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How American Is Lacrosse Anyway? A Night With The Denver Outlaws

How American is lacrosse?

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When I was a kid one of my favorite books was a collection of anecdotes of unusual events from the sporting world called "The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories." One story was about Native Americans using a sport they played to trick British soldiers during the 1700s in what is now Michigan. The local tribe knew the soldiers enjoyed watching the natives play their game so an exhibition was set up at a nearby fort and the soldiers were invited to spectate. At a certain point in the action, a signal was given and the women and children of the tribe handed weapons they were hiding to the players who stormed the fort and thoroughly routed the British. The Native Americans called the game Baggataway. Today we call it lacrosse.

The Fourth of July is the day we present day Americans celebrate our own little victory over the British. We also like to celebrate the exciting way Chinese people got creative with making things go boom. I figured there was no better way to show my love of my country than to head to the Denver Outlaws lacrosse game with the fireworks show after. I knew almost nothing about lacrosse, so I really wanted to study the game to see just how much one of the truly original American sports celebrated the values we hold so dear.    

The Outlaws were playing the Boston Cannons, which was a good sign, because Boston played such an important role in the American Revolution.  Also, when learning to appreciate a new sport I think it’s important to have one team you really love and one team you really hate. So naturally, I love the Denver Outlaws and I hate the Boston Cannons. And I really was excited to be a part of the new chapter of this storied rivalry. Randomly choosing alliances and fanatically supporting a bandwagon you just jumped on is something we Americans do well, so I was off to a good start.

One of the first things I noticed was that they allowed children, some small, some not so small, to bring in their lacrosse sticks from home.  On the surface this appears to be akin to children bringing their baseball glove to a game in hopes of snagging a foul ball.  But in reality it’s quite different. In baseball, a ball is fouled into the stands about a dozen times a game. Not once during the lacrosse game did a ball even come close to making it to the stands. More importantly, a baseball mitt is a flexible leather glove whereas a lacrosse stick is a big damn stick. Walking through the concourse was a pretty hazardous trip when you had to dodge absentminded kids randomly swinging their club around. Did you know that sometimes in a lacrosse game a player might use his stick to hit another player to try to dislodge a ball? Well I saw many young lacrosse players practicing their technique on their younger siblings with gusto.

Here’s what I observed from a family seated a few rows in front of me: small child excitedly holds stick high, ready for any ball to come his way; dad orders a beer. Small child starts to realize no ball is going to come his way, and a stick in hand gets in the way of cotton candy consumption; dad orders another beer.  Small child is done holding onto lacrosse stick and passes it on to dad, who somewhere along the line had a few more beers.  So the powers that be have allowed a man to wield a pretty effective weapon with total disregard to how much alcohol he has consumed. Right now I’m thinking lacrosse is EXTREMELY American and I couldn’t be more proud.

Quick sidebar here because that last sentence reminded me of Lee Greenwood’s "God Bless the USA" (You know, "And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…"). Every week leading up to the Fourth of July we are subjected to that song hundreds of times. I really hate that song, and people tell me "You don’t like that song? You’re so unpatriotic."  Not really, I just don’t like the song.  If anything, blame Lee Greenwood. He’s the one that wrote the crap song about my country. But it does serve a purpose. Since most fireworks shows nowadays are set to music, great fun can be had on wagering how many songs into the show they’ll get before they play that one. A pretty safe bet is five.

Back to the game.  One of the stranger rules about lacrosse is that if a shot misses the net and goes out of bounds, the ball does not go to the other team. It goes to the team whose player is closest to the ball when it goes out of bounds. I was disillusioned for a second. I turned to my wife. "That’s not a very American rule."

"Why not?" she asked.

"Here in America, if the ball goes out of bounds, it goes to the team opposite those who touched it last."

"In what sports is that a rule?"

"Well, basketball for one." Very American sport. I felt good about my argument.

"What else?"

"Um…soccer."  Suddenly my argument had a gaping hole.

I stewed on this for a bit and finally decided that I was OK with it. You know how Americans are always getting knocked for being fat and lazy? Well nothing could be more American than saying "Eh, you’re closest. You go get it."

Here is something about Major League Lacrosse that I cannot get on board with: the officials wear shorts. Think of baseball umpires: pants. Basketball refs: pants. Hockey refs: pants. Football refs: ridiculous pants, but pants. Apply that thought to any authority figure ever. Teachers: pants. Police officers: pants. Congress: pants and pantsuits.

Remember when Ronald Reagan said "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"? Stirring, right? Now think of him in a pair of cutoffs. "Hey, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down the wall, man." Doesn’t work, does it? Nope, Americans don’t take orders from no one if we can see flesh from knee to ankle. "Mr. Lacrosse Ref, put on these pants."

Speaking of East Berlin, another rule in lacrosse is that the field isn’t open to all players. Some defensive players can’t help out on offense, and some offensive players can’t go into the defensive zone. Upon thinking about this rule I don’t care for it. Sure, this might fit into the lazy American attitude mentioned above and many sports have some version of an offside rule. But here’s one of the best things about America: when the chips are down, we help out where help is needed. I think all of the players should be allowed to roam free.

The game was close, Boston went up early and Denver came roaring back, taking a healthy lead at the half.  Boston took the lead back in the fourth quarter and withstood a charge by Denver at the end. Since I now hate Boston I’m sure they probably cheated, but I’m not really sure how one cheats at lacrosse. Overall it was a lot of fun. Even without knowing every rule it’s an easy enough game to pick up the major points and of course it is easy to tell when goals are scored. By the end the players had me totally engrossed.

As the game ended and the field was prepped for the fireworks show, I looked around and smiled. Aside from a few foreign-seeming rules, of course lacrosse is an American sport. It brought all kinds of Americans out to celebrate our nation. I can be sarcastic and curmudgeonly most of the year but Independence Day is a time where I like to take it all in and say "We’re all in this together, and this is pretty great isn’t it?"

There was only one truly American thing left to do, and that was to bet on random crap. I turned to the guy sitting next to me. "Do you know that Lee Greenwood song…"

Stupid Lee Greenwood. Cost me five bucks.