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Jack Reid NLL Lacrosse
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Does Box Lacrosse Have A Future? Does The NLL Need To Change?

Bill Tanton writes for Lacrosse Magazine almost every month in an editorial section titled, “His Space”.  And that’s probably how most of you know who he is.  Tanton has been doing this for years, and he is a fixture in the lacrosse world, especially in Baltimore, and the D1 ranks.  I’ve been reading his stuff for years, and while we haven’t always agreed, his pieces have always been thought provoking, and at the very least, entertaining.

Last month, Tanton wrote about the NLL, and box lacrosse in general, in a piece called “Is Box Season Over Yet?  Indoor hockey on turf isn’t Lacrosse in my book“, and the indoor world was up in arms.  The piece basically boiled down to the idea that the NLL wasn’t real lacrosse because there were a number of players in the league who weren’t skilled guys.  They were just thugs.  Tanton then went on to suggest that just by playing box, and experiencing that atmosphere, a normally good player could transform into a thug.

Andrew McKay of the Laxist wrote a response, which I thought was quite good, called, “Bill Tanton’s hypocritical rant: he didn’t hate indoor lax when he was paid to cover it“.  McKay notes that back when Tanton covered the sport, he seemed to enjoy it, and that Tanton’s complaints about box were also some of the things he liked most about field lacrosse.  And these are interesting points as well.

But I can’t say that either Tanton OR McKay have it right.  The box game has a lot to offer, it is fun, tough, fast, skilled and makes field players better when they learn how to play it.  McKay is right about that, and Tanton is wrong.  But the box game is also verging on spectacle, and not in a good way.  There are guys who aren’t great “lacrosse players” on pro rosters right now.  They’re enforcers masked as defensemen.  So McKay is wrong there, and Tanton is right.  Looks like a split decision.

So if both of these guys are straddling the line, with one foot on the right side, and one on the wrong, where is the line?  Is Box lacrosse closer to being great, or is it closer to being a Monster Truck Rally?  It’s actually a pretty good question, and since the NLL Finals are this weekend, it’s also quite relevant.

The majority of the guys in the NLL are skilled players, even if they’re tough as nails.  I’ve complained about enforcers before, and to be perfectly honest, PURE thugs are quite rare.  They’re more like converted thugs now.  Kind of like Rodgers in Tanton’s article.   I hate watching Jack Reid of the Boston Blazers play defense in the NLL.  It’s just a lot of crosschecks to the back and neck area, and sometimes some fisticuffs.  Now I don’t blame Reid for playing this way.  It’s effective, and more importantly, legal.  But Jack Reid is a better player than that.  I’ve seen him score a great goal here and there, he has a decent stick, and in college, while he was always a bit chippy, he could also straight up defend and play.  He was a lacrosse player.  In the NLL, he’s been relegated to being seen purely as a thug and an instigator, and this is a shame.

Jack Reid NLL Lacrosse
Jack Reid throwing a rare “check”.

I think this is the point Tanton should have made.  Rather than blame the entire game of box lacrosse, he should have focused on some of the rules in the NLL that could be changed.  The players in the league can play the game, but actually playing has to be the focus.  Not fighting and crosschecking.  And while McKay did a great job of portraying Bill as a hypocrite, he offers up no solutions either.  All McKay says is that there are problems with the NLL, but that the play isn’t one of them.  As I’ve shown above, the play is definitely part of the problem, especially when trying to attract new fans, or convert field loyalists.

So let’s get some things straight, shall we?

The assertion that fighting HAS to exist is a myth.

The MLL can be just as brutal as the NLL (and possibly going down the same dark path of thuggery) but there is no fighting there.  There will be no fighting in the new NALL.  When someone does something bad, they don’t have to fight an enforcer, they go to the penalty box.  Fighting exists in the NHL, but it doesn’t exist in the NCAA, yet the sport still works.  Call the rules a bit tighter and fighting is not needed.  This is a fact.  If you like the fighting, that’s fine, just say so.  But don’t try to reason with me that it has to be part of the game to maintain integrity.  It doesn’t have to be.  But it’s the easy way out.

The assertion that box lacrosse isn’t lacrosse is preposterous.

Sure, it’s not field lacrosse.  But neither is throwing a ball against a wall, but that is still “playing lacrosse”.  Playing 3 on 3 on asphalt with garbage cans for goals isn’t field lacrosse, but it’s still lacrosse.  McKay is right that Tanton is being an elitist in this regard.  Box lacrosse is lacrosse.  And it’s a great game.  If field lacrosse were called as loosely as box is in the NLL, I probably wouldn’t like it as much either.  It comes down to how the sport is called, not where it’s played.  Come on, Bill!   You know better than that.

Box lacrosse doesn’t make you a thug automatically.

I used Reid as an example, and Bill Tanton used a “good-natured” goalie who punched a ref at the urging of the crowd as an example.  Reid has made a choice to play that way.  He could not play that, and probably not play.  Again, I don’t blame him, and I know it’s product of how the games are called, and not the game itself.  For Tanton’s example, if a good guy punches someone because a crowd is telling him to, maybe he’s just not perfect.  Again, it’s not about box lacrosse, it’s about a choice, personal responsibility, and how things are called.  Punching a ref seemed acceptable.  Call the games differently and it won’t be.

Field Lacrosse has always been an open, skill and finesse game: MYTH!

This is possibly the most important point, and the one I’ll end my rant on.  Field lacrosse used to be a LOT different from what it is now.  So did football.  So did hockey.  Sports change, and box lacrosse will change too.

Field lacrosse used to be more physical.  It really did.  When my dad played in high school in the late 60s in Massachusetts, if you weren’t moving the ball on O, you were going to be flat on your back.  Hits were done with the shoulders, padding was more limited and the wooden sticks were no joke when you got whacked.  Slashes were called tighter, but the game was rougher, and much more body contact was made on almost every play.  As the sticks advanced, the game changed.  And now we have modern field lacrosse.  But before that, it was even MORE physical, and every year, there were people who complained that the sport was getting “soft”.

But lacrosse hasn’t gotten soft.  It’s still a ridiculously tough sport, even though it has changed.  And box lacrosse can go down the exact same path.  Bill Tanton is wrong that the game itself is the problem.  The game is great, it just needs to evolve.  When college lacrosse put in wider stick regulations, I think the game saw an improvement. The NLL should consider doing the same thing.  Wider sticks mean less ball carrying, and that means less over the top defensive cross-checking.  It means less fights, and it means more skill.  It would mean players like Reid could throw a check, and actually dislodge the ball, instead of being forced to mug his man.  It would be a small change, but could make all the difference in the world.

To the box enthusiasts who think they game is just fine the way it is, I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken.  The skill, toughness, passing, goal-scoring, defensive skill and checks, and great goaltending are the strengths of box lacrosse.  The fighting, boarding, brawls and cheap shots are not.  That’s minor league hockey stuff, and no one should be shooting for THAT.  The field game has changed and evolved, and also improved.  It is more watchable, more fun to play and still a great, tough sport.  Box lacrosse can be the exact same thing, and with only a few minor changes.