Work In Progress: 'Lift As You Climb'
A roundtable discussion on diversity in lacrosse
Ninety percent of people who play, coach, officiate and administer lacrosse are white, according to US Lacrosse membership data. That disparity continues in the college ranks. In 2009-10, less than 10 percent of student-athletes playing NCAA lacrosse were people of color, according to the most recent NCAA Student-Athlete Race/Ethnicity Report.
Compare those numbers to the national population — 72.4 percent white, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data — and it's clear there's work to do. How do we make lacrosse look more like America?
Lacrosse Magazine rounded up eight stakeholders involved in a larger effort to diversify the game. Here's what they said.
Let's start with an easy one. How did you get into lacrosse? Who put a stick in your hands?
Owner, Step Up Lacrosse;
Assistant coach, Jacksonville University; US Lacrosse board member; former All-Patriot League player at Army; Chief development officer, Wounded Warrior Project
Head coach, University of California-Berkeley; US Lacrosse board member; former goalie, NCAA champion at Virginia
Head coach, Team Mexico; US Lacrosse board member; played at Army; coached at Division II, high school and MCLA levels
Head coach, Winthrop University; Head coach, Haudenosaunee Nation; started women's lacrosse at Adrian College; led Bulldogs to 2010 NCAA tournament
President and CEO, MetroLacrosse; former Hamilton All-American is school's all-time scoring leader
Assistant coach, University of Virginia; Three-time All-American at Army ranks second on school's all-time scoring list
LXM Pro Tour player; Founder, Dade Lacrosse; played in the MLL and was an All-Ivy League attackman at Brown
CHAZZ WOODSON: My father put a stick in my hand very early on. He played at Middlebury – he was actually a football player there – and then he was in the Air Force and stationed in California. He played club ball out there. That's where I was born, so right away I had a stick.
ADAM SILVA: I was kids in the neighborhood playing with a lacrosse stick, and I wasn't going to continue playing baseball. I loved what I saw.
EMILY HELM: I'm one of four girls and I have older sisters who are constantly competing with each other, so I wanted to be like them.
JENNY COLLINS: My high school coach came to our school at the right time. Her name was Jami Wilus. She was a U.S. team player. She saw athletic potential, got me to leave field hockey and start playing lacrosse. I never looked back.
JOHN WALKER: My cousin [Randy Fraser] got me into it. He played forever. He's an assistant coach for the Boston Blazers, even though they just folded, and my uncle was a a high school coach for 40 years on Long Island. So I grew up, from a baby, having a stick in the crib.
JOHN SUNG: I went to church one day, and there were some guys playing lacrosse. I just wanted to figure out what it was. Next thing you know, I've got a lacrosse stick.
GINGER MILES: I actually discovered lacrosse in ninth grade. I played soccer my whole life, and when soccer season ended, all my soccer counterparts convinced me to come out for the lacrosse team. I fell in love with it from that point forward. I didn't know what it was until ninth grade.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: I grew up in Chapel Hill in the early '80s, and my dad worked at Carolina. His window overlooked the field, and I'd watch the team practice sometimes from his office. But there wasn't any lacrosse at the youth or high school level in those days. Then I wet to boarding school in Connecticut where I played soccer and basketball. By chance, my dorm head was a high school coaching legend, James "Grim" Wilson. He came up to me one day in the form and asked if I played a spring sport, and I said no. He handed me a Brine Magnum, gave me a ball and said, "Take this home over Christmas and find yourself a wall and you'll figure it out." The rest, as they say, is history.
Talk about role models and mentors. How important is it for kids to see people who look like them playing or coaching the game?
ADAM SILVA: I wore the number 4 in college because in my high school days, I saw a guy named Brian Jackson playing defense for the University of Maryland. He happens to be African-American. And while I couldn't relate ethnically to the guy out on the field, what I saw was a guy who played the game the way I thought it should be played. So my role model happened to be an African-American player at the University of Maryland in the mid- to late-80s, when there was even less diversity than there is today.
JOHN WALKER: I remember watching the Baltimore Thunder, and Ricky Sowell was the leader of that team. I admired how the guy played the game. I got an autographed ball from him when I was little, and I cherish that. Actually being able to coach against him now, I told him that story. It's pretty funny – this guy that you looked up to, now he's kind of one of your peers now. It's just an interesting thing to have a guy you can relate to and that looks like you, but also in the end, a guy who plays the game how you admired it.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: I didn't have any Hispanic players of African American players on my high school team. I don't want to give the guy a bigger head than he's already got, but my first role model in that capacity was Adam. He was a year ahead of me [at Army]. We both played defense, and right away he was a guy I looked up to. He was really the first guy I could identify with, who was similar to me culturally.
What is it like when you're the only person of color on the field?
JENNY COLLINS: I've managed to make it through 23 years playing all different sports, not just lacrosse. But I've never had another woman of color on a team with me, ever, until this past year. You managed to make it through that many years of sport and collegiate competition, and you don't have anybody else that looks like you? I actually did my graduate work and my thesis on black female athletes in collegiate athletics. I interviewed 17 women, and the interesting thing was that everyone had the same kind of experience. They always kind of felt singled out, or lonely, or distant.
EMILY HELM: As a white woman who's leading an organization like MetroLacrosse, we set out to specifically create an environment where kids are not the only people of color on their teams. At our summer Bounce Camp, we had 200 kids from 10 different cities around the country. More than 90 percent were kids of color. You look out across the fields, and an entire camp of 200 kids is more than 90 percent kids of color. That feeling of belonging that brings to them as lacrosse players, and the power that gives them as lacrosse players, is a really exciting and compelling thing. that I think is really going to form the next generation of the game and I’m really excited to see all that roll out across the country.
CHAZZ WOODSON: Kids are jumping into this sport simply because they see a person of color doing it— kids that resisted doing it until they saw me. I've had a lot of people tell me, "I've showed your video to so-and-so, and now he's hooked." And there's a place for that. There's a need for that, to see other people like them playing. I was a freshman in high school and we went to play a game where there's a street that ran by this field. We're up in the middle of nowhere, and these two guys just happened to drive by. You could hear them half a mile down the road, blasting their music. And there are three black guys on our team. All of a sudden, they stop, roll down the window, and look out the car. And they're like, "Y'all should be on the basketball court. What are y'all doing out here?" For me, it was the first time another black person looked at me crazy. And these were adults. And it was just...they had never seen another black person playing lacrosse.
And for me, I didn’t see that many black people playing lacrosse, probably like most of the people on this call growing up. When I was little, it was a weird comment to me, and now at this point, when I hear stuff like that, to me, it means I’m doing something right. I’m representing the game.
ADAM SILVA: Whether it's those two guys in the car, or whether it's some kid from the football team who's never been exposed to the game, people make those kinds of statements from a position of ignorance, because they just don't know anything about this sport. That becomes a deterrent. for a kid who’s otherwise is pretty interested in playing the game of lacrosse.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: You have to be careful of stereotyping kids on the field when they show up. You get an African-American kid on the field, and you think, "Oh that kid must be fast," or, "That kid must be a great athlete," or "That kid must play d-middie." You see a lot of coaches pigeonholing kids culturally, weirdly based on the sport that they play. Hispanic kids, you see that a lot. They go, "Kid must have a soccer background. He's probably a little soft, but he's probably got great feet." People tend to do that all the time with minorities. They tend to, when they bring them in, they tend to pigeonhole them based upon that culture. And I’ve seen that a lot out here, where coaches will do stuff like that, and I think that’s something that coaches have to be careful of.
What are the barriers to entry? Why do so few minority athletes choose to play lacrosse?
ADAM SILVA: I’ve been exposed now for the last four or five years in Florida, not only to the high school lacrosse scene and a little bit now with college, but also an organization here called Lighthouse Lacrosse which specifically focuses on the inner city, the underserved and the underprivileged and as a result is helping a ton of kids in inner city Jacksonville. Looking at the club side of the house, it seems like we've gone down the same path that several of the older sports have gone down, where unless mom and dad are in a position to drop two or three thousand dollars for a summer, you may not be able to play on a very high level. Normally the rec programs are pretty affordable. But the club side of the house is just...it's daunting.
Even when you do have disposable income, the numbers and the costs are staggering. And then when you couple that with the better athletes looking at the sport, how much it costs, and then maybe still be able to focus on football or basketball, where there are fully funded programs at the Division I level, you kinda get into a return on investment standpoint and you say “Hell, I’m not going to get a full scholarship anyway, and as a parent why should I spend all this money for a sport that may not pay off financially?” I think those are all the wrong reasons to look at a sport, but I think that’s the reality that we’re looking at financially. It’s an expensive sport to play. It’s like hockey and baseball.
JOHN WALKER: A lot of kids are at a disadvantage with the way that recruiting has moved. Especially at the Division I level, you're looking at kids at a younger age. If they don't have this disposable income to get those looks... the first crack at a lot of this early recruiting happens to be the upper class. There are 60 Division I teams. So there are maybe 600 spots at the Division I level. If you're not one of those guys we're seeing right away, we can't make a decision on you. That puts a kid at a disadvantage to start. Most of these kids of color are not even getting into the game until...even eighth grade might be too late now, when you’re thinking about a rising ninth grader and a rising sophomore. By the time he gets to the stage where he’s getting recruited, he’s probably not at the skill level where he needs to be, just because he wasn’t exposed to the game at an early enough age. That’s usually a function of them just not having those opportunities early on, to get a stick in their hands. I think all these programs that we’ve discussed, that’s where they answer is, as far as getting them involved and getting them to the next level. You just have to get them involved in at an early age, so they’re caught up to that high curve of being able to catch some of those kids who have every opportunity in front of them financially.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: John hit the nail exactly on the head. I have a bunch of minority players on my team, but all of them started playing lacrosse as ninth graders. None of them can afford club.
EMILY HELM: From my perspective, it’s a little different. We’re obviously working from the bottom, to try to fill the pipeline with as many youth players as we can. In the Boston area, we're working with about 700 kids, all from urban cities in this area. The barriers for participation for a program like ours are different. What we deal with are basic things like transportation — the ability to even get to the playing facility. That's the main one. The second one is the accessibility and availability of safe playing surfaces — fields, gyms. And the third barrier is cultural, especially for girls. Many of them have responsibilities within their families that don't allow them to play on a regular basis in an athletic program.
JENNY COLLINS: The hardest thing for me is equating being of color to being underprivileged and underserved. Lacrosse is fairly new in terms of growing programs, and it's a very exclusive community. It's hard to break into that. You need to be able to look at lacrosse, and understand that there are people like you in the game. When you see a team where nobody looks like you, why would you want to put your kid in that position as a parent? I get that a lot.There are parents that can afford to put their kids in lacrosse, and they want them to play sports, but they put them in basketball because the coach might be a black woman, and the players are also girls that look like their daughter, and they want them to have that experience. At the youth level, that's something that parents take into consideration.
JOHN SUNG: My parents were first-generation Korean immigrants. They'd never even heard of lacrosse. Now that I'm a head coach, they still have no clue what I do. I think the reality for a kid like me is you don't start until you're in high school. When you get there, you might be the only Asian person. Your parents don't understand -- why do I need to spend all this money? Even if they have the money, they just don't get it. They see some of the other kids playing soccer, and they understand that. My parents didn't understand why I needed to go to lacrosse camp. I'm from Michigan, too, so why would I need to go to Baltimore or New York? They just couldn't get that. They were like, "Oh, you could just go to basketball camp down the street at the high school. And I don't have to drive you."
What can we do to move the needle to make the lacrosse world look like what America looks like?
GINGER MILES: US Lacrosse is working hard and doing a good job of publicizing some of those role models. I remember coming up and hearing about Cherie Greer at Virginia. And for me, it could have been a myth. I'd never seen her play. Fortunately, we're in the age of Internet and now I can dig up some old articles and things like that. It's just making sure that we're getting the history out there and making some of these role models more accessible to younger kids who are just starting to pick up sticks — so they have people to look to and say, "Well, they did it." I know when I was considering Virginia, that was one of the things that kept pushing me along. I was like, “Cherie Greer did it!” I wish I had been able to read more stories and see her. Still, to this day, I’ve seen a couple of YouTube clips that are pretty grainy, but I’ve never seen her play.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: When I go to my high school football team and do my recruiting pitch, I use YouTube videos of Chazz and Kyle Harrison. I put them up with a mixture of other videos and say, "Look, this isn't a white kid sport. This is a sport for athletes. If you're a great athlete, this is the sport for you..." I think one of the biggest things for us is going to be the  world championships in Denver, when people can see players truly from other cultures playing the sport all in the same place, all in America. The American players on these teams who are Hispanic, playing with native Mexicans or native Argentineans — the international piece of that event — will be a big deal for us.
ADAM SILVA: One of the challenges is if we look at diversity and only get kids of color to play together, or kids of a certain background to play together, we're really not diversifying the game.
JOHN WALKER: US Lacrosse can help in supporting things like MetroLacrosse. But when these kids get older, get them to a level where they can play on the good club teams. If they're playing early enough, then they can mix in with some of the elite white players. They get on those teams, immersed in that culture, and it becomes more acceptable. This guy can just play. He's not just the black guy on the team or the great black lacrosse player. He is a great lacrosse player, and that's it.
And that’s all that will matter once these kids are coming up together, and they’re all rising at the same place. Everyone’s an equal then. It’s not a separate entity. It’s not just this one group here, and you have the rich guys over here and the poor kids over here. If you can bring these two groups together in some way. I think immersing them in the game early and having people and organizations that will support getting those guys involved in those more elite club teams. But they need the financial support to get there and that’s the only way it’s going to happen.
JENNY COLLINS: Being an athlete of color, it's kind of like you're the problem and the solution at the same time. It's a problem because you're trying to combat this issue of "how do we diversify lacrosse," and you're the solution because people look to you to make a difference. The people who are currently playing the game, like it is in a lot of movements towards equality, those are the people who have to bring up others. You have to lift as you climb.
You’re mentoring young kids. You’re the people really trying to get involved and stay involved in the sport. Know that you kind of have a special place in the game right now. Lacrosse is growing so much, and it’s necessary that you’re making that effort to reach out to people like you, and to be there for them in a way like you might not have had people there for you.
EMILY HELM: Racial and ethnic diversity doesn't also equal socioeconomic diversity. About 20 percent of the kids in our program are urban white kids who have the same or less financial resources as some of the kids of color in our program. Just adding color doesn't always solve the socioeconomic issue.
CHAZZ WOODSON: There aren’t enough people who are exposing enough of these kids to the game. A lot of these kids don’t know anything about lacrosse. They’ve never seen lacrosse. We ran a program this summer, an inner city program down here in Miami. And this is literally the first time any of these kids had ever seen a stick, where 10 miles up the road is a whole lacrosse community in Miami.
And another part of that is so much in lacrosse right now revolves around making money. Every kid that comes out of college thinks he can run a camp, so everybody's jumping in to make a quick buck. And there are not enough qualified people... actually going back into these communities and trying to do that work for them.
Do minority women and girls face an additional barrier to entry to lacrosse?
EMILY HELM: The major barrier we face is just sort of a cultural aversion to sports — to getting sweaty, to having their hair wet in the rain. There are really important cultural things to be aware of when working with girls in the communities that MetroLacrosse operates in.
JENNY COLLINS: Race, class and gender are this triple burden that black female athletes will face. Cultural issues like hair actually do play a large part in how you navigate sport. How do you handle your hair? What kind of hairstyles can you have? What things are acceptable as being female, and how do you then navigate issues of sexuality and gender? One of the women that I interviewed had an urban high school team in New Jersey. It was all black girls. They showed up for a game, and every girl had a bonnet on her head. It was supposed to rain, they all had their hair done, they were trying to navigate the best way they knew how, and they got laughed at by the other team the entire game.
JOHN SUNG: Coaching the Haudenosaunee team, there are definitely some tribes that do not acknowledge women's lacrosse. That's a huge cultural barrier for them. It's still frowned upon. The den mothers are against it. They don't think women should be playing the sport. When we tried our team that we took to the Czech Republic, some of our best players couldn't go because they were pregnant. In one month, we had six players get pregnant — in one month. But that's what they were supposed to do. They have a whole culture issue up there where lacrosse is viewed as a medicine game, and the women shouldn't be playing it. They're trying to change that culture.
How do you start conversations about diversity with people who either don't want to hear it or don't know what to do about it?
ADAM SILVA: Are they really committed to diversity? And for what reason? I've heard a lot of reasons for diversity – make the game better, get more sticks in hands. At the end of the day, it's just the right thing to do. And if you’re a coach who’s looking for diversity or you’re an administrator looking for diversity because you need to put more kids in dorm rooms or because you need to check a box somewhere, I don't know if that's the right way to start. I think you've got to go about it from the standpoint that it's morally and ethically the right thing to do. It's good for humanity, not just good for lacrosse.
GINGER MILES: I think for the growth of the game, the ‘why’ question is really important. I think, like Adam was say or a lot of folks, it is to check the box or to fill some sort of quota. But I think the first step is acknowledging that it is an issue. The homogeneity of the sport is an issue. And I think sharking some of these stories of some of the trailblazers on this call have been through, and how much of a challenge it is for people of color to jump into this sport where most everybody doesn't really look like you. I think sharing the stories of how emotionally challenging it can be is one of the first steps.
JENNY COLLINS: I totally agree with Ginger. I've never seen an article like this in Lacrosse Magazine, Inside Lacrosse or any publication having to do with the sport, specifically geared toward addressing this diversity issue. Once you begin that discussion, people actually start looking at these issues.
What can lacrosse learn from other sports or organizations about handling diversity issues?
EMILY HELM: I think it’s all the things that others on the call have alluded to. It’s an unapologetic charge forward commitment on the part of everyone who’s involved with the organization. From the people on the ground, our staff members, our founders, our donors. Everybody just has a huge level of commitment to making it succeed. So if anyone of us at any time said, “Eh, I’m kinda out. I’ve had enough. This is too hard,” – which it is, every day – then we wouldn’t be successful. But the perseverance – it doesn’t take a genius to discover these are all things we’ve all learned through sports and through lacrosse.
ADAM SILVA: I’ll throw this one to you. It’s going to sound kind of bizarre. I think the greatest example of diversity that I’ve ever heard of or seen has nothing to do with sports. It’s the United States military. If you look back on the history of the military they certainly went through some major problems, not handling the topic well, but quite frankly were trailblazers in many ways. One of the great things about being in the Army was that it was colorblind. The only color that mattered was green. We were all in it.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: I'd agree with what Adam said. I mean, that's one of the first things they teach you when you show up there. I mean, we all have nightmares about showing up and them taking away all our clothes and our personal identities and becoming cadets. Everything is based on merit. I think Adam hit it right on the head. I don't know what the draw is to the academy, but I look at the team that Adam and I played on and it was probably one of the more diverse top 10 college programs at the time. I think there were three or four guys of Hispanic descent, I think two guys of African-American decent. Having six guys on the team, those days the rosters being 30, was probably a pretty high percentage.
JOHN WALKER: As coaches, you're probably as myopic as it gets, in that you don't really see colors. You just have to get those kids, and once they're on your team, treat them all the same. It's about empathy and respect. If you push them hard, they're all going through these things together. That's what we learned in the Army.
It was hard, and there were difficult times when you’re going through your basic training at West Point., and you all get through that stuff together, it really doesn’t matter what color you are, because you all achieved something greater, for the greater good, something bigger than yourself. And you did that together. You’re with these people and it doesn’t matter what your background is. And I think coaches can do a good job of creating that environment amongst their teams. And I think that’s where the answer is. If those coaches can, for one, have a diverse team, which is a challenge in and of itself. But once you start coaching these kids and treating them all the same, which I think the majority of them do, and treat them with empathy and respect, and teach them to respect each other, that’s only going to bleed over into their lives, and that’s going to leak over into their communities, and that helps us as a culture.
GINGER MILES: I was an admission counselor for the University of Virginia for two years. It's a public university in a state that historically has had race issues. One of my primary focuses there was helping diversify the University of Virginia. One of the great things the [admissions] department did was openly admit that we didn't have a proportionate amount of minority students [compared] to the population of the state, and it was going to take extra work to get that right. It may mean finding students that haven't had the same opportunities as their counterparts from the more affluent, more Caucasian part of the state. It meant going out of our traditional comfort zones in terms of recruiting. It meant branching out into new areas. The first step was admitting it, and everybody openly accepting it.
JENNY COLLINS: One thing that wasn’t really addressed is that a lot of this stuff starts with coaches but it also has to do with administrations when it comes to collegiate athletics. You need initiatives and you need it to start somewhere. It is hard, I think, for coaches to just start with just themselves. You need it to be something the administration wants.
CARLOS TRUJILLO: We have to stop thinking of diversity as the East Side Aztecs, or the kids from Hunters Point in San Francisco, and start assimilating kids from those cultures into "regular" club programs. We've got to find ways to get these kids playing together, and not just against each other.
A version of this article appeared in the November issue of Lacrosse Magazine, as part of LM's "Work in Progress" diversity package that also included features on Navy coach Rick Sowell and the Howard University women's team. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 350,000-plus members today to start your monthly subscription.
comments powered by Disqus