Note: This article is the result of a collaboration between In Lacrosse We Trust writers Jason Myers and Ryan Conwell
On May 5th, Hampton University announced they will be adding men’s lacrosse as a Division I varsity sport, starting in the 2016 season. This will make them the 71st team to enter the sport at this level, following Cleveland State’s similar announcement earlier this year. There are two things that make Hampton’s announcement different though. The first is they are starting right away in 2016 instead of 2017 like Cleveland State. The other is that Hampton is one of the schools classified as a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). While for many, this may seem like a first, Hampton will not be able to claim that honor.
That distinction goes to Morgan State, an HBCU that cancelled their program after the 1981 season. However, when the team was active it was competitive against some of the top teams in the country. They never won a championship, but they managed some big upsets and are a very memorable team for fans of that era. Today there are multiple schools, like Hampton and Morgan State that are active in the college club lacrosse circuit, but not NCAA. Connor Wilson wrote a fantastic story about how Hampton first began its lacrosse journey, which is definitely worth a read. More than just another lacrosse team though, Hampton brings with it the hope of growing diversity in the sport at one of the highest, most visible levels.
When talking about diversity, there are some questions that need to be asked. In the grand scheme of things does it matter if the participants of a sport are ethnically diverse? What does diversity add to the equation? Without getting too existential, one could argue that there is an inherent value in interacting with people of different ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic compositions, to name just a few categories for diversity. At the same time, lack of diversity isn’t necessarily bad, but just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. There are also practical examples of why increasing diversity can and will benefit the sport of lacrosse.
The lack of diversity in lacrosse has led to the sport being stereotyped widely in the national media. No, we’re not just talking about Stiffler from American Pie. Of all his hijinks, marring the sport of lacrosse’s reputation is not one of them. Much more damaging are things like the sexual assault allegations at Duke in 2006, the George Huguely murder of Yeardley Love at UVA, and the time Marquette’s Charley Gargano was tripping on LSD and attacked a police officer. Major cases aside,there is also the seemingly never ending list of minor offenses recorded on nights and weekends near campuses where the news reports end with “is also a member of the [insert school name] lacrosse team”.
These are some of the most notable lowlights, but there are general perceptions about the sport that also work against diversity. Jovan Miller, currently playing for the Ohio Machine in the MLL noted that the idea that lacrosse is “a ‘white sport’ for private school kids” is just as much of a barrier for minorities as is the belief that “all [that] lacrosse players do is party.” Similarly the first barrier proffered by Chazz Woodson, a standout attackman at Brown University and in MLL, is “the perception of the game as a sport for White people and people of privilege.”
Unfortunately, the available data does little to combat the second barrier Miller points out. College lacrosse players outpace most other major collegiate sports in drug use, notably alcohol and cocaine. Let’s just say that if you search Deadspin for “lacrosse” it’s pretty much a given that most of the results are not flattering. For those already playing lacrosse these racial and behavioral stereotypes create a stigma. When the only thing external parties hear about lacrosse on a regular basis are negative it hurts the sport as a whole.
In order to combat these negative stereotypes everyone in the lacrosse community needs to work together to build a positive representation of the sport. This needs to include major equipment manufacturer Warrior, a company that has made questionable marketing decisions in the past, and continues to objectify women in its advertising instead of marketing to them.
Cultivating the “lax bro” culture at the expense of a deluded idea of machismo hurts the sport. This begs the question as to why Warrior endorsed athletes actively participate in this type of detrimental advertising; the “Cross The Line” ad with Josh Hawkins comes immediately to mind, as well as Warrior’s attack of Title IX on Twitter in 2014. The two Evo glove commercials running this year are even worse. Heck, a Colorado State University graduate student wrote an entire masters thesis on Warrior’s sexist advertising – in 2007 titled “Pimps in the Suburbs.” How a major equipment manufacturer continues these practices in 2015 is mind-boggling. Name a company that promotes their products this way in any of the other major American sports. Perhaps even more glaring is the silence of Paul Rabil, who is the face of the sport writ large. Sure, no one wants to bite the hand that feeds, but there is more honor in standing up to these ill-conceived messages than turning a blind eye to them and allowing negative stereotypes to persist about the sport as a whole. Compare Warrior’s tactics with Brine’s “Earn It” spot; an ad that depicts both men and women in a positive manner or Maverick’s “The Future is Here” ad focusing on what growing lacrosse looks like.
Most people reading this article are aware of the issues that the sport of lacrosse faces, so there is no need to belabor the point further, but suffice it to say there is plenty of room for improvement. Miller noted that “changing your image doesn’t happen overnight but the first step in the right direction is admitting that we’re not perfect and that we do have some glaring issues that we must correct for the betterment of the sport.” This is why the Hampton announcement is such a big deal.
Lacrosse is one of the most exciting and interesting sports on the planet. It’s a no-brainer that people of all backgrounds would be interested in the sport. “Once kids are given the chance to experience lacrosse they usually fall in love with it,” says Woodson. Hampton adding men’s lacrosse provides a very real and accessible route for under-represented groups to play lacrosse at the highest level. While Hampton is a HBCU, Miller hopes that “black, white, green or yellow lacrosse players want to go to Hampton because they like the school and not the fact that it’s an HBCU.” He adds, “it would be cool to see a team 50/50 instead of a few blacks or whites, but hopefully … the program puts its efforts into [being] a successful option for high school prospects.”
The most recent data from the NCAA about student-athlete ethnic composition cover the period 2000-2010. These data are broken into two charts because the NCAA changed the way they categorized ethnicity after the 2006-2007 academic year. Nevertheless, looking at the trend in ethnic diversity in the first decade of the twenty-first century leaves something to be desired. Whether it’s the total percentage of non-white participants, or the actual estimated number of players the story is the same. “While we still see more black legs and faces at camps and tournaments, it still hasn’t translated to a larger population of the sport. I’d venture to say that the case can be made for other races and ethnicities as well,” says Woodson. Both metrics show a relatively flat line in terms of growth. The primary exception at the Division 1 level appears to be with international players, most of whom likely come from Canada. It’s worth noting that when the NCAA altered the way they counted students, and added an option for individuals to identify as multi-racial, the estimated number of participants at that level increased as well.
It seems the ability to say that lacrosse is predominantly a lilywhite sport has improved from an ethnic point of view in the past few years. But without corroborating data it is impossible to state definitively. A 2013 New York Times piece by Michael Cohen suggested that despite the sport’s growth, player diversity has failed to keep pace. Even the Thompson Trio, one of, if not the most electric offensive units to ever play the game are on record saying that they experienced racism while playing. Unfortunately, US Lacrosse’s 2014 participation survey does not include ethnic data, although it might be included in the future according to US Lacrosse’s Corey McLaughlin.
It’s somewhat interesting then, that the current “faces of the game,” at least at the college level this past season, are Lyle Thompson, a Native American, and Myles Jones, an African-American. What is undeniable is that this title is well-deserved for these two players. But even then, Dr. Fred Opie, former player for both Syracuse University and Team USA adds, “It cracks me up when I listen to interviews with Lyle Thompson and here’s a guy that comes from the heritage of the game and everyone’s perception is that this is a rich, white boy’s game, and unless you change that, it will be difficult to make greater inroads in diversity.”
How then, to cultivate the talent of a diverse section of the population? Some sports have greater barriers to entry than others. Lacrosse continues to be the fastest growing team sport in terms of youth participation in the country (despite recent concerns about that growth slowing). Whereas sports like basketball and soccer require little more than an inflatable sphere to get started with the sport, lacrosse parents and players must spend hundreds of dollars before even stepping on the field. Even when opting for the cheapest starter stick on the rack, getting out of the store with a dent in your bank account south of $300 is a Herculean feat.
Miller points out that the cost of equipment is not a new barrier, but the fact that it continues to be one is an issue. “We have multi-million dollar lacrosse companies flourishing right now, they need to be willing to give away equipment [to] the less fortun[at]e so that … kids interested in learning about the sport at least have the tools to learn. If it wasn’t for ‘Play it Again Sports,’ I never would’ve been able to start playing the game due to the price of all of the equipment,” he said.
“I think the club/travel/select team scene and tournament circuit are entry barriers because many of them cost ridiculous amounts of money. Tryout fees, equipment fees, hotel and travel fees, meals,” are all things that can price out families, says Woodson. Plus all of these expenses add up over time, so it should be of little surprise that the sport is dominated by those who have the disposable income to afford them.
Lyle Thompson is often brought up as an example of how playing on a team at young age isn’t a requirement for greatness. It is mentioned how he didn’t play organized lacrosse right away. What makes Thompson different is that he grew up playing unorganized lacrosse in a culture where it is a central part of life. It is not just an activity to stave off boredom, but a way of honoring the Creator. For others outside of this culture, playing in the backyard is a great option, but this view overlooks the fact that many at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum simply don’t have yards. These kids don’t always have a safe place to practice and develop the fundamental skills necessary to excel at lacrosse.
Woodson further hypothesized that “the biggest change in diversity would not be along racial or ethnic lines, but along the lines of geography; and subsequently maybe socio-economics.”
To this point, more and more people and organizations are recognizing the value of lacrosse as a team sport. It seems that the number of programs targeting diverse, and often urban populations are on the rise. US Lacrosse recently released a great video addressing the work Charm City Lacrosse is doing in Baltimore. Opie sits on the board of MetroLacrosse in Boston where he notes they just recently hired an African-American as CEO, Aaron Jones, who was a star player for Cornell. Another outstanding organization is Woodson’s Sankofa Lacrosse Alliance, which was created to help build and strengthen the network of black players, coaches, and fans.
This is where Hampton adding lacrosse becomes even more important. As these programs continue to develop, the Pirates (what a great mascot by the way) can tap into these pipeline programs all around the country and provide the type of sporting and scholastic experience that these youth want.
On the field, Hampton will have some growing pains. The great news though is that those growing pains do not have to be crippling or severe. “I don’t think they’d need to see immediate success any more than any other program, and I think that to put that expectation on the program would be setting it up for failure,” says Woodson.
Recent additions to the Division I landscape include Richmond, High Point, Michigan, Marquette, and UMass-Lowell. Richmond won a conference title and a spot in the NCAA tournament in their first year. High Point did it in their third and almost upset an established Towson team in 2015. Marquette, in just their third season, spent most of the season in 2015 ranked in the top 20, and was a major threat in a competitive Big East conference.
Michigan is a team that may provide an example of what is in store for Hampton. Like the Wolverines, Hampton intends to essentially bump their club team up to the Division I ranks, coach and all. While many players may not be ready for that jump (which is considerable), it can bring some immediate benefits in terms of team chemistry and help to establish an identity. Opie also likes the comparison to Michigan, but largely for academic reasons. “I think that people understand that there’s a paradigm. You got a great school, you’re going to have a great program. I think that’s the paradigm.” He continued, “What I think people in the lacrosse community don’t know about a school like Hampton is when it comes to HBCUs like Hampton, Howard University, Morehouse College…these schools, by African Americans, traditionally have been looked at as the Ivy League of HBCUs.”
What does hurt them is that they are starting as an independent, meaning that putting a schedule together their first year will be more of a challenge without built-in opponents that come with a conference affiliation. The lack of an automatic qualifier hurts too, but given Hampton’s geographic location the team would be a good fit for the Southern Conference. Given the competitiveness of the NCAA tournament field now, the strength of schedule and record of an independent school has to be undeniable in the eyes of the selection committee. This means you are asking a brand new team to build a top ten program from scratch.
In many ways, success for Hampton will mean success for the sport lacrosse. It also brings into question if other HBCUs will add men’s lacrosse in the wake of Hampton’s decision.
“If Hampton is successful (by whatever the measuring stick is), I would be surprised if we didn’t see one or two schools add lacrosse. Howard, for example, already has a women’s program. They’ve had a men’s club program for a long time, it’s in a lacrosse rich area, and also only 3 1/2 or 4 hours from Hampton. Plus you’ve got ‘The real HU’ rivalry thing working there. So that would be my guess as to which HBCU would go next,” Woodson opined.
“Other HBCU’s who are rivals of Hampton, such as Howard, will look to add programs in hope to beat them in another sport,” commented Miller. Opie added “I think the same way you see competition among Big Ten schools to put lacrosse online, I think you’ll see the same thing among HBCUs. Particularly those that are in great locations.”
There is plenty of support to grow lacrosse around the country and around the world, but there is always room for more. Realistically, without schools like Hampton joining the NCAA and finding success, the expansive and sustained growth those involved with the sport want to see will be stunted or even stopped. Lacrosse is often pegged as a niche sport, and while that was true for a long time, its expansion beyond the East Coast strongholds makes it more than that now, at least in terms of geography. However, there is a real danger of remaining a niche sport in terms of the socio-economic composition of its participants. To do so would deprive current and potential players and their families a wonderful sporting experience. Hampton’s addition of lacrosse is a major corrective step in this process and one that everyone in the lacrosse community should welcome with open arms.