The ‘Lacrosse Murder:’ Why Stereotyping Jocks Doesn’t Keep Girls Safe

What our daughters can learn from the tragic death of UVa student Yeardley Love at the hands of her former boyfriend, George Huguely

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Steve Helber / AP

George Huguely V, left, is escorted into the Charlottesville Circuit courthouse in Charlottesville, Va., on Feb. 22.

On Wednesday afternoon, when I asked my 14-year-old daughter Julia what she’d done that day at school, she said she’d learned about relationship violence and self-defense.

This, I thought, was time well spent.

Julia’s school is a short hop across the Potomac from the Landon School, the prestigious all-boys prep school in Bethesda, Md., formerly attended by George Huguely V, who was convicted Feb. 22 of second degree murder in the beating death of his on-and-off girlfriend Yeardley Love, who died in May 2010, shortly before the pair, both lacrosse players, were due to graduate from the University of Virginia.

“Landon boys” are a big topic of conversation in Julia’s world. They’re said to be really bad news: good-looking and rich and often super-athletic but also (and here the eyes of the speaker widen with a mixture of delight and fear) entitled, obnoxious, even dangerous.

(MORE: The Murder of Yeardley Love and Trial of George Huguely V: A Timeline)

You never drink from a cup offered by a Landon boy, say these girls, who don’t necessarily know any Landon boys and aren’t necessarily up on the news of Huguely and Love but have heard about the school’s 2002 SAT cheating scandal, in which eight lacrosse players were suspended and two other students withdrew under threat of expulsion. Many have also heard some version of a story about a “fantasy girls league” game allegedly concocted by some former 9th-graders planning to compete to win — and chart their progress winning — certain girls’ sexual favors.

“It isn’t fair to prejudge a whole group of guys because of the bad behavior of a few,” is the kind of thing I say to her and her friends, and I try to actually believe it. For it’s true we shouldn’t prejudge people like Landon lacrosse players, who count among their former ranks not just Huguely and most of the Landon SAT scammers but five of the rowdy revelers on the Duke University lacrosse team accused — and exonerated — of having raped a stripper in 2006. We shouldn’t give in to blanket prejudice about their parents or their coaches (one of whom took the boys out for a good time at Hooters) or school administrators who parents have accused of treating misbehavior by deep-pocketed athletes with much greater leniency than similar acts by less high-ranking boys. (Landon denies any unfair treatment of students and a lawsuit by the family of one of the boys who withdrew from the school under threat of expulsion over the SAT cheating incident in which they claimed that their son was defamed was later dismissed.)

Despite all that, I stick by my “don’t judge frat boys and jocks by their labels” stance. But it’s not out of some abstract desire to do the right thing; it’s a gut level urge to protect my daughters from ending up like Love or the singer Rihanna, beaten black and blue by her former boyfriend Chris Brown before the Grammys in 2009 or any of the 1 in 4 women who experience domestic violence in their lifetimes or one of the approximately 1 in 5 female high school students who reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a person she’s dating.

(MORE: Why Love Can Turn Violent)

This is a matter of practicality: I don’t think it’s at all useful, in the sense of being proactively protective, to point fingers at a group and say those kinds of boys (or men) do these kinds of things. Doing so both normalizes bad behavior and attitudes (like binge drinking or the disrespect of women) and creates a false sense of security. Avoid lacrosse players or entitled rich guys or guys covered in muscles who drink a lot, girls might think, and you’re safe.

The real message to our daughters from the Huguely/Love tragedy out to be instead: avoid sick guys, whose problems manifest themselves in verbally or physically abusive ways. And if you’re not sure whether an angry outburst crosses the line, ask someone you trust. Preferably a parent. Assuming, that is, that your parent is able to recognize and acknowledge out-of-bounds behavior in the first place, which, unfortunately, isn’t always a given.

That’s another message we have to take in from this sad story: mothers (and fathers) have to force themselves to look hard at themselves and their homes and be willing and able to identify and stop sickness there before it gets replicated in the next generation and spreads to other families. Girls need to know what being safe and respected looks and feels like. If their mothers don’t know, they need to push themselves to learn.

There doesn’t appear to have been a whole lot of that sort of self-and-other awareness going on in George Huguely’s home. His father, George Huguely IV, described to a reporter by friends as a barfly, was accused by his ex-wife Marta of physically barging into the family home to reassert his dominion according to divorce court records acquired by Washingtonian magazine. George V, who beat his way through Love’s door before assaulting her on her last night, was a young boy at the time of that incident. On the morning of the murder, his former teammate later testified that George had started drinking while out playing golf with his father and was visibly intoxicated by the time they left the golf course. George later admitted to having at least 15 drinks on the day of the murder.

(MORE: Warner: Family and Work Issues Deferred Yet Again)

In the wake of Love’s death, the Landon School embarked upon an extended period of “self-examination,” the Washington Post reported in 2010. The University of Virginia began a “Are you your sister’s or brother’s keeper?” awareness campaign, and students launched a program aimed at training their peers in recognizing and combating alcohol abuse and relationship violence. These are undoubtedly good things and will, one hopes, raise awareness in such a way that students in the future who see a friend veering down a self-destructive path will speak out to their teachers, coaches and school counselors. But the most meaningful intervention that could have changed the course of the lives of these two particular UVa students would have been for Huguely’s parents to have recognized the pathology making its way down the family line and to have forced their son to seek help while he was still a minor, and they still had the ability to do so.

Unfortunately, even today, few parents, particularly in the privileged and status-obsessed sorts of milieus in which Love and Huguely were raised, are willing to look hard at the ugly problems playing out amidst the hustle-bustle of their everyday family lives. No matter how much our awareness and knowledge of domestic violence and mental illness have evolved in recent decades, it’s still all too common to shrug off verbal abuse as Mommy or Daddy’s “bad mood.” Too easy to dismiss night after night of nonstop drinking as a way to “relax” after a hard work day. Too common still to shrug off unacceptable behavior — red flag sorts of behavior — as boys-will-be-boys hijinks.

Girls are forever, it seems, attracted to boys’ “swagger” and “prankster ways,” as the Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe described the traits that drew Love to Huguely. That’s fine — so long as we adults make sure to draw an immoveable line in the sand between what’s fun and what’s just plain sick.

MORE: When Violence Hits Home