The dream (or fantasy) of black lacrosse
Participation is booming, diversity is static
Hope rarely arrives neatly packaged. On the morning of Feb. 13, it appeared as the Hampton Pirates lacrosse team, a motley crew of misfits, cast-offs and neophytes. But when they took the field against the Roberts Wesleyan Redhawks, Hampton became the first historically black college to field a Division I lacrosse team in more than 30 years.
Hampton had zero recruits. It was a team of part-time players and kids who didn’t have much business playing on a D-1 level, a modern-day version of Cool Runnings.
Roberts Wesleyan beat Hampton 20-3, but the score was irrelevant. SportsCenter wasn’t going live for the pregame because it expected a nail-biter. Lacrosse Magazine didn’t put the Pirates on its cover because it was an elite program. This was about optics and otherness.
In 2016, an athletic team composed entirely of African-Americans rarely generates more than a shrug. Precedents in other sports have long been set. But for lacrosse, the scene at Hampton was jarring. This team had a black coach and a black marching band playing in the stands while black fans roared through the biting winter cold. In lacrosse, this was almost unprecedented.
Drew Jenkins grew up in affluent Montclair, New Jersey. Jenkins dreamed of playing for Syracuse, but not because he grew up watching quarterback Donovan McNabb or wanted to follow in New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony’s footsteps. Jenkins wanted to play lacrosse for the Orange, a program as successful as Kentucky Wildcats basketball or Ohio State football. It is the alma mater of Jim Brown. Yes, that Jim Brown — perhaps the greatest running back of all time and widely considered the greatest player to pick up a lacrosse stick.
Jenkins’ dream came true in 2011 when he suited up for Syracuse as a freshman. But looking back, he now calls much of his four years at Syracuse a “nightmare.”
“In practice I’d sometimes just literally sit by myself or go into drills by myself and not really talk to anybody,” said Jenkins. “Those days f—— sucked, to be quite honest.”
He describes uncomfortable moments, such as sitting in passive silence as his teammates rapped the N-word to songs they played over the speakers.
“One of the songs they loved to listen to was by YG, it’s called ‘My N—-’ and they would blast that in the locker room before games,” he said. “I didn’t want to make something of it before a game where everybody’s focused and in their groove, so I just put on my headphones and did my own thing.”
(Two white teammates of Jenkins’ agreed to be interviewed for this story and declined to go on the record when asked about the music played in the locker room.)
There’s a cruel sort of pain when one has to combat something that stings with, at best, acquiescence and, at worst, silence. Because Jenkins popped those headphones on and said nothing, it is him and not his teammates who harbors some regret, if not resentment.
“There were a lot of times where I felt like I should have said something, but didn’t,” he said. “I kick myself in the butt all the time for this, because I think about it a lot. It’s like, when you do speak up, you’re the angry black man. And when you don’t, you get walked over.”
By his junior season, Jenkins was considering a boycott after assistant coach Leland Rogers referred to an opposing player as “colored” and didn’t apologize in what Jenkins deemed a sufficient and prompt manner.
In a New York Times article that year documenting the sports’ diversity problem even as participating was growing overall, Rogers explained his usage of the derogatory term: “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I meant it in a good way. But obviously it came across not in a positive way.”
Rogers’ confusion fit right in line with his boss, head coach John Desko.
“Sometimes I think you find it confusing if you have to call someone an Afro-American or have to describe somebody,” Desko said then. “I am sometimes myself confused on what is appropriate and what isn’t.”
Such tone-deafness is the product of operating in bubble. College lacrosse has remained lily-white as the country has gotten browner.
Of the 2,618 players in Division I men’s lacrosse in the 2014-2015 season, just 88 are black, 57 are Hispanic and 19 are Asian, according to demographics provided on the NCAA’s website. A comparison with the 2007-2008 numbers reveals minimal progress. There were 2,308 Division I men’s lacrosse players in that study, with just 46 black players, 32 Hispanics and 16 Asians.
“Somehow, some people are very satisfied with the way the sport is today in its predominant form,” said Dartmouth professor and historian Bruce Nelson. “I think it’s fair to say that they see the sport as their possession.”
That’s a jarring outcome for a sport that has Native American origins. It was played throughout parts of Canada, the Great Lakes region and the mid-Atlantic seaboard long before European settlers arrived, a game associated with war, played by warriors. European missionaries began playing the game midway through the 1600s. A full embrace came toward the end of the 19th century and the establishment of the U.S. National Amateur Lacrosse Association in 1879. The first tournament was held in 1881. Harvard beat Princeton 3-0 in the championship.
When Jovan Miller played lacrosse at Syracuse, he was good enough to garner All-American status twice — the first African-American to earn the honor at the university since Jim Brown.
By 2012, Miller was playing for the Charlotte Hounds, one of eight teams in Major League Lacrosse. The MLL featured just three black players at the time. In October 2012, after the season had ended, Miller found out on Twitter about the hashtag “Ninjaplease,” a slogan being used by Warrior, MLL’s biggest sponsor and the maker of most of Miller’s gear.
A goalie at St. Andrew’s University tweeted Miller asking if he should be offended by the slogan. Miller replied simply: “Be offended.”
— Jovan Miller (@JoviNation23) October 26, 2012
Miller was infuriated. He threatened to retire from the MLL. Less than a month later, Warrior relented and pulled “Ninja, please” completely, along with an apology. It didn’t matter.
Said Miller in 2012 to Lacrosse Magazine: “I feel like I’m not supposed to fit in here,” he said. “What is acceptable? Look at lacrosse right now. Do I have long floppy hair? No I don’t. Do I [put] lacrosse pinnies on my futon? No I don’t. Do I wear mid-calves with boat shoes? No I don’t. That’s what’s acceptable.”
An MLL All-Star in 2012, Miller’s career fell off the tracks in 2013. He played in just 5 of 14 games. He was told not to dress for games.
Miller was traded at the end of the season and didn’t play at all in 2014. He went to study sports management at Loughborough University in Great Britain and was floored when he was picked in the MLL’s supplemental draft in 2015. Miller currently plays for the Florida Launch of the MLL and said the ordeal has left him frustrated. He said he doesn’t share a lot of information with people because of the questions he gets hit with.
“Anytime we bring up something like being a black lacrosse player, it comes with ‘Well, why does it matter if he’s black or white?’ But that’s coming from a lot of people who have never been a minority on a team.”
For years, lacrosse branded itself as the fastest growing sport in America, and like any burgeoning movement, this one also had a slogan: “Grow The Game.”
Enthusiasts and real-deal participants were concentrated in the mid-Atlantic, Long Island and central New York for a long time. But gradually the sport extended its wingspan.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, from 2009 to 2014, 551 schools added boys’ programs and 556 schools added girls’ programs. That resulted in a growth rate of 27.8 percent for boys’ lacrosse and 31.2 percent for girls’ lacrosse. No other sport had a growth rate above 10 percent. A 2015 study found lacrosse to be the fastest growing NCAA sport during the last 15 years. Men’s lacrosse grew 95 percent from 2000-2015. In that span, 147 schools across all NCAA divisions added lacrosse as a varsity sport. In Division I men’s lacrosse, this decade has seen Notre Dame emerge as a perennial national power. Denver and Ohio have blossomed into hotbeds. Marquette and Michigan launched Division I programs and 2015 gave birth to Big Ten lacrosse.
Cleveland State begins play as a D-1 program next spring. And while the Northeast and mid-Atlantic continue to supply the D-1 ranks, programs have unearthed elite talent from Florida, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, California, Washington and Colorado. In 2012, Peter Baum, an Oregon native, won the Tewaaraton Award, the Heisman Trophy of college lacrosse.
In so many ways, lacrosse has “grown the game.” Cartographically, lacrosse has never been better represented. But demographically? It’s still failing.
It was a chilly day in Hampton, Virginia, and Pirates coach Lloyd Carter, sitting in front of live ESPN cameras, was asked how he felt.
“There’s only one word — ‘blessed,’ ” he said, turning to an amped gathering of fans. “I can say a million words, but it all comes back to, ‘blessed.’ ”
Decades ago, Carter was a varsity lacrosse player for Morgan State, the last HBCU to field an NCAA-level lacrosse team before Hampton (Morgan State competed in Division II, but regularly played Division I schools). Morgan’s Bears were legit. Players such as Dave Raymond, Joe Fowlkes and Wayne Jackson played at elite levels. The program was an ideal landing spot for black players ignored by programs that fielded what seemed to be exclusively white players.
Carter was a member of one of the last iterations of the Morgan squads. After college, he spent his career moving up the ranks of the Baltimore City Fire Department. Then, a little more than five years ago, he received a call from Verina Crawford. Her son, Michael, had been trying to organize a club-level lacrosse team at Hampton to demonstrate the school was about “embracing change.” Michael Crawford was a multisport participant all his life and wanted to bring the sport that Jim Brown once dominated to his campus. He died of cardiac arrest months later at age 21.
Verina Crawford told Carter about the movement to execute her son’s mission to create a lacrosse team and about how he’d have to make four-hour round-trips. He said he was driven by giving young black men the opportunity to play a sport he loved.
“I had a goalie who had played one year of high school. To me that means, he probably was on the team [but] rarely got in the game and probably hardly [played in] practice, but he was our star goalie,” said Carter.
Where will Hampton’s ambition lead? Will the idea of playing on an HBCU lacrosse team lead to more participation in communities lacrosse wishes to expand into? Can it transcend the current boundaries of race and class?
Said Carter: “My players are trying to see it [the importance of the history], but they really won’t see it until 10, 15 years later.”
Memorial Day weekend is unquestionably the sport’s biggest stage. It’s NCAA championship weekend in Philadelphia (Maryland, Brown, North Carolina and Loyola make up the field). It is, however, far from a showcase for diversity. Of the 175 players who call themselves Terrapins, Bears, Tar Heels, and Greyhounds, only seven are black. North Carolina doesn’t have a single black player on its roster.
There are, however, grassroots efforts to “grow the game.” Harlem Lacrosse, designed to teach the game in low-income and urban areas, operates eight programs in New York City and Baltimore, serving more than 340 boys and girls. They plan to expand to Boston this fall and to Philadelphia in 2017.
Brooklyn Lacrosse holds similar aspirations. It aims to make lacrosse “accessible to all children, despite the various barriers of entry that exist in urban areas such as cost, perception, and logistics.”
Similar organizations such as Blax Lax (Baltimore), Charm City Lax (Baltimore), City Lax (Denver) and OWLS (Chicago) have the same goals. The sport’s governing body, US Lacrosse, advises many of these organizations under the umbrella of the Urban Lacrosse Association.
But Hampton is where the biggest hopes reside.
“The day that Hampton makes the NCAA tournament will be one of the biggest days college lacrosse will see,” said ESPN lacrosse analyst Paul Carcaterra.
ESPN’s lead lacrosse analyst Quint Kessenich said that moment would transcend the sport.
“It would be the equivalent to Texas Western in 1966 in men’s college basketball.”
However, that dream is far in the distance. For now, the journey to diversify the game is only a few steps from genesis. But for the first time in a long time, there’s hope that the sojourn won’t be lonely.