The curious case of Michigan State varsity lacrosse

Dec 21, 2016

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- January will mark the 20th anniversary of Michigan State varsity men’s lacrosse program being cut by the athletic department and turned into a club sport.

The disbanding of men’s lacrosse, in 1997, came alongside the removal of men’s fencing and the addition of women’s crew to comply with Title IX.

Lacrosse, one of the fastest growing sports in the country, still survives at Michigan State. The club team posted an 8-5 record this past season, and won the conference championship. The Spartans also reached the MCLA tournament.

Discussion and hope still linger for MSU to restore its varsity program, but the university is not yet on board. The MSU athletic department would not comment if there has been any recent discussion about moving the club lacrosse program to the varsity level.

“Currently Michigan State is focusing on getting its 25 other sports up to a competitive national level,” said Michigan State Athletic spokesperson Matt Larson.

For MSU, remaining afloat financially is the main reason to not add lacrosse back to varsity. MSU is in the minority by being one of the 24 athletic departments that operate in the black, according to the 2014 NCAA Revenues and Expenses of Division I Intercollegiate Athletics Programs report.

“It would be a misnomer to think that there’s all this extra money laying around. The athletic department is self-sustaining and we continue to try and support our 25 sports the best we can,” said Larson. “As you’re looking across budgets keep in mind there’s also operational budgets, travel, facilities, salary and benefits. So when we say were a self-sustaining department our focus is making sure that were putting those 25 sports in the best position they can be to be successful.”

Title IX is a part of a package of Federal educational reforms, passed in 1972, aimed to ensure gender equity in programs receives federal funding. Athletics is just one of the 10 key areas it covers. For athletics, the number of female athletes, at educational institutions like MSU, must mirror its student body. In 1996, MSU had a female population of 53 percent, but only an athletic participation rate of 39 percent, according to the Detroit Free Press on Jan. 17, 1997.

The Free Press also reported that when Title IX was initially enacted MSU added 10 women’s sports “but the furor died down” and there wasn’t much more action taken in terms of gender equity.

“But in 1992, the Supreme Court ruled that courts could award monetary damages in Title IX cases, and schools began paying attention again,” wrote the Free Press.

This caused a new certification proposal to be at the forefront of discussion during the 1993 NCAA convention. Member institutions needed to comply in order to keep NCAA standing.

“The NCAA Athletics Certification process guided institutions and Division I athletic programs in the areas of fiscal integrity, academic integrity, minority opportunities, gender equity opportunities and a commitment to compliance as well,” said Michigan State Executive Associate Athletic Director Shelley Appelbaum, in an email. “Thus, institutions worked diligently to meet standards in those arenas through the NCAA Self Study Process, planning and implementation process and a peer review team process as well.”

This explains why it took almost 25 years after the creation of Title IX for lacrosse to be cut. The issue of gender equity in sports was ignored for many years, and then there was a sense of urgency in the early ‘90s.

“It (The NCAA Athletics Certification Process) began in the early 90s and has continued in several cycles for Division I schools per NCAA bylaws,” said Appelbaum, who oversees gender equity at MSU.

MSU, along with Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue, were the Big Ten programs that exceeded 60 percent male athlete participation.

“You had to come up with a plan (to meet the ratio standards set by Title IX). That plan was passed in 1997. It led to two sports being dropped one sport was added,” Larson said. “At the time there were 20 high schools in Michigan that offered lacrosse and it wasn’t a Big Ten sponsored sport.”

This decision, according to the then-MSU lacrosse head coach Rich Kimball, came at a period when the program was at its best.

“We had what I thought was my best team we had ever had while I was there,” said Kimball. “I had a weekend coming up with probably four or five very good recruits coming in from out east.”

Kimball said some of his players went on to have successful lacrosse careers after MSU.

“Two of them transferred in the next few days (after the news) to Syracuse,” said Kimball. “My goalie went to Salisbury State and later won the National Championship and was the most valuable player in the championship game. We had kids go to Butler, had kids go to Penn State, a couple of kids go to Maryland. So the talent level was really high.” But MSU’s ability to attract East Coast talent was not enough reason to keep the sport and not enough to bring it back.

According to The National Federation of State High School Associations, the sport was not very big at the time in Michigan. Lacrosse didn’t gain in popularity until 2004-05, when Michigan jumped from 45 high schools with lacrosse to 71.

In the spring of 1997, when MSU’s program was cut, there were only 22 high schools playing the sport.

Figure 1: The line shows that Michigan has seen a huge growth of number of high schools with lacrosse programs since 2005 according to the NFHS. There were once only 7 now there are 137.
Credit Zachary Barnes

Kimball claims he was never told an exact reason as to why his team was cut.

Since MSU’s program was eliminated, lacrosse has taken off. Looking at data collected from the NCAA, lacrosse saw the highest percentage of growth from 1981-82 – when the NCAA started collecting data about the number of schools sponsoring teams – to the most recent academic year of 2015-2016.

Figure 2: Lacrosse saw a 38 percent increase in sponsored programs at the Division I level from the 1981-82 academic year to 2015-16 according to the NCAA’s Sponsorship and Participation report. The next highest was basketball at 26.7 percent, while many other sports hovered around the same number of programs.
Credit Zachary Barnes

Sports used to compare the data were diverse, consisting of team and individual, revenue and non-revenue.

This graph shows the slight increase lacrosse has seen at the Division I level since the early ‘80s.

Figure 3: Number of lacrosse programs at the Division I level to the NCAA’s Sponsorship and Participation report. Lacrosse is up to 71 programs heading into the 2017 season.
Credit Zachary Barnes

But the growth at the NCAA level isn’t even comparable to the rapid growth lacrosse has seen at the high school level.

Mike Murphy, the head lacrosse coach of Colgate and member of the Intercollegiate Men’s Lacrosse Association, points out the disproportionate amount of growth at the high school level compared to the college level.

“As the base has grown, the top of the pyramid has not grown within the same aspect of it,” said Murphy.

Even if lacrosse has grown more than other sports at the NCAA Division I level, when looking at the NFHS’s data of percentage growth at the high school level, lacrosse isn’t even in the same stratosphere as its other competitors in terms of growth.

Figure 4: Since lacrosse wasn't an established sport nationally like baseball or basketball, it saw a full 556.8 percent growth from the 1981-82 high school academic year to 2015-16. Soccer also saw rapid growth with a 149.1 percent increase according to the NFHS.
Credit Zachary Barnes

Looking at the data with a critical eye, only 21 Division I lacrosse programs have been added since 1981-82, which is barely comparable to the 2,333 added at the high school level during the same time period.

The data gives MSU and other programs more incentive to bring lacrosse back to the Division I level.

This graph conveys the skyrocketing prep-level popularity over the past three and a half decades.

Figure 5: This shows that lacrosse is a fairly new trend but doing extremely well at the national high school level according to the NFHS.
Credit Zachary Barnes

Murphy anecdotally describes his belief behind the sport’s sudden growth.

“I think the sport itself is very attractive to this generation of kids. There’s a lot more immediate gratification because of social media. That’s not a very ‘baseball mindset,’” said Murphy, referring to lacrosse’s fast-paced play. “It’s a combination of a lot of sports. Offense and defensive principals of basketball, there’s similarities to hockey, the physicality of football, the running and spread of soccer. It’s a hybrid of all of them and that’s attractive to kids.”

The Big Ten has taken notice of the growth of lacrosse and at the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year men’s and women’s lacrosse became the Big Ten’s 27th and 28th official sports.

“Long term, there's going to be continued growth. I think it's popular at the youth level. I think it's a sport that's fun to watch, fun to play,” said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney, in an interview with Lacrosse Magazine in 2015. “Between the competition itself, the visibility of the sport and NCAA support for the sport, I think you're going to continue to see growth in participation at the youth level. That has a tendency to affect sport sponsorship at the high school level and then again in the college level.”

Even with Delaney’s confidence in the sport, the conference has no say in who fields varsity teams.

“I think it's growing in the Midwest. How that gets reflected in a program is an institution-by-institution decision,” said Delaney.

With the Big Ten’s announcement to sponsor lacrosse in 2014, Kimball saw a perfect window for MSU to join the conference with Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers and become the sixth team, which would give the Big Ten an automatic-bid to the NCAA tournament. But it was later announced that Johns Hopkins was accepted as the conference’s first sport affiliate member. Now that the Big Ten got the six teams they needed, Kimball isn’t hopeful for any more additions.

“The view of lacrosse people was, ‘What a great time to add one more team and who’s best to add then a school that’s already had it?’” said Kimball. “But adding Hopkins slammed the door on growth in the Big Ten for a long time to come.”

Even with the rapid growth of the sport at the national high school level as well as in the state of Michigan, and the establishment of Big Ten lacrosse, to say MSU is going against the curve by not starting a lacrosse program would be unfair. It is a highly complex situation.

In 2012, Michigan became the first FBS school since Notre Dame in 1981 to be moved lacrosse up from club to varsity.

“There’s a misperception often that the big football schools are the easiest place to add men’s sports and really the opposite is true,” UM head coach John Paul said. He believes a strong alumni base and dominance at the club level helped move his program to Division I. “Football eats a lot of scholarships, but it’s not just that.”

Paul continued, “It’s easy to point to Title IX as well, but I think it goes a lot deeper than that. The fact that Power Five football schools don’t need some of the things that non-Power Five football schools are looking for when they add a sport. They already have plenty of applicants, they have the demographic they’re looking for and they already have a ton of exposure because of football and probably basketball. If you’re not a Power Five school or you don’t have football, then adding lacrosse gets you those things.”