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The complicated story of lacrosse

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

The complicated story of lacrosse

Why U of T isn’t funding a game on the rise

As is the case for most lacrosse players, David Berta fell in love with hockey first. “I started in hockey, and got into lacrosse in my first year of high school — grade nine,” he recalled fondly. The now-captain of the Varsity Blues men’s lacrosse team found a passion for the lesser-known sport of field lacrosse in summer cross-training, and has never looked back.

Despite it being an unpopular Canadian sport, lacrosse is the country’s official summer sport. Its origins can be traced back as far back as 1100 BCE from a variety of Indigenous communities, including the Ojibwa and Mohawk peoples — far before hockey skyrocketed in contemporary culture.

The Algonquian word for those original stick-and-ball games, baggataway, has even been borrowed as the name for today’s men’s university field lacrosse national championship. With such distinct historic and local beginnings, why isn’t lacrosse lauded in Canada to the same extent as hockey or basketball?

This lack of popularity in dominant culture stems from a tradition of insularity within the sport and from a legacy of colonialism. After being introduced to lacrosse, an ardent Canadian nationalist named William George Beers decided that it should be appropriated to become Canada’s national sport.

After founding the Montreal Lacrosse Club in 1856, where Indigenous people were excluded, he created a standardized set of rules that govern the game to this day. As such, although he learned the game from Indigenous peoples, Beers is popularly regarded as the father of lacrosse.

Slowly, the sport moved away from Indigenous-settler games. These were never really an equal competition to begin with once the British appropriated it by codifying rules on their own terms and opening their own clubs to control who, when, and how to play. Based on this burgeoning sentiment of exclusivity, lacrosse became an attractive pastime for the socially affluent, pervading elite college campuses across Canada and the United States in the twentieth century.

Unlike hockey, basketball, or baseball, which sought commercial success and open access to all, the elite collegiate clubs chose to remain exclusive, not only barring lacrosse’s Indigenous founders, but those of lower social standing. While other sports moved toward professionalization, lacrosse coaches and players sought to maintain a ‘gentleman’s sport’ that would be played for the sake of athletics alone.

Although this cost the sport in terms of exposure, lacrosse is bouncing back. According to The Atlantic and an annual survey from US Lacrosse, it’s the fastest growing team sport in the United States.

Berta has noticed the rise in interest. “One hundred per cent. It’s definitely growing. You can see it clearly — there’s a growing number of teams, leagues,” he said. “The National Lacrosse League is expanding in terms of the number of teams they have. . . there’s also a league that started off this past year called the Premier Lacrosse League. It’s gotten really popular, it’s sponsored by NBC.” With lacrosse finally buying into expansion and commercialization, there are more eyes on the game now than ever before.

Conspicuously, however, the men’s lacrosse team isn’t in the Ontario University Athletics Association (OUA) like the women’s team is. The Varsity Blues also gives it less funding than the latter. This presents a glaring question: for a national sport quick on the rise, and for a team that consistently succeeds on the field, why isn’t the university prioritizing their success?

The real issue stems from where men’s lacrosse sits within the University of Toronto’s Intercollegiate Sport Model, a tiered system developed to allocate resources. The men’s team has been placed in the Blue and White division, one below the women’s. This presents an inequality in lacrosse between the two teams: the Blue and White division gets allocated less funding for key program development and maintenance strategies.

Unlike the women’s team, the men get no organized strength and conditioning, more limited access to facilities and sport medicine, and less funding for team apparel, among other disparities. “We kind of have to go to our own resources in terms of organizing team lifts and whatnot,” said Berta. Seemingly, there is a simple answer to this difference in division: the men don’t play within the standard intercollegiate league — the OUA — so they must be a less competitive team that is less deserving of funding.

This is untrue. University men’s lacrosse plays instead within the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association (CUFLA). Established in 1984, CUFLA is the most competitive league for men’s intercollegiate field lacrosse in Canada. It is comparatively more challenging to succeed within than the OUA league, boasting 14 teams versus the OUA’s 10. Nevertheless, the men’s lacrosse team holds its ground within CUFLA and typically makes it to the playoffs.

Further, since it was founded before the OUA acquired women’s lacrosse in 1998, it would follow that the men aren’t in the OUA because they already had a high-level, competitive intercollegiate league to play within.

The issue, then, is not in the skill level or competitiveness of men’s lacrosse at U of T. It’s about how Varsity Blues intercollegiate sports perceives sports that are not within the OUA as lacking such qualities — a hyper-focus on OUA championship banners above all other competitive successes.

“It certainly seems like OUA teams get more funding than we do, from the university,” noted Berta. “It seems like the OUA is a more legitimate governing body from their perspective.” The captain is also quick to explain how the men’s team would thrive even more with a bump in funding: “We would definitely benefit from it. We’re already competitive in the league, so I think it would really allow us to go ever further.”

So maybe the team doesn’t have to be in the OUA, but Berta believes that there is an argument for the Varsity Blues to consider it a division-two sport at U of T.

Bottom line? U of T should provide Canada’s national sport with the recognition and funding it deserves, no matter if it be the men’s or women’s team.

The Varsity Blues Intercollegiate Sport has not responded to requests for comment.