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This was not premeditated murder. This was not the act of one evil, deranged person. There was no grand conspiracy and this will not generate a high profile court case. Yet, this might be the single most tragic thing to ever happen to the sport of lacrosse.
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Without strategic planning or foresight, or proper guardianship or even the common caring you would give your favorite pair of shoes, we have stood by and watched the American Field Lacrosse game simply die. It’s gone. It’s dead. It does not exist in 2010.
Can it be revived? Maybe.
Will it? There are no indications to me that anybody cares.
In the last 15 years we have basically given the game of field lacrosse to the Canadians by taking away every single distinction that made the American Field Lacrosse game unique and different than box lacrosse. The midfield as a transition area of the field and also the midfielder were unique to the American field game. Both no longer exist.
That player is gone, replaced by five players (long pole middie, short stick defensive middie, face off middie, clearing middie and offensive middie) whose roles have empowered the coaches and made the game impossible to watch and less enjoyable to play. The free flowing area of the field is no longer used and the free flowing aspect of the game is mostly extinct, taken over by specialists and hundreds of substitutions that create confusion where there once was mostly excitement.
For 100 years the midfielder was the embodiment of the American field lacrosse game. He was the most balanced and impressive athlete on the field. He had the skills and conditioning to play the whole field. He excelled at defense, transition and offense. His heart and personal dedication to facing the toughest challenge was easy to see and interpret for any fan of sport. He faced off, he fought for ground balls, he dictated possession, was a critical part of the defense and also the exciting transitional fuse to light the offense. The drama of play “between the restraining lines” defined the athleticism, strength and skill of the field game and those who played it. The midfielder best defined the American field lacrosse game. He was the single biggest reason Canada could not beat the United States in the World Games. They played box, we played field. In 2010, everybody plays box and the field game is dead.
How did we get here? I could write for hours about this, but let me give you the short version. In the 70’s we transitioned from clumsy wood heads to uniform plastic heads. In the 80’s we transitioned to metal poles. In the 90’s we transitioned to titanium poles and pinched heads, and in the 2000’s we partly re-wrote the rule book and partly ignored it.
In the games original design, the weight of the stick made for natural trade offs in its size and length. If you carried a bigger stick to play defense, you HAD to be a bigger guy to carry it. It weighed more. You were not as nifty a mover as the smaller offensive players, so there was a natural trade off competitively. As we got to synthetic materials that all changed. Originally defensive plastic heads were bigger for the less skilled defenseman to handle the ball better. Defensemen soon learned that they could handle the smaller head and pocket and they got better at handling the ball. After the shaft became metal and light weight, any size athlete could handle the long stick.
The first noticeable transition was for smaller athletic guys going to defense for the first time ever and they made an immediate impact. Soon larger athletic guys drifted toward that end of the field because with this shift in equipment technology, and there was a dramatic shift in who controlled the game. The athletic long pole was becoming king and not only did he control the game and the oppositions offense, he was athletic enough to get the green light to go forward and shoot. The midfield position was then cut into small segments. Long pole middie, short stick middie, face off middie, clearing middie and offensive middie. Five position players with partial talents to take the place of the original midfielder. Coaches loved the change because they could micro manage the game more and recruit 'partial' (read: overly specialized) players to give the perception that more kids were playing. That turns out not to be true since nobody plays more than 23 guys, its just that the coaches move people in and out three times more than they did 30 years ago. Coaches are in control more and the players are in control less. The game was not designed this way or played this way for the first 100 years.
Lacrosse is a transitional game that should challenge the players to make decisions and move easily and dramatically from defense to offense. It doesn’t any more. I know there are fast breaks, but they are a rarity and mostly end up with the copy cat screaming coaches yelling “yellow” so they can make subs. Then they go into the “circle substitution” dance from the midfield like it’s some kind of art. Lower attendance levels at home games over the recent years, even after more TV than anybody would have dreamed, proves that exposure has not helped general appeal. It’s ugly to watch and bad for the game. It’s not good for the sport.
Lacrosse shouldn’t be handcuffed with so much strategy, especially strategy to simply gain advantage with a substitution that was originally designed to be on the fly and INVISABLE. Oh, and don’t point to the final four weekend as proof of attendance. Numbers are going down there too. And besides, that weekend is “atypical” of attendance for lacrosse and has been for years as we all know. It serves as a social “validation” for all who have played. They see their old friends and tell war stories and take their family and say “see how big the game really is?” “See what I was doing all those years” “See what you could be doing, son?” Validation and camaraderie is what brings those 40,000 to 50,000 people together--not seeing the games.
During the regular season lacrosse is lucky to get 1,000 people at a regular season game. Most fans are there to see a son, boyfriend or nephew playing. Sports fans don not go to see a good lacrosse game. That’s the reality.
The long stick was the big turning point. It became the most feared weapon on the field and coaches started controlling games with light 6 foot “poles”, handled by large 6 foot plus athletic bodies. This one piece of equipment has changed the whole game and basically turned it upside down. We recognized that enough to limit the numbers of long poles to 4, which to me is absurd because you are admitting there is a problem with the long pole, but limiting them to 4 instead of eliminating them altogether.
If you had robbers in your house, would it matter how many? No it would not. Get rid of all the robbers no matter how many there are! That’s what we should do with the long stick. Get rid of them all. We don’t need it anymore. Every coach can play defense against any player with his best short stick athlete; he just can’t control the game that way. Cut it down until you do not talk about it any more, then it’s the perfect size. Nobody comes to watch a stick. We need to get the game back to where the coach asks for a player by name when the game is on the line…. “give me Smith!”… not “give me a pole!”
Put a dominant piece of equipment into any other sport like the long stick is in lacrosse and you will laugh. Can you imagine if baseball had three big gloves and hitters had to hit away from the “big gloves?” How about two big sticks in hockey? Two big bats in baseball? That would be absurd. And it’s absurd in lacrosse.
The stick should not be thought about any more than shoes or gloves, and it wasn’t for almost 100 years. This all happened without a plan. It should always be about the athlete and in the modern lacrosse game it is not. This has led to many things and most of them are bad, hurting the fan appeal of the game. The game is impossible to watch and less fun to play.
When coaches saw how dominant the long pole was and that bigger and better athletes were moving to that position, they started playing them against midfielders to totally dominate there. It quickly grew to 6 long poles on that end of the field and had to be regulated back to 4. Most of the modern offense is build around getting away from the fourth long pole and that should be a big redflag that there is still a problem. It must be about the players deciding the game, not about equipment (a pole) deciding the game.
So the result of the evolution in the sport is that in the modern game the defense is the aggressor and the offense is defensive or reactionary. All offensive schemes look for the “long poles” and react to where they are instead of the defense reacting to the best offensive players and where they are. We call time outs for “possession” instead of for calling the winning play. All of this is totally stupid. Impossible for any other sports fan to appreciate and those are the fans we need for lacrosse to become real.
At the same time this was happening the stick head was getting pinched by manufacturers. This makes it easier to hold the ball and lessens the need for skill. Power is more important and this is not consistent with the original design of the game.
Since the ball will not come out of the stick, cross checking has slowly become the norm, along with heavy, wild, one arm wrap checks. Ref’s know the ball won’t come out unless you knock the snot out of a guy, so they let it go. Who’s that fun for? The skill and beauty that once defined the game is basically not required. The new bigger and stronger athlete can simply run over you and the ball is still in his pocket after you knock him to the ground. Cutting and feeding is an ancient art, replaced by cheap shots to the head. Is there anything that requires less courage or skill than hitting a guy with a stick? I don’t think so. Yet, that is the trademark play of the modern game and the picture you often see in the paper and in the internet. Not good.
The pinched pocket allowed the game to grow faster because the learning phase was shortened. Less skill was required to play. The game noticed that this was not good and has tried to fix is several times, but good old lawyers, patents and law suits (mostly representing manufacturers like Warrior) are the name of the modern game, with “the good of the game” ends up about 20 rows down on the list of what’s important to anybody.
All of this has built a stable of “specialty” players to take the place of the midfielder. The FOGO, the offensive middie, the clearing middie and the defensive middies both long and short. Five guys to replace one. The game is a series of substitutions controlled by coaches who happily take the game out of the hands of athletes and assume the dominant role in games.
In my opinion the top lacrosse coaches all covet the power of the American football coach and have eagerly pushed this game into as close a model for that as they can. Partial athletes all over the field doing partial things to the constant screaming of the sideline coaches. Coaches can’t wait to put you into a category… “oh, you’re just a defensive middie or whatever.” They have to give you a perceived slot as soon as possible and it’s impossible to play your way out of that, even as a growing and learning 18 year old kid. No other sport has as many coaches screaming at every single thing that happens on the field. Not even on the revered football sideline.
The end result is a game that has about 400 substitutions a game. Did you hear that…. 400 substitutions a game. Count them yourself one time. A game played by partial players who look at the sideline for direction more than they do at the field for personal interpretation. Substituting has become part of the offensive scheme and a coach and an official is assigned the duty to direct it, and they get confused all the time. What chance does a sports fan have to figure it out? Not much and how pathetic is that. Subbing takes about 25% (and entire quarter of the game on subs!) of every field lacrosse game, a game that intended subs to be largely on the fly and invisible.
This is not “the fastest game on two feet” anymore. It’s “the most confusing game on two feet”, and “the most subbed game in 60 minutes”. It is box lacrosse on each end of the field, with substitution being the other major part. The center of the field has been erased as a real factor and the true midfield position does not exist anymore. 6 attackers verses 6 defenders on each end of the field. Box lacrosse. Cross checking, mugging and tackling. Ugly.
One result of our erasing the American Field Lacrosse Game and turning it basically into two box lacrosse games is that we have handed the game over to the Canadians. They own it now and we may never beat them again in the World Games.
We pinched the sticks, advantage Canadians.
We allow cross checking, advantage Canadians.
The face off is all about cheating and fighting, advantage Canadians--similar to ice hockey.
We’ve lessened the requirement of two handed expertise, advantage Canadians.
We’ve taken away the requirement of middies to play both ends, advantage Canadians.
We’ve made our field game two box games which has ramped up the need for Canadians (to play offense) on every US college team, advantage Canadians.
The total two way player (see picture, Paul Rabil is one) still has a role on the World Team rosters solely because it is limited to about 23 players. You must have a couple of them. College teams though have bloated rosters of 45 and it’s all about the partial player and coaches controlling the game through a constant stream of boring and confusing substitutions. That has erased the middle of the field and has killed the American Field Game of lacrosse.
Nobody planned this murder, but field lacrosse is dead and nobody seems to care.
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