On the importance of handshakes

One of my favourite things about the NLL is the handshake line after the game. Fans of the game are always talking about the fact that they do this; it’s something unique about lacrosse and displays the camaraderie and respect among the players. Hell, I think it should be a selling point for the league – the fact that they can battle so hard for 60 minutes and then shake hands with the other team once they’re done should be part and parcel of the whole “weekend warrior” / “for the love of the game” thing. But if some people have their way, this tradition will be a thing of the past.

Last weekend, there were a couple of incidents that happened during the handshakes. In the Toronto/Buffalo game, John Tavares held up the line for half a minute while airing some grievances to the Rock players. It didn’t last long before Shawn Williams went around Tavares and began the handshakes. Tavares followed suit shortly thereafter, and that was the end of it. In that case, nothing really physical happened. In another game, Joel McCready had some strong words for Jeremy Thompson after the handshakes, and that confrontation did get physical. After that game, Buffalo assistant coach (and former Rigger coach – hence the handle) Dave Pym tweeted:

Example of why handshakes after games are not smart. Macready and Thompson getting into it after shake in edm.

I have tremendous respect for Mr. Pym, but I must disagree with him here.

Here’s the perceived problem with the handshakes. You have a bunch of young, competitive, testosterone-filled men who have been battling each other for 60 minutes, in a very physical and rough (some might even say violent) sport. There were probably lots of hits (some legal, some not), lots of penalties, lots of things that one side or the other think should have been penalties, lots of trash talk (some friendly, some not), and maybe even some fights. Half of these guys are excited because they won the game, the other half disappointed because they lost. Then immediately after the game ends, you get those same guys together and have them all shake hands. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? You might think so, but the numbers show that it’s just not.

Problems during the handshake lines are few and far between. I’ve seen a number of games over the years where the handshake line goes awry and turns into the exact opposite of the show of respect it’s intended to be. But really, how often does it happen? A few times a year? Sure it happened twice last weekend (in the same night) but that’s definitely the exception and not the rule – and nothing significant happened in the Buffalo case anyway. In 90+% of the games, the handshake line is the show of respect it’s intended to be, and many a newcomer to a lacrosse game is surprised (and impressed) when they hear that it happens after every game.

If they do decide to get rid of it, how would they announce this? What would the press release look like? What reasons would they give? More importantly, how would the fans and media react? Even if the announcement by the league is innocuous, can’t you just see a news story that starts like this:

National Lacrosse League abandoning handshakes

The National Lacrosse League announced today that the players will no longer shake hands after every game. For more than 25 years, the league’s players have held the traditional handshake line immediately following every game, both during the regular season and the playoffs. But the league has decided that due to incidents of fighting during or following the handshakes, this tradition will be scrapped.

What kind of impression does that give about lacrosse players? I know people who already think lacrosse is a brutally violent game for thugs who like to hit each other with sticks. This is simply going to reinforce that negative stereotype.

Why not point the finger at the real culprits here – the players who can’t keep their emotions in check? I realize that that’s a totally unfair statement. We’ve all had times where we’ve been so angry at someone that the thought of shaking their hand at that moment is repulsive, so I get that sometimes it’s an incredibly hard thing to do. But if that’s the case, walk away. If you don’t think you can hold yourself back enough to get through the handshake line, just head to the dressing room. In extreme cases, the refs may decide that emotions are running high enough that the handshake line is too much of a powderkeg, and they should cancel it for that game. It’s happened in the past, and it’s a perfectly viable solution. But we shouldn’t remove it from every game because a problem might happen in a handful of them.

I think the handshakes are a very important part of the NLL and I would be very disappointed to see them abandoned. During the handshakes in Buffalo, every Rock player and coach hugged Shawn Williams, and they all expressed their thoughts and hopes for a quick recovery for his son Tucker. During that line, none of the Rock players remembered or even cared, just for a few seconds, that they had lost the game. That was a special moment for all fans watching, and especially for Williams and his family. I realize that a lot of the Rock players would likely have done it anyway at the post-game party or some other time, but doing it on the floor right after such a rough game was the quintessential example of the respect these players have for each other, and truly showed that they really are a big family.

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