Should Murder Reflect Badly on Lacrosse?

In less than eight years, the private, all-boys Landon School insuburban Washington, D.C.. has weathered three major scandals, all ofwhich soared past local papers to make national headlines. In October2002, 10 Landon seniors (some of whom were on the lacrosse team) copiedand shared answers on the SATs, resulting in a College Boardinvestigation and several suspensions. In March 2006, five Landon alumswere part of the Duke University lacrosse team that had its seasonsuspended over false allegations that an exotic dancer was raped andassaulted at an off-campus party (all charges were dropped and the accused players fully exonerated). And on May 3, Landon alum and University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguelywas charged with murdering ex-girlfriend and fellow UVA lacrosse playerYeardley Love. Investigators say that Huguely kicked down Love's door,shook her violently, and repeatedly hit her head against a wall;Huguely confessed to being involved in the violent fight, according to a search-warrant affadavit released May 4; his defense attorney says the death was "an accident with a tragic outcome." A crowd of nearly 2,000 mourners gathered at Love's May 8 funeral.

D.C. media were quick to invoke Landon's elite status when discussing the case. Based in Bethesda, Md., one of Washington's more affluent suburbs, 81-year-old Landon boasts a slew of prominent alumni, including talk-show host Maury Povich, former Columbia University provost Alan Brinkley, and several congressmen. Tuition at the upper-school level is more than $28,000 per year, and the school upholds not just an honor code but separate character and civility codes, as well. Breaking them is serious business: eight of the 10 students who cheated on the SATs in 2002 were not only suspended for several weeks, but were also assigned community service and ordered to report all fraudulent activity to their future colleges. The two others were permitted to withdraw at the threat of expulsion.

That leaves a chicken-and-egg question: is Landon lacrosse a notable commonality in three different scandals? Or is its white-glove reputation the reason news vans flock to its foibles—missteps that may be no more frequent than at other high schools? Some loud voices point to the former: Andrew Sharp, a D.C.-based associate editor of sports-blogging site SB Nation, wrote a long and conflicted personal essay about his interactions with Huguely and friends at D.C.-area parties, citing the hard-partying ways of the local prep schools' most elite athletes as breeding attitudes of invulnerability. "[I]t's fair to say that lacrosse is a chosen sport for sons and students of the Establishment. And with that comes Entitlement," Sharp wrote. "By the time college arrives, the 'spoils' of the lifestyle have gotten more decadent than just the elevated social status many of them enjoyed in high school. Drugs and alcohol, minimal consequences, preferable [sic] treatment from coaches and academic advisors, and the so-called 'lacrosstitutes,' groupies entranced by the glamor of it all. It's by no means universal to every lacrosse player or every lacrosse program, but in the lacrosse social scene, it's all there. And of course, there's that homogeneous social circle, normalizing this behavior every step of the way."

The belief that lacrosse is a sport whose players and fans are white,entitled, rich men is nothing new, even if the sport's advocates sayit's an unfair characterization. The game itself requires costlyequipment, and its origins (after its invention by Native Americans,that is) source to elite prep schools—the same places that providefodder for overblown, hyperbolic tales like Gossip Girl and Prep,about kids with money, access, and absentee parents. Still, though allof Huguely's run-ins with the law happened after he left the leafycommons of Landon, his court records suggest he has a long-cultivatedproblem with substance abuse—problems that Sharp says are not uncommonat D.C.-area lacrosse parties steeped in a "culture of excess andentitlement." In September 2007, Huguely was booked for reckless driving;two months later, he was ticketed for underage possession of alcohol(he was 19 at the time). Exactly one year later, a Lexington, Va.,policewoman used a Taser to sedate Huguely after he threatened her; hewas intoxicated at the time, Officer R. L. Moss told a local Lexington affiliate of CBS.Huguely was found guilty of resisting arrest and public intoxication;he received sixth months' probation and was ordered to completesubstance-abuse counseling after the incident, court records at SB Nation show. Among its 41 players, UVA men's lacrosse has eight men who've been charged for alcohol-related crimes; similar stories about Duke during its lacrosse scandal showed that 15 members of the team had faced prior charges. One of the three Duke players exonerated of rape charges, Collin Finnerty, was convicted on a misdemeanor assault charge the same year as the scandal, after he was involved in a violent scuffle in the nightlife area of D.C.'s Georgetown.

But the charges leveled at Finnerty, Huguely, and others are not related to the sport or the schools that sponsor it, prominent lacrosse voices say. Poor off-the-field judgment of a few has been used to lambaste one of the fastest-growing and most popular sports in the country, they say; UVA men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia told USA Today in April 2006 of lacrosse's reputation that "[w]e all get painted with the same brush sometimes ... I feel like I need to apologize for being middle class." The sport's national governing body, U.S. Lacrosse, convened in June 2006 to discuss the sport's culture, and one year later installed an extensive Code of Ethics and an ethics advisory board. They also funded the publication of a book by John Yeager, excerpted in Sports Illustrated, that enumerated the ways that lacrosse could shed its party-hearty reputation. "We live in a very complicated world, and lacrosse, like other sports, is not immune from human tragedy or social challenge—nor should we be expected to be," U.S. Lacrosse president and CEO Steve Stenersen, tells NEWSWEEK. "The frustrating part is that media love to focus on what's not right, and not what is right." Stenersen says the sport is far more broadly played than the media often portrays it—with players in virtually every "ZIP code and socioeconomic position," he says. Four of country's top 10 high-school lacrosse programs are public, according to SB Nation, and at the college level, top-tier contenders like the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and the University of North Carolina are public, not elite Ivy institutions. "The sport has literally outgrown its stereotype—it involves a much more well-rounded demographic than it ever says," Stenersen says.

At Landon, a spokeswoman for the school declined to comment for NEWSWEEK, other than to point to a May 4 statement from the school's headmaster, David M. Armstrong: "All of us in the Landon community are deeply saddened by the news of the tragedy at the University of Virginia. Our hearts go out to all of the families involved in this terrible incident. We ask that you remember them in your thoughts and prayers." The school is back to business as usual, but not without a few hiccups: The Washington Post reported last weekin a sports piece that Landon lacrosse players in the fifth and sixth grades were on the receiving end of shouted insults, as angry drivers passing the lower-school team's practice yelled through open windows. "That's a sad commentary on our nation's culture," Stenersen says. "We clearly live in a society in which, regardless of what's happened, the immediate reaction is to point a finger ... [even] at 12-year-olds."

With additional reporting by McKay Coppins.