Six Nations Chiefs vs Victoria Shamrocks 2014 Mann Cup box lacrosse Credit: Darryl Smart box lacrosse violence
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Box Lacrosse Violence: Where Is The Line?

There is a pretty potent debate raging right now in Canada surrounding box lacrosse violence and how it impacts the game. The conversation stems from the two most recent Mann Cup games (games 2 and 3), where things took a turn, by many accounts, towards the violent.

The Mann Cup is currently being contested between the Victoria Shamrocks and the Peterborough Lakers, the winner is the best box team in Canada! It’s great lacrosse overall, but the last two games do bring up the question of box lacrosse violence quite fairly.

Mann Cup’s Box Lacrosse Violence

There are a couple of things going on here, and none of them are super pretty. In no particular order, you have: 1) The Shamrocks are playing overtly physical lacrosse, not only with their bodies, but with their sticks. 2) Shawn Evans (Peterborough) shot a ball at Rory Smith’s (Victoria) head. It seemed to be on purpose. 3) Victoria players, including Smith, have been using wooden sticks, and at times, they have thrown some absolutely vicious checks, especially in Game 2 when they were down big at the end. 4) The series has been physical throughout, and both teams have plenty of bruising players.

The complaints have been made about all of the above, and more. Some really interesting pieces have also been written about this issue, and many of them seem to be on the right track. Marty O’Neil writes a great editorial on how even he played rough at times, but wants the game to be cleaned up, so that it can grow. Teddy Jenner speaks of his personal experience with concussions, and pushes for a safer game, while keeping it competitive. Both men know what they are talking about, and make some compelling arguments. Both also have good ideas, but at the end of the day, I think they both make it a little too complex.

O’Neil pushes for a new rule, which outlaws “off ball slashing”. This is the position I can’t get behind. Of course, he also advocates for the third ref to be out on the floor chasing the play, and making calls. I’ve argued for his latter position before, and love the idea. It’s a no brainer. Always has been. Jenner takes the approach that the NHL and NFL have taken, arguing for a focus on hits, of any kind, to the head. My only problem with both the off ball slashing and hits to the head ideas is… those are both ALREADY rules!

Let’s talk about off ball slashing first. Well, slashing is illegal already, and it doesn’t matter if it’s off ball or on ball. You can’t wind up and slash someone no matter what. It’s a penalty. Slash someone with the intent to injure, or give that appearance, and you’re supposed to sit down. So this rule actually doesn’t need to be changed at all. It really just needs to called!

So what about hits to the head? OK, maybe you can add on more minutes for head shots, and high elbows, etc, but really this issue doesn’t require additional legislation. Why? Because, much like slashing, it’s ALREADY illegal!

I’ve given both O’Neil and Jenner a bit of a hard time here, and it’s really all in jest. Both guys know what they are talking about, and I’m not actually dismissing their ideas. I just think it’s interesting that both men want to see new rules enacted for good reasons, without seeming to realize that the rules should already be enforced as they would desire. We just don’t need to create a new rule if a current rule isn’t being enforced. That won’t fix anything.

What will fix something is actually calling the game by the rules. For far too long, some levels of box lacrosse have decided to “let the players play”, which is fine, as long as they are playing lacrosse. The second a team tries to win a game by hurting an opposing player or trying to win by intimidation, the “let them play” thing has to go right out the window, and fast. Jenner’s reasoning for safety, and O’Neil’s for popularity, both play heavily here.

There is simply no reason that box lacrosse referees can’t simply follow the rules that have been laid out, and do so in a strict “by the book” fashion. See a slash? Call a slash. See a high hit? Call a high hit. Is it really that simple? Yes, yes it is, and the scary thing is that it’s this simple at all levels of the game, and in many other sports. Call the fouls tight, and keep the teams playing instead of fighting. It pretty much works every single time. You’ve been to a youth lacrosse game, right? Tightly called games usually do well. Loose game get ugly. The same thing happens in the pros.

There are the people out there who will say “that’s not what box lacrosse is about”, and maybe they’re right. Maybe I don’t know the game. But I’ll tell you what I do know. I do know that when someone slashes me to the head off ball and a ref sees it but doesn’t call it, I get angry. And so do 99% of the guys out there playing, at ANY level. To think that players won’t push boundaries is crazy. But that’s WHY WE HAVE REFS. I’m yelling because I’m frustrated at how easy this is.

When you add in international box lacrosse, and how relatively clean that game is, you begin to see how it could, and with great ease. Things are called tighter under FIL rules. There is less off-ball dirty play, and often this is accomplished with less qualified international refs! For experienced Canadian officials, this really shouldn’t be an issue.

At this point, every referee that is reading this article is probably fuming… I know I would be. It’s a fair thing to think, as refs do not operate in a vacuum, and are a big part of our community. They are not immune to feeling pressure to “let the players play” either. However, that does not make it ok. The refs are paid, even if it’s a small amount, to keep the game a game, and not let it regress into some all out brawl for supremacy. The best way to do this is to force the players to play the game.

The first time a team is multiple men down, with 8 guys in the box, and a bunch of offensive guys forced to play D, they will change their tactics. If they don’t want to lose by 20 they will change their tactics anyway. There might be some grumbling, from the players, coaches, and fans, but those guys were going to give the zebras a hard time regardless. So what’s new with that?

The game of box lacrosse, and its future popularity, resides in the hands of the officials. If they call the games tighter, we will get better lacrosse, and fewer broken fingers from a slash. More fans will come to the game, players will enjoy longer careers, and the box game will benefit for years to come. Or we can continue to just “let the players play”. Who needs refs anyway, right? I hope the referees control the game tonight, and do so as much as possible moving forward. Keep the guys playing lacrosse, enough of this box lacrosse violence. It’s not too much to ask.