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Jay-Z called lacrosse "soft." The research literature disagrees

Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Drake laughing together in simpler times.
Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Drake laughing together in simpler times.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Nearly 14 years after taking aim at Nas and Mobb Deep in "Takeover," Jay-Z is beefing again:

While his verse on DJ Khaled's "They Don't Love You No More" (which comes in at around 2:55 in the video above) doesn't call out its target by name, it's clear that he's talking about Drake, who's been accusing Jay-Z of elitism of late. Drake alleged that Jay-Z "can't drop bars these days without at least four art references" and joked that Jay-Z was "somewhere eating a fondue plate" while Drake was watching an NBA game between the Toronto Raptors (his home team) and the Brooklyn Nets (Jay-Z's home team, which he used to partially own). Slate's Dee Lockett has a good rundown of the exchange to date.

Jay-Z took Drake's fondue dig and raised him a lacrosse reference:

Haters wanna ball, let me tighten up my draw string

Wrong sport, boy, you know you're as soft as a Lacrosse team

Major League Lacrosse did NOT take kindly to the insinuation, responding first on Twitter:

And then in a statement to MTV:

Lacrosse is often called the fastest sport on two feet. Players are on the field dodging and shooting balls at over 100 miles per hour.…With that said we don’t think Jay-Z knows what he’s talking about when he calls Lacrosse "soft." I can guarantee you it is anything but a "soft" sport…Mr. Carter would not last one minute on a lacrosse field during a match and he is more than welcome to come to any of our games and try.

Obviously, this misses the point to a certain extent. Jay-Z could be talking about the actual physical effort entailed by lacrosse, but it's more likely he's alluding to the fact that lacrosse is a sport overwhelmingly played by rich white people and, in the process, drawing attention to the fact that Drake grew up middle-class in a rich white part of Toronto while Jay-Z grew up in a housing project in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

A whopping 91.4 percent of male lacrosse players and 90.6 percent of female players in the 2009-2010 season were white and non-Hispanic. Only 2.2 and 2.4 percent, respectively, were black; the percentages are similar if you only look at Division I teams. Data on its athletes' economic backgrounds is harder to come by, but its reputation as a sport for elites doesn't come out of nowhere. It's a feeder sport for bankers, of all professions, with Businessweek's Paul Wachter reporting that Wall Street has "lacrosse mafia" of traders who played the game in college. As stereotypes go, "lacrosse is for rich white people" is pretty empirically supported. Hell, the whole sport was stolen from Native Americans, which is a pretty white guy thing to do.

But let's take Jay-Z's line literally for a second. Is it actually true, as Major League Lacrosse claims, that lacrosse is, as sports go, pretty hard? Are its athletes as fit, on average, as athletes in other sports? Do they have equally strong muscles, or equally impressive aerobic capacities?

As it turns out, yes, they do.  In 2012, Lindenwood University's Aaron Michael Randolph wrote a helpful recap of physiological research on the sport and concluded that "men's lacrosse athletes possess similar physiological characteristics and must meet similar demands as athletes in other sports, such as football, basketball, wrestling, ice hockey, soccer, and track (sprinting); additionally, female lacrosse athletes possess similar physiological characteristics and must meet similar demands as women's basketball, soccer, and track athletes."

A 1998 study by Physiotherapy Associates' Michelle Steinhagen, the University of Houston's Michael Meyers, Kansas State University's Howard Erickson and Larry Noble, and the Army Physical Fitness Institute's Melanie Richardson found that the aerobic ability of male college lacrosse players was comparable to that of college basketball players and professional football offensive linemen and quarterbacks, and higher than baseball players and football defensive lineman. Looking at anaerobic abilities (which includes power, strength, etc.) lax players outpaced elite soccer and rugby players, though fell short compared to Olympic ice hockey players.

Same goes for women. A 2009 study from Illinois Wesleyan University's Emily Enemark-Miller, the University of Idaho's Jeff Seegmiller, and Ohio University's Sharon Rana, looking at female players, found that their overall fitness level was comparable to female basketball, soccer, and track athletes.

So while lacrosse may be — and almost certainly is — "soft" as a socioeconomic matter, the evidence suggests that, on the level of physiological demandingness, it's at least as hard as basketball or football, and arguably harder than baseball. So yeah, Drake may be a little soft, but if he is, it's not because of the physiological demands of a sport which he never played.

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