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Photo by Brian Schneider
US Lacrosse will unveil its $15 million headquarters — including the 45,000-square-foot IWLCA Building, William G. Tierney Field and a new National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum featuring the Richie Moran Hall of Fame Gallery — in a grand opening event Sept. 11.
Funded exclusively by private donations from a lacrosse community eager to witness its impact on the sport, this 12-acre campus in Sparks, Md., will serve as the home of the U.S. national teams and as a breeding ground for game-changing innovation.
"This is a landmark occasion for the organization," said Steve Stenersen, president and CEO. "Having a home that can stimulate great work product, attract great people and serve as a national center for our sport and volunteer structure is a real milestone for us."
US Lacrosse Grand Opening weekend includes Team USA instructional clinics for boys and girls, the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame Induction, U.S. men's and women's intrasquad games and a special 9/11 memorial dedication followed by FDNY vs. NYPD.
In a wide-ranging interview with Lacrosse Magazine editor-in-chief Matt DaSilva, Stenersen reflected on nearly two decades of growth that led to this moment, the state of the sport today and the promise of its future.
PASSION FOR PLAY
What was your upbringing like? How did lacrosse enter your life?
My mom didn't work until I was a teenager. My dad was the manager of a veneer mill in the Baltimore area. He was a very blue-collar guy. My mom was kind of a horsey person. We had a couple of horses and she loved it. We grew up solid middle class.
My parents wanted to send me to St. Paul's School. My brother, who is 10 years older than me, went to St. Paul's from K-12. And I went to St. Paul's from K-12. Lacrosse was very much a part of the fabric of St. Paul's. I picked up my first stick in third grade. We had a lower school field day. It was just something you did at St. Paul's. And I just loved it.
Why did lacrosse become your vocation and lifelong passion?
Team sports generally are my lifelong passion. My parents were divorced when I was 10. Pretty ugly situation. They're both deceased now. But it was a tough divorce, tough family situation. My brother was in college, so he was out of the house. It was me and my mom. My dad had moved out.
One of the things St. Paul's gave me was this very close-knit community, where the teacher-coach model was really fundamental to the educational experience. The teachers that I had during the day in middle school and upper school were the coaches that I had in the afternoon. They showed different sides. The nurturing that I received through sports generally and through the adult male role models who were teachers and coaches at St. Paul's was incredibly formative for me, because my dad wasn't around in those days.
We talk a lot at US Lacrosse about enriching the lacrosse experience. That's core to our mission. What was enriching about your experience?
The people. I grew up with coaches who were concerned about the person and the child, and sport was a way to motivate a child, to teach life lessons to a child. It wasn't all about winning and losing. It wasn't all about sport specialization. It wasn't all about getting recruited to play at the next level. It was taking a child where he is and trying to use sport to develop that child to the next level.
Can youth sports, and lacrosse in particular, be that way again?
Sure, and it is that way now. There are a lot of men and women out there exhibiting the same types of behaviors and philosophies that I experienced. It's just that there are many more men and women who are focused on youth sports as a commodity and an industry. That's not bad, necessarily. But when you balance a business plan on one side with what's best for a child on the other, that's a tough balance.
Club programs have been vilified because they represent a shift in the culture of the sport, and they present a free market economy approach to youth sports. However, I don't think that club programs are necessarily the evil empire. There are a lot of club programs out there that are doing great stuff. We just have to be vigilant about making sure that we're being good consumers.
"More men and women are focused on youth sports as a commodity and an industry. That's not bad, necessarily. But when you balance a business plan on one side with what's best for the child on the other, that's a tough balance."
Tell me about the Carolina days.
[Former North Carolina coach] Willie Scroggs was a continuation of the teacher-coach model I experienced at St. Paul's. My freshman class was a hodgepodge. The next class was an outstanding class that really defined the program, the Tom Searses, the Peter Voelkels, just outstanding players, several of whom are in the Hall of Fame now. And then he just built on it.
To pay for the uniforms, we cleaned Kenan Stadium, a 50,000-seat football stadium. Every Sunday at 6 a.m., after a home game Saturday, we were there rain or shine, deployed to clean the stadium. It was six or seven hours of work, each Sunday after a home game. It created a bond for that team. Nobody was treated differently. Seniors or freshmen, you were out there working as a team on the field and you were working off the field to help pay for the stuff that was going to advance us as a team.
It was just a magical time.
You played in one of the most memorable games in lacrosse history, the Armadillo Game. How bizarre was that?
It was surreal. That was one of the only times that I broke curfew the night before. Going into that game, we were very confident. Virginia had blown out W&L, and we had handled Virginia. The team took W&L lightly. And that's exactly what W&L was planning.
It was in Lexington, and we played right into their hands. Coach Emmer had a brilliant although controversial strategy that worked. Of course, it was outlawed the very next week. I didn't have friends on W&L then, but my teammates did. And the night before we played, some of the friends from the W&L team conveyed kind of vague apologies almost. "Whatever happens tomorrow..." In retrospect, there was a an expression of regret for what we were going to experience.
It was bizarre. We were surprised, angry, frustrated on the field. This wasn't how the game was supposed to be played. This isn't lacrosse. It was a weird game. It worked for three quarters. And they pulled out of it, played us straight up and we won. I've heard Coach Emmer say, "Maybe we should have stayed in it for four quarters," because they might have beaten us.
Really, a fascinating moment in the sport's history.
Great photography, at those times. Great pictures of the circle surrounding the player with a deep-pocketed short-handled goalie stick, and us really abusing, sadly, those W&L players who were locked arms. Poke checks to the ribs, long johns up through, trying to get to the stick and dislodge the ball. They took a lot of abuse, that core group.
You've graduated college. Now what? How does The Lacrosse Foundation enter the picture?
I got a degree in journalism from Carolina, and I wanted to be a writer. I got a job during the day at a chemical warehouse, and then at night I worked at a liquor store. I moved in with a friend into an apartment and worked those two jobs — moving 50-gallon barrels of pool chemicals during the day, loading up trucks and selling beer at night while I was looking for a job in my chosen field.
I got a job at an organization called Nichols Publishing Services. One of the sub-contracted projects was Lacrosse Magazine, which the former Lacrosse Foundation had started back in the late '70s. I became at first the associate editor and then the editor of that publication in my early 20s.
I started with The Lacrosse Foundation in the fall of '84. At the time, the organization had a budget of maybe a couple-hundred thousand a year. They had an executive director position. The starting salary was around $17,000. I didn't know what I was getting into. I guess I mumbled the right words in the interview about what the sport meant to me and what I thought the potential of the sport was, and it resonated. My job was to build the resources for the organization so we could invest more in growing the sport.
US Lacrosse employees say goodbye to their home of 18 years on University Parkway in Baltimore. (John Strohsacker)
US LACROSSE: THE WONDER YEARS
Fast-forward to 1998. Eight lacrosse organizations, The Lacrosse Foundation being one of them, merged to form US Lacrosse. You led that effort. How massive of an undertaking was that?
It was massive culturally, not necessarily practically. There was a lot of passion and history in each of the organizations coming to the table. We reached an agreement that a unified national structure was the way to go. But could we generate support from those organizations to make the ultimate sacrifice — to die and be reborn into a new organization?
The other interesting component was women's and men's lacrosse being different versions of the sport, having different cultures — and the legitimate concern on behalf of the women's game that they would be consumed by the men's game, that the traditions and culture of the women's game would be overtaken by the men's game. That's what happened historically with women's sport. Many leaders of the USWLA had been through that as athletes and aspiring athletes, had been through the inequities of sport at high schools and colleges and in public recreation opportunities. Title IX had not emerged practically yet.
The U.S. Women's Lacrosse Association leadership took the biggest leap, and embraced the concept, as did the men's organizations. But it was a horse-trading exercise. It required dozens of meetings, all of which were facilitated by independent counsel. Lawyers were involved. And it was a lot of angst that resulted in the organization's birth.
Were there specific things you wanted to accomplish as US Lacrosse, say, in the first five years? What was the focus at the outset?
The first thing I wanted to achieve was the creation of US Lacrosse. Just getting the organizations to buy into the fact that we could accomplish more together and collectively than we could independently and separately. And the fact that women's and men's lacrosse were not different sports. They were different versions of the same sport.
There were people out there that were waiting to say I told you so. When we did make a mistake or two or three or four, you heard from those people. Some of those people tried to foment dissension against the organization even after it was formed. Those first five years were all about survival and getting the job done.
It did seem at the outset, though, that education would be a focus — educating coaches and officials and providing greater access to those resources. One of US Lacrosse's hallmarks has been its Coaching Education Program and also its Officials Education Program.
The fundamental goals of US Lacrosse were to create national standards, because there were none. The rules were different from state to state. There was no consistency of curricula to educate and recruit coaches and officials. How can you grow the game most effectively? You need to create consistency in how the game is taught and played, and that's where the educational focus came in.
What's your proudest accomplishment of US Lacrosse in 18 years?
I'm most proud of the people, the professionals that have been a part of our staff and have been the heart and soul of our mission driving it forward. Relative to mission, I would say our impact on growing the game. We've invested unprecedented sums of money into the grassroots development of the sport over the last 18 years. Our budget now is just over $20 million, and essentially that $20 million is all invested in advancing the sport. That really is a lot of money, probably pushing close to $200 million over the course of the organization's history.
Our members are investors in the organization. Generating that type of support from members and donors is something that I'm very proud of, which has enabled us to invest so heavily in the growth of the sport.
When somebody asks you, "Why should I be a member?" what's your answer?
One of the challenges we have is that we have evolved our membership platform to be a transactional experience. Members feel that they have to be a member of the organization to play because they need insurance. And that's kind of the lore that has stuck with US Lacrosse, primarily because we haven't done as good a job as we need to do in telling our story and better informing our members — players, parents, coaches, officials and the general public — of the impact we've had and the vision we have, all of which requires investment. I would say to a member that your membership investment is just that. It's not a transaction. You are really contributing to the sport's national growth and development.
Things don't just happen on the field. You show up to take your child to a game. Do you know what that ball is made of? Do you know what the specifications for that ball are? Do you know what went into making that ball safer? Do you know who's stepping on the field to officiate your game? Do you know how they were trained? Do you know what curricula they used? Do you know how they've been developed as an official? Do you know who's coaching your son? What qualifications do they have to nurture a love of lacrosse and improve your daughter's abilities?
We're the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. We need to do a better job of telling what's behind the curtain, and exposing our membership and those who care about the game to what we do and why their investment is so important.
"We're the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain," Stenersen says. "We need to do a better job of telling what's behind the curtain, and exposing our membership and those who care about the game to what we do and why their investment is so important." (Brian Schneider)
US LACROSSE: TODAY
What is the most important thing US Lacrosse does?
Growing the sport and providing greater access to the sport for more kids regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status. The sport continues to have this image of being just for some, for being a very upscale demographic. Rich white kids. That's just not what we want to portray, and it's just not a recipe for the sport's success in the long term. This is a wonderful sport that has wonderful attributes, and we want every kid to have the opportunity to play, regardless of situation.
We want kids to come to the sport and stay in the sport. More recently, we're focused on reimagining how we introduce and develop players. And that's our Athlete Development Model.
The Athlete Development Model reimagines how we introduce youth to the sport. What has been the feedback?
We're not the first to launch an athlete development model. USA Hockey and USA Soccer were early adopters in that strategy. All of the science, all of the data suggests that a sports experience should be tailored to the child's physical and cognitive development stage.
Sports are for players. With respect to the Athlete Development Model, the feedback we're getting from players is it's fun and they love it. If we can get more youth league administrators and more parents to embrace what's best for their child and what their child most enjoys, versus "Let's prepare my 8-year-old for his college scholarship," that will better position the sport for growth and retention.
That's all about competition integrity and player safety. Sport used to be grade-based. And it made a lot of sense, because kids want to play with their friends. The challenge, however, is that in contact or collision sports, that physicality creates opportunity for injury. We don't want to have situations in which much larger kids are playing against much smaller kids. And that happens today because kids are held back, they go to pre-first or they're reclassified.
Through a very inclusive strategic discussion and process, we've introduced our recommendations relative to player segmentation. They're primarily age-based, because age is the best determinant of a child's physical and cognitive and, really, emotional stage. You want kids of similar physical and cognitive stages to compete against each other, because it represents competition integrity and it creates the safest environment for a child.
Recruiting events and clubs have proliferated significantly. They've all based their classifications or levels of play on graduation year, because that's the college recruiting pipeline. Convincing clubs and tournaments to convert to primarily age-based is going to be challenging. But we're seeing a movement in that direction now. I'm confident. You can't reject the science.
Asked in May by a congressional panel what is holding back lacrosse from adopting standards to reduce concussions in youth sports, Stenersen replied, "Culture and tradition."
STATE OF THE SPORT
Early recruiting. You mention those two words and it will elicit a variety of impassioned responses from anyone in the lacrosse community. There's a real trickle-down effect to that in the youth landscape. What do you see?
It's ruining the culture of youth sport. It is a scourge. It is causing families and kids to choose club programs at a younger age, to sport specialize at a younger and inappropriate age, and to invest more dollars into the youth lacrosse experience than are necessary, which makes the sport less accessible. It's driving kids away from the sport at the youth level.
Thankfully, the two college coaching associations, the IMLCA and the IWLCA, have put forth legislation which recommends that there be no contact with a prospective student-athlete in any way before Sept. 1 of their junior year. That has passed a couple of hurdles at the NCAA level. The NCAA needs to take a leadership role here. I've written letters to various committees at the NCAA trying to express how damaging this is to our sport's culture and the nature of youth lacrosse, and that this is exactly what I think the NCAA was established to do — to pass legislation that protects us from ourselves.
In May, you served on a congressional panel examining concussions in youth sports. You were asked what's holding lacrosse back from adopting standards. The two words you used were "culture and tradition." Can you expand on that?
There are people within our sport and every sport who don't want to evolve, and who believe that their experience is the experience that should continue forever. There's growing bodies of research and a whole lot of anecdotal information that suggests that concussion, specifically, but also repetitive sub-concussive blows are not good for a developing brain. We need to do what we can to balance the integrity of lacrosse with the safety of players.
I've heard people at the college level lament that we've ruined the sport because violent collision has been essentially banned, who have complained about it and said the sport has taken steps backward as a result — not as fun to play, not as dynamic to watch. I disagree. I think it's better to watch. Lacrosse was never intended to be football with sticks.
I also think that body contact below a certain age should be banned. I don't think you can adequately teach the sport and the technical skills, and build the confidence of children to build those skills, if you're introducing the fear of collision. Fold in the safety issue as well, and the sub-concussive blows or the concussive blows on developing brains, and it is, no pun intended, a no-brainer. We should eliminate body contact in youth lacrosse.
On the women's side, the athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, especially at the highest level. That game has evolved to be much more contact than ever before. We've learned that, unlike the men's game, in which collision is the primary mechanism of a concussive event, in the girls' game, it's stick-to-head. And they're swinging sticks.
If we don't evolve our sport — men's game, women's game — and evolve education, rules and equipment as interventions, the games will suffer.
Hence the development of a headgear standard for the women's game.
Very controversial. While no existing protective equipment can prevent concussion, we believe we've introduced a standard that mitigates the impact force of stick-to-head and that will make play safer. We're not mandating that standard. We're simply replacing the unspecified standard in our rules — soft headgear — with headgear that meets a certain standard.
Twenty years from now, if US Lacrosse is succeeding in its mission, what does the sport look like?
Participation increases significantly. We've seen an alarming flattening of participation in our sport. We used to celebrate that our sport was one of, if not the fastest-growing sport in the country. And it was for a decade or more. Now we're seeing that growth plane flatten substantially. Why? We believe because early recruiting and sport specialization and many of the other things that are eroding the culture and accessibility of youth lacrosse are contributing to a decline in participation.
We've got to change that. We've got to focus on how we can get more kids playing and how we can retain kids to play not necessarily at the highest level, but at their level — and to have fun at their level. That's what Athlete Development Model is all about. We're still a relatively small sport — 750,000-ish players at all levels, men's and women's. We have tons of upside.
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