The Creator’s Game. From its inception to now lacrosse has changed drastically. But at its core, it has been and will always be a game of the Native Americans. Different regions’ tribes had different nuances to the game, but modern lacrosse is an adaptation of the Mohawk style of play.
Despite its Indiginous roots, modern lacrosse is a notoriously white sport. When you think of lacrosse you think of Vineyard Vines, you think of private schools, you think of affluence. If you’re familiar with 2006 Duke lacrosse, you might think of lacrosse and lacrosse players with a bit of disdain, regardless of their later confirmed innocence. You don’t think of the native creators, you don’t think of BIPOCs and kids from impoverished communities playing the game.
And as much as it pains me to say, most of the general assumptions about lacrosse are correct. As of 2018, only 18% of Division I men’s lacrosse players are men of color. Out of 68 Division I programs, 64 head coaches are white men and out of the 174 assistant coaches, 163 are white men as well. In both cases, only 2 are black men. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Tewaaraton Award, the highest individual honor in collegiate lacrosse, had its first non-white winner. According to Sports Market Analytics, kids from families with a median household income of $75,000+ make up 65.9% of participants in the sport.
It’s not a situation lacrosse players themselves are oblivious to. Growing up in Jacksonville Beach, I acknowledge my friends and I (for the most part) are economically and racially privileged compared to kids who lived and went to school in town. I played lacrosse for three years in high school, and I had a roster spot when I entered my freshman year at Jacksonville University. In my three years of playing on both school and club teams, I never had a single teammate that was black. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of minority teammates I had, and honestly probably have fingers to spare. When the underfunded, predominantly black schools got lacrosse teams, we often spent our games teaching them how to play. I can remember refereeing a game between Fleming Island and Lee where I spent more time explaining penalties and rules to the Lee girls than looking for the penalties. Lee’s team was later disbanded after their coach quit in the middle of the season.
People within the sport, myself included, preach “growing the game”. I coach with the first girls’ youth lacrosse program in Jacksonville Beach, a step toward creating a solid feeder program in an effort to finally go toe-to-toe with the richer teams in Saint Johns County that typically dominate well into the Florida High School Athletic Association playoffs. We have little babies on our elementary school teams and rising seniors on our high school team. I’m so proud of how Duval Lacrosse has grown over the last three years. But even still, we don’t have a single black player on any of our teams. We barely have any POCs at all. And it’s by no means something I’m proud of.
When we say “grow the game”, we should mean across racial and economic lines. When we say “grow the game”, we should seek to reach everyone, not just everywhere. Programs like Harlem Lacrosse seek to bridge this gap.
Harlem Lacrosse was founded in 2008. The program takes a holistic approach to creating better students and getting at-risk youth to college through lacrosse. What started as a team of 10 kids has grown to take roots in 17 program sites across New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. 92% of their students identify as African-American, Hispanic, or multiracial, and 45% speak a language other than English at home. 96% of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Today, Harlem Lacrosse kids have a 100% on-time middle school graduation rate and pass classes at a rate 20% higher than their peers, even going on to prestigious universities such as the United States Military Academy and the University of Virginia.
Programs like Harlem Lacrosse will be the bedrock of making the game accessible to minority and impoverished communities. It’s how kids who usually wouldn’t be able to get their hands on equipment or pay for travel teams will break into a sport that was never meant to be affluent white peoples’ to gatekeep. And it’s programs like Harlem Lacrosse that deserve recognition and exposure above big programs like SweetLax or Maryland United.
I love lacrosse. It’s a sport that taught me more about life and about myself than the other eight I grew up playing combined. I’ll spend as long as I can trying to give back to the game that gave me so much. But I’d be remiss, especially in our current climate, if I didn’t do my best to give back to not only the game’s origins, but its areas that lack attention in general as well. I want to spend whatever sort of journalistic career making sure I give just as much attention to minorities and women of the game as I do to the big names and PLL coverage. And I want to start with Harlem Lacrosse.