But I think that Terry’s piece missed something important. The piece suggests that lacrosse programs should emphasize the financial benefits of the sport’s large rosters and relatively small scholarship burden. He writes:
“Lacrosse families have shown a willingness beyond most to pay for that experience, and that asset should be utilized not just to protect the programs that currently exist, but to plant the seeds for starting new ones.”
The suggestion is that this could help lacrosse stand out in the post-pandemic landscape. I don’t disagree. This is absolutely a selling point for keeping lacrosse as part of a school’s athletic roster.
If you read my piece though, you’ll notice that I don’t emphasize this as a factor in why the pandemic could be an opportunity for the sport. I don’t even mention it. In fact, I think that we, as a community, should not be highlighting the relative wealth of lacrosse families as part of our argument. The growth of the sport at the youth level is an equally relevant driver for why lacrosse should have a spot in future athletic programs and a much less fraught one. Focusing on the ability to pay is expedient, but I think, ultimately, short-sighted.
Short-term gain, long-term hindrance
I should qualify my previous statement: Focusing on the ability to pay is expedient, but I think, ultimately, short-sighted IF your goal is the long-term growth of the sport into the top-tier of American sports. If the goal is to maximize the number of programs that survive or are born as a result of the pandemic, then the ability to pay is argument #1.
But if your goal is to see lacrosse continue to grow and occupy a more prominent spot in the collective sports psyche, my criticism remains. And here’s why: what is the most prominent criticism of lacrosse? That it’s a rich-kid sport full of lax-bros. I will not get into whether this is warranted or not. The fact is that the perception remains. There are many factors that work for and against the growth of the sport, but this is an important one.
Take baseball as a counter-example. Baseball is in every community in America; their challenge is to make the sport more fun for kids who have already been exposed to it. Lacrosse is growing in many communities, but has not even a foothold in even more. To the extent that the perception of lacrosse helps prevent someone in those communities from having the first spark and creating a youth program, then that perception is a huge barrier to the growth of the sport. Without continued momentum at the local level, it’s hard to imagine lacrosse really fulfilling its potential.
If our argument for saving college lacrosse programs is that the players can pay tuition and the athletes in other sports can’t, then the perception of lacrosse as an elitist sport is only going to be strengthened. In the long-term, this is going to put a ceiling on how much lacrosse can grow. Shouldn’t we be looking forward to a time when college lacrosse players aren’t better able to pay than other athletes? Wouldn’t that mean that the sport has grown and become more diverse in the communities that have embraced it.
Now is the time to really examine whether we want to double-down on the relative wealth of lacrosse families as a selling point for the sport. This is especially true because (I’m guessing here) administrators already know that lacrosse is financially beneficial. But do not kid yourself into thinking that the financial health of their departments is their one and only concern. Colleges need to ensure a diverse student body as well, and a proposal that works at cross-purposes to this goal has its own risks.
Lacrosse COVID-19 Survival Strategy
I want to re-emphasize that I agree with everything that Terry wrote in the piece. My criticism is over what I believe the ultimate strategy for college lacrosse teams should be. Instead of dropping scholarships and emphasizing lacrosse players’ ability to pay, what if the strategy took advantage of our strengths without putting the spotlight on our largest weakness.
Instead of reducing scholarships in a race to the bottom, what if lacrosse programs coordinated alumni around an effort to fund a scholarship or two for athletes that would fit on the roster, but who cannot afford to pay full tuition. Or stay outside the official scholarship channel and fund an outside scholarship to help make a student in that situation whole. Or if this runs afoul of NCAA rules, then the contribution goes to the athletic department or university generally but is contingent on the school maintaining lacrosse. Any of these approaches would actually put an athletic program in even better shape than a voluntary reduction in scholarships AND it would have the benefit of being an option only if the lacrosse program is funded.
This approach is a more subtle than crowing about the ability of lacrosse players to pay full tuition. It still takes advantage of the strengths of the lacrosse community without effectively saying: “keep lacrosse so you can have more rich kids on campus.”
I’m not saying that is the intent or message behind Terry’s suggestions, but if I were trying to save a swimming or wrestling program, it’s certainly the way I’d frame it. And again, it’s not as if college administrators aren’t aware that lacrosse players are generally able to pay tuition. Making the argument in such an explicit way is risky, opens lacrosse up to criticism, and is probably not going to sway any decisions.
I think that sometimes we get hung up on the idea of lacrosse being put into the bucket of “non-revenue.” We love lacrosse, and this dichotomy between revenue and non-revenue can sometimes leave us with the proverbial chip-on-the-shoulder. But any school that is thinking of cutting programs has their own pros and cons list for each sport. The revenue, including tuition, that each sport brings in is going to be on that list and lacrosse, along with a few other sports, is going to appear in black, not red for most schools. If it’s a red line item for a school, it’s likely a much less red number than other sports. We don’t need to make this argument to administrators; they already know. And if, for some reason, they aren’t aware, let’s make it a subtle, “oh by the way” instead of the title on our “Why you should keep/add lacrosse” pitch deck.
As I’ve said repeatedly, I agree with Terry’s facts 100%. He is infinitely more knowledgeable on this topic than I am. But it’s the broader messaging that that gives me pause. As a sport, lacrosse runs a real risk by doubling down on the wealth angle. I think we can come up with an argument for why lacrosse should be maintained this is more inclusive and more positive.
I have close zero knowledge about the process that schools will follow in deciding how to move forward. It’s very possible that my opinions here are misguided. I just want to make sure that we war-game these recommendations to ensure that we don’t opt for a message that is helpful in the short-term, but limiting in the long term.
What do you think?