The BIG Lacrosse Debate: Box Vs. Field



The age old debate between box and field lacrosse enthusiasts is a long standing subject of discussion. People typically tend to see the best in their version of the sport, and the worst in other people’s preferred version. Box gets slandered by its detractors as a skill-less fight where a lacrosse game sometimes breaks out, and field is falsely accused of being soft, slow, less-skilled, or less attractive to spectators.

Both arguments are really quite foolish. Sometimes we focus on the trees and can’t see the forest.

Bill Tanton wrote an article that really bashed box lacrosse a while back via Lacrosse Magazine, basically equating it to pure goonery. Marty O’Neill has now, some time later, written a response on ILIndoor in defense of the box brand, and while his take on things is much less partisan, dismissive, and divisive, it is just as biased, and doesn’t do much for progress.

To be honest, I’m still kind of surprised at both of their posts, as I respect both men, and their love of the game. I guess I just didn’t realize how narrowly they thought of “their” game.

O’Neill admits his bias in the post, which is refreshing to see. His article is more understanding and nuanced than Tanton’s, for the most part, and he tries his hardest to keep the debate about lacrosse, and not national identity. But at the same time, he also decides that one version of the game is better than the other, and uses almost the same methodology as Tanton to make his decision. He’s seen the Final Four a bunch of times, and wasn’t impressed. He’s seen a lot of good box. Therefore, box is better.

He gently scolds Tanton for missing the great Summer of ’62 in Ontario, and for not watching enough recent NLL lacrosse. He throws out the box lacrosse that Tanton saw in Maryland as irrelevant because the Americans Tanton did watch, who were ignorant to the finer points in O’Neill’s view, were somehow doing it wrong. He then goes on to clear some things up and make a larger argument for why box is superior; one of those points being that it’s definitely better for fans.

But just saying it in a nicer way doesn’t mean that the judgement isn’t there… or that the judgement itself isn’t still silly. Because it is.

Liking one version of lacrosse more than the other is fair. In fact, increased exposure, playing a particular version of the game growing up, and cultural differences make the concept of “liking” one game more than the other almost expected. However, labeling one as superior verges on irrational. Arguing that box is better than field is like saying that green is better than purple, or vice versa. Why even make that argument?

As someone who grew up primarily playing field lacrosse, but also playing a little bit of box, and watching the Boston Blazers of old (think green, orange, black and spandex), I got a pretty balanced exposure to both versions of the sport. I started the field team at my high school, and, more recently, a box league in NYC. I know the field game more intimately, but I appreciate both box and field for what they are, and will play either if I can. I have my issues with both, and can see how either one could help the other improve.

But the one thing I can’t even begin to see is a real argument for how one is somehow inherently better than the other. Both require skill, athleticism, good coaching, toughness, hours of practice, team play, and a high in-game IQ. There are more skilled, and less skilled, players in both games. As O’Neill notes, there are certainly differences, but he seems to miss the overlap that is overwhelmingly present. Tanton did the same.

Great players can be great players in either arena. The skills are highly transferrable, and knowing both skill sets will benefit players in either game. In the eyes of some in the lacrosse media (me), you even have to be great at both to be considered the best ever.

Let me be clear that I have no problem with people preferring one version of the game over the other. For the reasons I laid out above, it makes a lot of sense. But to say either box or field is actually better, in some officially stated manner, misses the point completely, no matter how nicely it is said.

Lacrosse is fantastic outside, and it’s splendid on an arena floor. Three on three with garbage can goals, wall ball, no-pads backyard pick up with friends… it’s all excellent. Playing catch with a friend or family member is superb. Having a stick in your hands is a privilege. Talking about which version of the game is best? Frankly, that’s just a waste of time.


  1. Amen.  The two versions still end with the word lacrosse…  The difference now is, whether people see that the growth of either is more important than trying to figure out which is better.  I will say that over the past couple of weeks, my preference has leaned towards Box, but getting on the field with the guys in South Texas was still just as fun.  I don’t like the 3/4 or full sleeves of BOX.  I like having the extra time to crank up a shot on the field, but I really like that box is more fast paced and I can got more shots off, albiet none that fast.  My point is that, lacrosse is lacrosse is lacrosse.  Just freaking play and grow the game.  You wanna start some real drama…  talk about the Warrior #Ninja_Please campaign.  #BOOM!!!!

  2. Great points.  I had to stop myself several times and kept thinking “But, but, but…”.  Ultimately if you love lacrosse, you’ll love both versions of the game if you can bring yourself to appreciate their own nuances.  I’m a season ticket holder for 2 field teams (NCAA & MLL), 1 box (NLL) and play box as well.  I also go to plenty of NCAA games including the final 4 every year.  I do have to say though that I personally have grown to prefer box over field.  I think if you want to talk about best though, there has to be context.  Best for what?  Best for growth?  Best for skill development?  Best fan experience?  If either one helped growth better than the other, I wouldn’t care which one wins.  But as long people try to make one win out over the other, this debate will go on.  As long as people (I’m looking at you, 412 blog) try to make arguments that box goalies aren’t athletes or good at what they do, this debate will go on.  No matter what people argue about, I’ll still watch both, play both, maybe coach both and as long as I can walk into sporting goods stores anywhere in the county and see lacrosse sticks on the walls, I’ll be happy.

    • Thanks for reading through all the way before commenting! Haha. I know you may disagree with some of what I said, but I really appreciate your willingness to see the bigger picture. Great comment, Ryan.

  3. My only real problem is box is it’s tolerance of fighting.  There are player control issues in all sports and they seem to be getting worse instead of better.  For a sport to allow fighting (at any level) sends the wrong message and does not honor the game.  It is a not a “5 for fighting” penalty; it should be ejection from the game.

    If this single aspect could be removed from box, I believe a lot of the animosity towards it would go away.  It has to stop at the highest levels so the youth and HS don’t try to emulate it.

    • I do think fighting in the NLL has gotten better recently. It got really bad, but they did seem to tighten up on it.

      I’m personally with you, in the belief that fighting is not required in the game, but I doubt we will ever eradicate it. There does seem to be a chippy mentality though in some places, and I wonder if fighting promotes that, as you seem to suggest. Interesting comment. Thanks!

  4. In my opinion field lacrosse needs to allow players to have their little tussles and sit the 5 for fighting. After that ejection. Box lacrosse is hard to follow unless you know all of the rules because I’ve watched Colorado Mammoth games where the off ball defenders are slashing the gloves of off ball offenders without penalties. In field lacrosse the flag is thrown right away. Is it so that no fighting breaks out? If so then maybe box should implement that rule. Overall I am more of a field lacrosse guy than box lacrosse.

  5. Unfortunately, all that people see of “box” lacrosse is simply the NLL.  This is a brand of indoor lacrosse, the idea that the players are going out to hurt and kill each other (mild exaggeration).  This is definitely NOT the case in ‘real’ box lacrosse.  And when I say ‘real’ box lacrosse I mean the game that’s played in almost every city from mini-tyke age to the Jr’s and Sr’s.

    One of the many misconceptions, as proven in above comments, is about fighting; fighting in ‘real’ box lacrosse, from the age groups of mini-tyke to midget, is NOT tolerated.  And, in most cases, players face suspensions and game misconducts after fights in the minor system.  It isn’t until players reach Intermediate, Junior or Senior ranks where fighting is ‘permitted’.  People need to understand that even at this age players who fight are often doing it out of frustration or anger.  Trust me, I have played the box game for over 10 years, and in that time I have never had an altercation with another player where I have been issued a game misconduct or a 5 minute major (which is the penalty issued to players from intermediate upwards).

    However, when comparing the two sports, or trying to decide which is better, it is almost impossible: You can’t settle a debate when it’s completely based on preference.  You’re always going to have people ignore the differences in skill and athleticism  or not understand the full game, and base their opinion on which they like better.  I agree with Ryan Conwell, best for what?

  6. When trying to think of how one game may be better than the other, it always brings me back to the thought of what you, yourself, actually get out of the game during that specific moment in your life and lacrosse career. Perhaps, box is better for you right now because it is helping you change your image of what “lacrosse” is, or maybe you are playing and you’re getting better at specific skills more needed in box; this works both ways.

    Thinking one is “better” than the other is denying the use of applying different types of skills and learnings from both games into each other. I say remain open to any type of new skill or style that you may learn to be your best from – from both a viewing and playing perspective.

  7. I recently read an article in Lacrosse Magazine abouta”box/field hybrid” in training new players. Each form helps the other, Canadian box players do wonders in NCAA attack, and the endurance of a field middy helpsin indoor.  Neither NEEDS to be better than the other, box and field need to be viewed as lacrosse, not as two sports.