Imagine the families. Chevy Chase, Maryland and Cockeysville, Maryland are only about an hour apart. George Huguely and Yeardley Love had been dating for some time. The families had to have met, right?
Now, in the wake of Yeardley Love's death—allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend, George Huguely—imagine the interactions between the two families. If it hasn't happened already, at some point, it will. They'll cross paths, and familiar looks will be replaced with downward gazes, stifled emotions. Should they speak, think of the fumbled words, the tears, the heads shaking.
The Huguely family would likely want to apologize, and the Love family might want to forgive. But truthfully, nobody could muster the courage or coherence for that conversation. What can you say?
It's a tragedy of unspeakable proportions.
And for me, it's oddly personal, with a connection to my own experiences that makes it nearly impossible to write about, but impossible to ignore. Personal because I'd met the young man accused of murder. Because I have friends that knew Yeardley and George well. And because looking at it objectively, George Huguely fits a profile that I've grown up with for the past 10-15 years.
It's one thing when a superstar like Ben Roethlisberger is accused of rape. He's an icon. Perhaps an icon of chauvinism and recklessness, but an icon nonetheless. There's an enormous reservoir—filled with cameras, millions of dollars, Super Bowl rings, worldwide fame—between my reality and his. But with George and Yeardley, it’s more like a puddle separating us.
George Huguely went to Landon, my high school’s biggest rival. He partied with some of my best friends. In high school he was known as a lacrosse prodigy, and eventually, as the starting quarterback for Landon’s football team. His life may not have been "charmed" on the inside, but from afar, it looked like he had it pretty good. Girls loved him, and guys respected him.
And for me, there’s deep sympathy that resides in close proximity to deep resentment for someone like George. And fair or not, what George Huguely did to Yeardley Love is going to prompt any number of referenda on lacrosse and its accompanying culture, all tinged with arguments about socioeconomics, jock culture, and generally, the sort of murky politics that we always hope sports can avoid.
But as a way of preempting the deluge of moralizing that’s sure to unfold in the coming weeks, I might as well wade into the discussion with something resembling a first-person perspective. First about lacrosse and the accompanying culture, and later, about what happened at UVA.
EXPLAINING THE CULTURE For better or worse, I’ve grown up going to hundreds of lacrosse parties over the years, forced to acknowledge these "athletes" that looked more like caricatures of a stereotype—overgrown hair, croakies around their neck, a lacrosse pinnie, pastel-colored shorts, some rainbow flip flops and a backwards hat. (For all the generalizations you hear, 9 times out 10, this is actually what they look like.)
Herein begins my sympathy for the culture: They can’t help it. Lacrosse is a sport that’s somewhere between Youth Soccer and Jai Alai. It was created by Native Americans, but perfected by a bunch of Mid-Atlantic prepsters, eager to congratulate themselves on their dominance of a sport that only they can play.
Because of the expensive equipment, and the distinct advantages provided to those that learn the game on suburban travel teams or at expensive prep schools like Landon, the sport remains fairly insular among wealthy children. To excel at lacrosse, it helps to have parents that have the resources to fund the hobby, and the time to cart their children to and from games.
It's true of other sports, too—hockey, for instance, requires similar time/money commitments from the families of young players—but the economic divide is more pronounced with lacrosse. If it seems like the sport belongs to different class, that’s because it does; most of the schools that excel are all-boys private schools, with skyhigh tuition (Landon costs $28,000 per year, according to its website), strict dress codes, and large expanses of green field space. Look at the top 10 High School Lacrosse Programs in the country.
- Georgetown Prep, Bethesda, MD Tuition: $25,650
- St. Paul's School, Brooklandville, MD Tuition: $21,670
- West Islip High School, West Islip, New York Tuition: Public
- The Haverford School, Haverford, PA Tuition: $29,900
- Conestoga High School, Berwyn, PA Tuition: Public
- Boy's Latin, Baltimore, MD Tuition: $21,760
- Manhasset High School, Manhasset, New York Tuition: Public
- Deerfield Academy, Deerfield, MA Tuition: $32,560
- St. Anthony's High School, South Huntington, NY Tuition: $7,500
- Jamesville-Dewitt, Jamesville, NY Tuition: Public
As you can see, at many of the top lacrosse schools in the country, it costs $100,000 to go to high school. And even with the public schools listed above, places like West Islip, Manhassett, and Chester County, PA are not exactly lacking for resources. But it's especially the private, single-sex prep schools—like Landon—that shape teens differently. I know this because I went to exactly that sort of school.
In so many ways, these elite, east coast prep schools—and the lacrosse teams that dominate their culture—are the archetype for the American Establishment. Lush with wealth, privilege, and shiny exteriors, they insulate their students from the grayed reality of the "real world." None of this is bad, or evil, but it affects the way many prep schoolers develop, divorced from the realities of normal people, and often times, the realities of the opposite sex.
In this way, it’s difficult to blame any lacrosse players who struggle to adjust to normal society, because for many, they don’t get that far until well after college. Deadspin’s Katie Baker nailed it earlier this week:
Think about the person who grew up in upscale suburban Baltimore, for example. Went to an all boys school, was good at sports, got involved in lax--which in these "hotbeds" really is the hot thing--and ultimately got recruited at 4-8 schools, all good ones, most likely, and all places where he probably has former teammates there to tell him how SIIIIIIICK it is. He's kind of bound to be, at best, completely clueless about the larger world.
But regardless of the root causes there, it’s fair to say that lacrosse is a chosen sport for sons and students of the Establishment. And with that comes Entitlement.
CONDEMNING THE CULTURE I went to a school exactly like Landon, and most of my best friends played lacrosse in high school. Most of those that played in high school also continued to play in college. And while my friends were pretty normal and benign, it put me in close proximity with others from the sport that weren't so awesome.
Ultimately, in my experience, this meant hanging out with a lot of guys—friends of friends, I guess—that partied really hard, and treated a lot of people like crap. Girls, non-athletes, authority figures... Pretty much anyone that wasn't one of them either didn't exist, or existed solely as an object of ridicule. Personally, I was somewhere in between, partying as hard as them and rebelling against rules and authority, but (hopefully) stopping short of ever treating anyone like crap.
(Who was I to make fun of anyone? In high school, I played tennis and wrote a blog.)
But some of the others, well... They played lacrosse. In the environment outlined above, that meant something. They were the best athletes in arguably the most important high school sport in the D.C. area. While normal people were sweating out a brutal college application process, these guys were going to college on scholarships, committing to great schools like UVA, Princeton, and Georgetown before the process even began. It seems absurd now, but to a lot of people, those guys seemed to have it all, and they knew it. Because ... (gasp) ... they played lacrosse.
But we'll put aside the big-fish-small-pond dynamic that some of these guys embodied, because the implications for that psychology are more important to this discussion. Again, this is just my experience. But basically, from what I saw, "the guys that played lacrosse" surrounded themselves mostly with people who thought that was really awesome, which meant they could get away with a lot of behavior that'd otherwise be considered pretty reprehensible. No different than athletes from other sports, except that lacrosse draws from a smaller, much wealthier pool of talent.
The corollary to the economic aspect is that many lax stars grow up spoiled, and entitlement becomes a problem much earlier than it does with most basketball or football stars.
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 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.
It's still a small sport, after all. For elite lacrosse players, there are only a handful of elite college programs to choose from, and most of the rosters at those schools include kids from the same elite prep schools they played against in high school. When they get to college, the team functions as a built-in social circle, and often times, it looks a lot like the one they had in high school, only with less rules. What does this mean?
For normal students, going to college is an exercise in broadening perspectives. For lacrosse players, it can often be an exercise in confirming perspectives and values that have been skewed since early in high school. That's a problem.
You might say these are generalizations, but again, I'm only speaking from what I've seen. You don't have to acknowledge my anecdotal evidence as anything more than just that. But keep in mind, I grew up in the same area as Huguely, with many of the same friends, congregating in many of the same places.
And as far as Yeardley Love's death is concerned, this much is fact: George Huguely was an elite lacrosse player that went to an elite prep school, and graduated to join an elite lacrosse program at UVA. If we're to diagnose how and why this happened, those facts bear some relevance.
Nobody's blaming the sport of lacrosse for the murder of Yeardley Love, just as it would have been ridiculous to blame college basketball for what happened at Baylor in 2003, when Carlos Dotson murdered his teammate, Patrick Dennehy. Like the Baylor situation, this was a senseless tragedy that transcends college athletics or even everyday crime. It's the sort of thing that makes us question life and justice, in general.
"How could someone like Yeardley Love get beaten to death?"
George Huguely admitted to breaking into her bedroom, attacking her, and smashing her head against the wall. When he left, she lay lifeless on her bed in a pool of her own blood.
"I mean, how can that happen, ever?"
It's truly gut-wrenching. As in, you can't read the description of the crime without feeling a pain in your stomach. And context only makes it worse. Imagine those families again. By all accounts, these were two young people from a stable background, with strong academic and athletic pedigree, and weeks away from graduating college with a world of potential. Now, both their lives are overwith.
That's not lacrosse's fault.
But if we're looking to understand this tragedy in a way that teaches us anything, lacrosse matters. It's part of the conversation. Given the evidence, George Huguely was clearly a young man with problems. To what extent they were manifested, and how, remains to be seen. Given my relationship to some of his friends, I've heard things, but all that'll trickle out in due time. For now, let's say this: To leave any human being the way he left Yeardley that night requires both deep-seated psychological problems and a severe emotional detachment.
Diagnosing those issues and their source is someone else's job, but having lived vicariously through a number of friends playing Division 1 lacrosse, and having seen the lifestyles firsthand, it's not hard to see how that culture of excess may have exacerbated whatever problems this kid was facing.
George Huguely may not have felt "entitled" to date Yeardley Love regardless of her objections (that conclusion's too easy) but it's entirely conceivable that lacrosse's entitlement culture, filled with excess, enabled him to turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, and without any social repercussions, burying his "issues" deep inside. And make no mistake, whatever happened the night of Huguely's "altercation" with Yeardley Love, some sort of substance abuse contributed to that "emotional detachment" referenced above.
Witnesses have said he'd been seen drinking all day, and don't be surprised if the police report reveals that there were drugs in his system that night. And whatever the case, really, it all points to the same problem, where lacrosse is at least tangentially complicit.
Listen, as I said up front, it's nearly impossible to write about this.
Because of my personal relationships with a lot of people that were active participants in this "culture of excess and entitlement" I'm describing. Because of my sympathies for some of the people that'll be unfairly labeled as a result. Because this is just a few years after the Duke lacrosse scandal dragged the sport through the mud in the media. And because at the end of the day, I grew up in that culture, and participated in it far more than I'd ever care to admit.
But it's also impossible to ignore this stuff. As one friend of George's said the day this news first broke, "I hope there's a better explanation... Regardless, Yeardley Love is not with us anymore, which is sad." Beyond any innuendo about the people involved or the sport as a whole, a 22 year-old girl is gone, and that's horribly sad.
Part of the grieving process involves investigating how, exactly, something like this could happen among two privileged college kids with everything in the world working in their favor.
To that end, we can't look past lacrosse's role. In my experience, the "lacrosse social scene" looks upon alcohol abuse as routine, with marijuana and cocaine ubiquitous, women disposable, and outsiders incidental. Not unlike a fraternity, except that the players at a school like UVA are considered star athletes, operating with significant leeway toward the rules, and ultimately spending most of their time hanging out around people that reinforce their skewed perception of the world.
You could argue that the attitudes and actions stem from a larger disease among entitled rich kids and chauvinistic jocks, and that'd be fair. But so long as you acknowledge that those problems exist, it's not hard to see how lacrosse might act as an incubator for the disease and its symptoms.
The "disease" is not always evil, of course. For the most part, it's just a lot of kids that don't know any better, and haven't had the chance to learn any different.
But it can be dangerous, too. Lines get crossed. Kids do things they don't remember, sometimes bad things, and their friends tell them it's fine. This wasn't the first time that George Huguely had an "altercation" with Yeardley Love. As the Washington Post reports:
Two months before Love's death, two current and one former University of North Carolina lacrosse players intervened to separate Huguely from Love at a party on the U-Va. campus in Charlottesville, according to two sources with knowledge of the incident.
As you continue in that lifestyle, standards get relaxed and you end up having a lot more fun, not worrying about the people you might hurt. Bit by bit, over four years in college, that can shape people. It can allow them to laugh off angry episodes, or bury some deep-seated emotions with an avalanche of partying.
Those emotions don't disappear, though. We're less than two years removed from the sudden death of UVA's team captain, Will Barrow. Teammates hadn't seen any warning signs, and then one day, he was gone. His death was ruled a suicide.
As people progress in this culture, destructive emotions can bubble over without warning. Like Will Barrow. Or Huguely sending threatening e-mails to Yeardley. Add substance abuse to the mix, and things get really, really dangerous. So we ask ourselves:
"How could someone like Yeardley Love get beaten to death? How can that happen, ever?"
We'll never fully understand it. But if I'm answering honestly—ignoring the scores of decent people who risk indictment by association—George Huguely's lacrosse background was definitely part of it.
Now, as Virginia prepares to play finish their season, I had to speak up. When his team captain committed suicide, UVA head coach Dom Starsia said, "The whole thing is stunning and completely bewildering. We’re just trying to sort this out." You can only imagine what he and the team are team are feeling now, knowing that one of their own allegedly murdered someone.
But here's the thing: it's a lot more stunning than it is bewildering.
Of course there's shock that anything like this could happen, but when you piece together some of the external factors in play, it's not that bewildering to think that a kid with anger issues could ignore a number of red flags, bury his emotions and turn to a reckless lifestlyle, leaving that anger to explode one night in a substance-fueled rage. We're not talking about a completely isolated incident here.
Eight players have been charged with alcohol-related offenses while playing for Coach Starsia, a player's committed suicide, and a player's allegedly killed someone. If we ignore the connections between those three events, and similar problems at other schools, we run the risk of letting Yeardley Love die in vain. Her murder was a senseless tragedy of unspeakable proportions, the sort of thing you simply can't explain or understand.
But if it offers us anything, it's the opportunity to step back and look objectively at the culture of lacrosse at schools like UVA. It's by no means a universal phenomenon, but it's more pervasive than most would like acknowledge. And yet, instead of stepping back, here's UVA, the top ranked team in the country, preparing to play in the NCAA Tournament. I'm sure their hearts are in the right place—playing for the memory of Yeardley—but now's not the time.
Even if I'm wrong about all this pseudo-anthropology and worries about the culture... Even if there is no explanation for any of this, "Yeardley Love is not with us anymore, and that's sad."
UVA and the entire lacrosse world owes it to Yeardley to take a step back, and take an honest look at what happened. It'll be gut-wrenching, but for UVA and college lacrosse, it's time for a gut check.