But Duke happened, and in a perverse way, especially since the lacrosse players were, at last, all cleared, maybe it's possible that we can already look back and conclude that that awful attempted miscarriage of justice will end up helping the sport. Spell my name right. L-A-C-R-O-S-S-E. It was spelled over and over in places lacrosse had never been mentioned before.
At the same time, thank you very much, lacrosse had been growing quite well on its own, without any help from a purported scandal. High school, college and youth programs have all increased exponentially in the last decade or so, and the sport has spread outside its old mid-Atlantic base. Ohio State, Notre Dame and -- yes -- Denver University all made the 16-team men's NCAA tournament this month. The defending women's champ is Northwestern -- which, until recently, would be sort of like Georgia Tech winning the ice hockey championship. For that matter, as college enrollment tilts more and more female, even more schools are adding women's lacrosse teams to satisfy Title IX requirements.
The big sporting goods companies, led by Nike, now make stylish lacrosse uniforms. Even the informal name for players has grown more glamorous. Lacrosse players used to be called "stickmen" in the headlines. Sounded like one of Dorothy's wimpy pals in Oz. Now they're "laxmen." Grrrr.
It's impossible not to compare lacrosse's burgeoning popularity to soccer. Clearly, lacrosse appeals more to our taste. As they say about soccer: why do so many American kids play it? Because then they don't have to watch.
There's much more scoring in lacrosse than in soccer, it's faster, and Americans clearly prefer precision games -- the stick-handling dexterity, which soccer simply can't ever match with mere footmanship. You have to wonder how much more popular lacrosse would be if it had enjoyed the millions of dollars that have been thrown at -- and largely lost -- by investors betting on soccer. The lacrosse NCAA Final Four drew more than 100,000 fans in Baltimore last year, crowds that college soccer has never approached. The championship will be played this holiday weekend at the Patriots' stadium near Boston, and it will be another sign of the sport's boom if it can draw outside the banks of its mainstream.
And there is a certain symmetry of redemption in the air, too. If you recall, after the Duke players were falsely accused, the university president, giving in to the mob, called off the team's season. Amazingly, the NCAA, which almost never aligns itself with either common sense or compassion, later acknowledged this injustice, by allowing the Blue Devil players who were affected to enjoy an extra year's eligibility. Duke is now clearly the best team in the country, and should it take the title on Memorial Day, then, at last, when we hear "lacrosse" and "Duke" in the same breath, there will be pride in the pairing, and not notoriety.