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Lacrosse and the Entitled Elite Male Athlete

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There's no shortage of explanations for the tragic death of Yeardley Love, University of Virgina lacrosse player at the hands of George Huguely, a player on the men's lacrosse team, with whom she had recently broken off a dating relationship. It's human, after all, to search for some reason in what appears to be such a senseless tragedy.

Here's what we know: Huguely, a rich preppy jock at one of America's richest and preppiest schools, had some "run ins" with the law in the past. On May 6, he "kicked his foot through [Yeardley Love's] bedroom door and forced his way in," according to the New York Times. There, furious with her, he grabbed her and shook her so violently that "her head repeatedly hit the wall." The trauma killed her.

To some, Huguely was simply a monster, a deviant psychopath. (We often want to make crimes like this the province of individual psychopathology, because it means it has nothing to do with us "normal" folk.) Others, though, pointed out how unbearably common and "normal" such attacks actually are: In the United States alone, three women are murdered every single day by their intimate partners and more than a million are physically assaulted every single year.

Still others believe it was the violence of lacrosse itself, a game in which hacking your opponent's arm with your stick is considered sporting. Others say it's not the sport itself, but the culture of lacrosse -- a culture fueled by class privilege and elite schools, where it is a high-prestige sport.

So, was it class (rich preppy privilege) or gender (men assaulting women)? Was it a sick individual or evidence of something deeper in the cultural fabric?

From the outside, George Huguely had it all: preppy handsome, quarterback and lacrosse star at his tony pre school, playing on the top-ranked lacrosse team in the nation, had a gorgeous girlfriend of similar background -- and equal lacrosse skills. Such guys are the epitome of what I describe in my book Guyland as the "culture of entitlement." They think they can do anything they want and get away with it, and usually they're right.

That's because they are surrounded by a culture of silence among their intimate friends and associates, a culture of passive bystanders who might find their friend's out-of-control behavior unpalatable but who would never think of confronting or challenging him. My guess is that someone -- a roommate, fraternity brother, teammate -- knew that George was freaking out, knew he was distressed. But he said nothing, did nothing, told no one. No coaches seem to have seen even a hint of his obvious distress. No residence hall advisers noticed anything odd.

This is a guy who had been sending threatening emails to Yeardley Love for some time and who had, two months earlier, according to the Washington Post, assaulted Love at a party where two North Carolina lacrosse players had to intervene to stop him. And where were his UVA teammates then? It may have been many of those same teammates who, a couple of years ago, didn't see the suicide of their team captain Will Barrow coming either. Huguely's team is also one on which eight players have been charged with alcohol-related offenses. Is anyone paying attention?

Suddenly this doesn't seem like the isolated incident committed by one lone deranged guy. It was that, of course, but it was also much more than that.

The culture of silence is itself surrounded by a culture of protection -- a bubble of class privilege, athletic status and a fraternal wagon-circling when things go wrong. If things go terribly wrong, the culture of protection -- including parents, coaches and alumni boosters -- hire high-priced lawyers who manage to get records expunged and witnesses to forget what they saw.

Lacrosse's bubble of protection is a bit different from that of football: It's a country-club entitlement, based more on class than athletic revenue. But that entitlement is no less potentially dangerous: It was a bunch of lacrosse players from Glen Ridge (N.J.) High School who gang-raped a 14-year-old moderately retarded girl in 1989, and it was members of the Duke lacrosse team who were accused of raping a stripper hired for a team party. (Yes, yes, I know: The woman who accused them turned out to be a lying schemer; the guys were exonerated. But it's interesting that their friends and classmates found the story utterly plausible, as they told countless reporters. And the team did, after all, hire strippers for their team party in violation of all team and university rules.)

According to Andrew Sharp, a high school lacrosse player who grew up in the same world as George Huguely (and writes about the incident at www.sbnation.com), lacrosse is high-profile in a very small but very privileged swath of the American northeast: the Baltimore and D.C. suburbs, the northern tier of New York State, the Long Island suburbs and countless elite New England prep schools. It's also just about the whitest sport that isn't played on ice. (Note that lacrosse rules not just in any suburbs, but in those surrounding the East Coast's most diverse cities.)

I'm loathe to blame everything on lacrosse, especially since my 11-year-old son is competing his first season playing the sport for our local team in Brooklyn -- not every lacrosse player is all about Lacoste and Lexus -- and he's loving it. (His favorite player is actually named Michael Kimmel -- no relation! -- an All-American midfielder from Johns Hopkins.) But the culture surrounding our male athletes, especially those in a high-profile arena, often shields them from the consequences of their actions.

In such a bubble, it may be hard for an entitled, constantly validated athlete to grant anyone else autonomy. Who was Yeardly Love to break up with George Huguely, anyway? Who did she think she was?

Maybe that's all he wanted to communicate to her. Tragically, though, it's what the entire world has now heard loud and clear.

Cross-posted at www.msmagazine.com/blog

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