The 2018 World Lacrosse Championship, which starts on Thursday in Netanya, was never supposed to have been in Israel. In May of 2017, English Lacrosse withdrew from hosting duties for the quadrennial tournament, announcing that the event would “[place] the governing body and sport at unacceptable financial risk.” The world’s only Jewish-majority country then stepped in to rescue the premier event of the most archetypically preppy sport this side of sailing.
Except is anything in the preceding sentence correct? I was in the minority of kids in my Jewish sleep-away camp in western Maryland who didn’t arrive with a lacrosse stick in tow, and while lacrosse is more or less the L.L.Bean of sports, it is also the creation of Native Americans—historically the most brutalized and marginalized segment of American and Canadian society and people for whom the game has an altogether different significance than it might have for players in, say, Bethesda.
So, for the next nine days, Tablet will be following the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, founded in the early 1980s by the former Syracuse lacrosse goalie, lacrosse hall-of-famer, artist, and Onondaga faith-keeper Oren Lyons. The Iroquois finished third in the 2014 tournament in Denver and boast last year’s consensus top freshman in the NCAA, University of Albany attacker Tehoka Nanticoke, who racked up a gaudy 83 points in 19 games during his first collegiate season. As Scott Burnam, the Iroquois program’s general manager explained last month, tryouts at a number of Iroquois reservations produced a team in which 50-60 percent of the players have college playing experience, a high number compared to earlier years.
But the significance of the Iroquois Nationals goes far beyond their excellence on the playing field. In 1987, the Nationals became the fifth member of the Federation for International Lacrosse, marking the first time in history that a global athletic governing body granted a native people a status equal to nation-states. As Donald M. Fisher explains in his book, Lacrosse: A History of the Game, the Iroquois Nationals give lacrosse’s originators a permanent, formal presence at the highest level of the sport while also serving as a tangible expression of Iroquois autonomy. Team members travel to the world championships on Iroquois passports, and the program’s requirements are strict enough to limit the available talent pool to scores of players, rather than the hundreds or thousands that other lacrosse powers like the United States, Canada, Australia, or England might draw from.
The Iroquois presence in the FIL is also a reminder that the Creator’s Game is inevitably not like other sports. No one is under the impression that football is a gift from any divine being; basketball and baseball haven’t been intimately woven into the social and political fabric for over 500 years. Neither have the societies that invented those sports been threatened with extinction, or seen their games reinvented by their would-be exterminators.
As Fisher’s excellent history shows, no sport encapsulates the contact between natives and settlers, and all of its ensuing tragedies and complexities, to nearly the same degree as lacrosse. Identity, continuity, autonomy, survival, the dilemmas of a small vulnerable group facing an often-hostile world—lacrosse is freighted in a way that shouldn’t be all that unfamiliar to Jews, even if the sport itself isn’t exactly a yeshiva day school pastime (prove me wrong, readers!).
In addition to our focus on the Iroquois team, there will also be a few detours into a surprisingly formidable Israeli squad, which might also prove to be among the best in the world. This year’s Israeli team is expected to be especially strong, thanks to the participation of Jewish-Americans from the Northeast—which in addition to being home to half the world’s Jews is also where many of the world’s best lacrosse players come from.
The first faceoff at Netanya stadium on Thursday night—when an Israel-Jamaica, Iroquois-U.S. double-header gets the tournament rolling—and the drama of a world championship will hopefully make this kind of strained analogizing unnecessary. Since this is Israel in July, the heat is going to be a major issue, especially since teams will play seven games in the space of nine days (in contrast, the World Cup soccer finalists will have played seven games over five weeks). But it could also level things out.
“It’s a really intense game schedule,” Burnam explained. “It’s a battle of attrition: If you stay healthy you’re able to compete in those later games.”
To date, either the United States or Canada has won every single FIL championship. Could the streak end in Israel’s punishing July heat? Tablet will be here for the entirety of this fun and grueling tournament, while hopefully getting at why the sport resonates for fans and players alike.
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Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.