What's in a Game? Class and History
Stephen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
So where did I find myself last weekend? It was Memorial Day weekend here, one of the most sacrosanct of US holidays and the annual inauguration of summer -- the time when, with that American need for structure and order, swimming pools and summer parks officially open. But I was sitting in torrential rain every bit as bad as anywhere in Britain, indulging in the latest chic Wasp craze to sweep the east coast of the US: I was watching lacrosse.
I had always vaguely assumed lacrosse to be one of those British sports known only to a strictly limited segment of society, like croquet. But in the past year or two, I've noticed boys walking by my house with what I subsequently discovered were lacrosse sticks -- around 4ft long and with a kind of basket pouch at one end.
So, sensing the onset of one of those epochal changes that sometimes hit the US, I took myself off to the University of Maryland for the country's college lacrosse finals. In pouring rain and with temperatures in the fifties --by this time of the year, the nineties are the norm -- I expected to see a handful of parents cheering on their sons.
But no. With a $20 ticket in my hand and the rain lashing down, I was confronted with a stadium that would make many English Premier League football clubs green with envy: the 125 ft-tall concrete Byrd Stadium, complete with press box and tiers easily able to accommodate 75,000, set in a 580-acre campus midway between Washington and Baltimore. An electronic scoreboard flashed scores alongside the names of the game's sponsors: the Washington Post, the Chevy Chase bank, Lay's Chips and so on.
Most astonishing of all, however, was the number of fellow spectators. For the one game I saw, 38,000 tickets were sold -- and in just about the most wretched conditions possible for spectators; 24,104 others watched Syracuse University beat Johns Hopkins University 12-11.
Encircling the stadium were tents selling lacrosse T-shirts and other souvenirs. Hot dogs, hamburgers and chips -- although soon speedily and unappetisingly soggy in the rain -- were doing a brisk trade. Kids thronged to get the autographs of young men barely more than kids themselves. Live national television covered the game, and I found that, for the same championships last year, 70,568 attended -- roughly the same number who watched England v Brazil last week. It was only when I returned home that it dawned on me: I'd been watching a game being played at its highest standards anywhere in the world.
Indeed, I had rather lazily thought that, after originating in Britain, lacrosse must have duly found its way across the Atlantic. But it is actually a native American game, now undergoing a great revival: a sport that originated as an American Indian spectacle in the 1400s and was first seen by white men nearly four centuries ago. …