Documentary and panel discuss the history and future of lacrosse

From lacrosse legends to former coaches to professors, panelists talked about the significance of one of the earliest sports in the history of North America.

Very few cities in the United States can say they are a lacrosse city. But Syracuse can. The game of lacrosse was developed in the Syracuse region and has worked its way into the cities fabric, especially through Syracuse University.

Syracuse University showcased its affinity for lacrosse during Monday afternoon's premiere of the film America's First Sport. The film reminded viewers where lacrosse came from, and spoke to where the sport is going. The film, which was written, directed, produced and researched by Emmy-winning sport management professor Dennis Deninger’s History of Sport class (SPM 300), was part of a larger symposium. The panel included lacrosse legends who discussed the film and lacrosse as whole.

Photo: Mark Volain
From left to right: John Jiloty, Roy Simmons Jr. and Oren Lyons talk about the significance of lacrosse in history and today.

The panel consisted of Dr. Philip Arnold, director of Syracuse University's Native American Studies program; Gary Gait, lacrosse Hall of Famer and the head coach of the Syracuse women's lacrosse team; John Jiloty, Newhouse alumni and editor-in-chief of Inside Lacrosse; Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation; Neal Powless, Assistant Director of Academic Affairs for the SU Native Student program; and Roy Simmons Jr., Syracuse University men's lacrosse coach, 1971-1998.

“You don't get opportunities like that on a regular basis,” Ben Aghajanian, a senior marketing major at SU said of seeing the panel of lacrosse legends.

The film, which clocks in at just under an hour, explored lacrosse from its very beginnings – which Dr. Arnold made sure to point out was before there was an “America” – all the way up through modern lacrosse and into the future of the sport. 

“It covered a very nice range of topics within the sport,” Aghajanian, a longtime lacrosse player, said.

America's First Sport from SU David B. Falk College on Vimeo.

The film covered the game's origins, including the dispelling of the myth that lacrosse, which is not what the game was called by its creators, was a war game.

“It could solve a problem, instead of having war,” Lyons, a former SU goalkeeper, said in the film. “It's a medicine game.”

One of the biggest points of the film was the spirituality the Iroquois assign the game. Lacrosse is a game given to them by “the Creator”, and lacrosse sticks are spiritual instruments more than just tools.

According to the film, lacrosse growing very quickly. Youth participation in lacrosse has tripled since 2001, and the number continues to rise. There is talk of expansion in the two professional lacrosse leagues: the Major League Lacrosse, played outdoors, and the National Lacrosse League, played inside. The film explained the league's expansion plans, which, if executed correctly, could launch lacrosse into being one of the top sports in the US.

Although lacrosse has seen enormous growth, it is still far from a money sport. Professional lacrosse players still have to work day jobs in order to travel for games on the weekends. But, fandom is rising. Teams like the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League attract a league-high 15,000 people per game. The film explained the league's expansion plans, which, if executed correctly, could launch lacrosse into being one of the top sports in the US.

Looking further in the future, lacrosse officials are looking to join the International Olympic Committee, putting lacrosse into the discussion to be an Olympic sport by 2028.

“It's happening,” Lyons said of lacrosse's growth. “The level of competition is rising fast here.”

European settlers adopted lacrosse from Native Americans and made their own. While the Iroquois dictated rules before each game, the first European hand-written excluded Native Americans from playing. After the United States was founded, colleges adopted the sport, keeping many Native Americans from playing semi-professionally. However, programs and development are making it easier for Native Americans to attend college, and play the game of their ancestors.

America's First Sport will be available online at within the week. Enrollment for Professor Deninger's History of Sport class, which researched the information for this film, is open now.

Towards the end of the panel, Lyons wisely noted the importance of global warming's impact on the globe, and told how lacrosse can help.

“How do you educate seven billion people about the importance of the earth?” he asked. “We do it through sticks. Sticks are like an old friend; they come back and you're twenty again. It's your life, and it all comes back.”

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