Duke University men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski still talks to recruits’ parents about the stripper party that led to false rape allegations six years ago.
University of Virginia coach Dom Starsia won’t grant interview requests about a former player who beat his girlfriend to death two years ago. Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala says a survey that showed lacrosse players are the biggest users of illicit drugs among college athletes was “deeply concerning.”
As the sport grows from pockets of devoted followers on the East Coast to national prominence -- youth participation almost tripled from 2001 to 2010 -- it is struggling to avoid developing an image that could damage its future.
“It’s really important that the lacrosse world grows up a little bit,” Danowski said from his office in Durham, North Carolina. “We are getting more TV exposure; more people are able to make a living through lacrosse. If we want to be accepted in the mainstream, then it’s time for us to grow up.”
Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN network is televising 61 regular-season and postseason games this year including tomorrow’s national semifinals -- Loyola University Maryland against Notre Dame, and Duke versus Maryland -- followed by the championship contest two days later.
The semifinals and final, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, are expected to draw more than 100,000 fans, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and have attracted nine corporate sponsors, up from four in 2004, including companies such as Capital One Financial Corp., AT&T Inc., Allstate Corp., Lowe’s Cos. and United Parcel Service Inc.
Sales at lacrosse equipment maker STX in Baltimore have quadrupled in the past five years as players bought $150 sticks, $100 helmets, $150 gloves and $100 pads. Youth participation reached 324,673 in 2010, according to Baltimore-based US Lacrosse.
At the same time, lacrosse has been buffeted by bad publicity. At Duke, three players were exonerated of raping a stripper. At Virginia, player George Huguely was found guilty of second-degree murder in the beating death of his girlfriend. He is awaiting sentencing.
Coaches and administrators say the NCAA survey that showed men’s lacrosse players used illicit drugs the most among college athletes has the potential to do even more damage. The survey also showed that only ice hockey players drink alcohol more.
“I am very concerned about the perception of the sport,” said Richie Meade, a former Navy lacrosse coach who took his team to the NCAA championship in 2004. He now coaches the U.S. 2014 men’s national team. “We need to look at some of the things going on and evaluate the way we are doing business.”
‘One Eye Open’
University of Denver coach Bill Tierney, who guided Princeton University to six NCAA titles before leaving for Colorado in 2009, said the survey results might affect parents’ decisions to allow their children to play the game and gives college athletic directors concerns about adding a lacrosse program.
“This NCAA drinking and drugs thing, we’ve got to make a decision in lacrosse about whether we want to accept that or do something about it,” Tierney said in a telephone interview. “It’s the same in hockey and in football. We all sleep with one eye open on Saturday night, and we are all scared to death that something crazy could happen.”
Pietramala said the sport is a victim of its own success.
“What’s happening to our sport is that we are just getting to a point where we are newsworthy,” he said. “But the news that appears to be most worthy is negative.”
Some universities also might be reluctant to start a varsity lacrosse program because of Title IX, the 1972 law requiring equal sports opportunities for men and women.
Schools that add a 45-member men’s lacrosse team with the maximum 12.6 scholarships might be required to offer equal opportunities for female athletes.
For most every school, lacrosse is a money loser.
At Virginia, which won its fifth NCAA championship last year, the lacrosse program had an operating loss of $805,247 on revenue of $638,827, according to a financial report filed with the NCAA for the fiscal year ending June 2011.
Though the number of men’s Division I varsity teams has grown to 153 in 2012 from 126 in 2001, costs have forced some universities to satisfy student interest through club teams, which don’t have full-time coaches or scholarships and have limited travel.
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, only Maryland, Virginia, Duke and North Carolina have varsity lacrosse teams. The Big Ten Conference has three lacrosse teams: Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. The Big 12 and Southeastern conferences don’t have any.
Even with the bad publicity, lacrosse coaches and administrators see advantages in sponsoring the sport.
Division I lacrosse teams graduate 88 percent of their athletes, exceeding the 73 percent average for all sports, according to the NCAA.
At the University of Pennsylvania, coach Mike Murphy has a lacrosse board composed largely of business executives including Barclay’s Managing Director of Municipal Finance Peter Coleman, 50, who reviews players’ resumes and helps them prepare for job interviews.
Casey Carroll, a member of the 2006 Duke squad that had its season canceled after the rape accusations, joined the U.S. Army after graduation and became a member of the elite Rangers unit, serving four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now he has returned to Duke to earn his master’s in business administration and possibly complete his final year of eligibility on the lacrosse team.
“It’s an exciting game to watch and play and it’s going to continue to grow in all corners of this country,” Carroll said. “But we need to trust one another, we need to grow the sport with teamwork, and we have to make sure that we do it by holding ourselves to the highest standards possible.”