Diversity efforts in lacrosse slow to pay off, but it's a start

When Chazz Woodson, a midfielder for Major League Lacrosse's Ohio Machine, stated recently that a racial epithet had been directed at him three times during his collegiate career at Brown, once by an opposing player and twice by teammates, the old myth about lacrosse resurfaced.

There was and still is a perception in some parts of the black community that white players dominate lacrosse because the affluent in the sport limit the opportunities for black and other minorities to play.

Only 1.9 percent of Division I mens' lacrosse players are black.

"People kind of like to brush it under the table and say that kind of thing never happens or there's none of that in this sport," Woodson was quoted in the New York Times about the epithet. "But there is. It's still very much alive."

He is probably correct to some degree, but I don't think it's overwhelming. Nor do I believe there is a conspiracy to keep African-Americans from playing lacrosse. In fact, the only race stopping African-Americans from playing lacrosse are African-Americans.

It's not all about race, but more about exposure. As the sport continues to grow in the African-American community, so will the number of college players. It is basic math, but with a grass root problem.

As young children, African-Americans are more likely to play football or basketball than lacrosse because those sports are more prevalent in black neighborhoods and cheaper to play. Lacrosse is played year round which requires parents to invest in equipment as opposed to football which is played only in the fall and the equipment is provided by most recreation programs and high schools.

By the time they get to high school, lacrosse is foreign, especially playing with a stick.

There are other problems, too.

Athletic directors pour more money into the sports where participation is higher, and lacrosse is often treated as the ugly stepchild in most black high schools. It's not unusual for most coaches to have to walk the halls looking for players to fill out their rosters.

I would know. I coach at New Town, a predominantly black high school in Owings Mills. Players seem more willing to be disciplined by the vice principal than play lacrosse. If we can get 25 players, that's a good year.

Fortunately, more African -Americans are starting to play at a younger age, but it's a long process before they can develop that skill set to play college lacrosse. Compared to 20 years ago, it is still a major improvement with the success of players like Sam Bradman, Rhamel and Shamel Bratton, Maxx Davis, Woodson and Kyle Harrison.

Regardless of the time or year, there is always going to be some sort of racism. Two years ago, one of my former players was called the n-word by a New Jersey player, and told that his "kind shouldn't be playing lacrosse."

I've had situations in other states in summer league tournaments where referees wouldn't acknowledge me as the head coach and would only talk to my assistant. We laughed about it and at one time he used my name. There are idiots everywhere and you're never going to get rid of them all. They exist in every sport, not just lacrosse.

But that's the extreme, not the norm.

There are some changes that need to be made. Coaches at the high school and college level need to give African-American players more time to develop stick skills instead of being so quick to put them on the defensive midfield because of athleticism. Club team executives should charge less and offer more scholarships to those families who are struggling financially.

Some mistake those enormous fees for racism. It's called greed.

But overall, there aren't too many complaints, not nearly as many when Morgan University was putting a competitive team on the field in the 1970s.

I've seen way too many strong efforts put forth to help change the face of lacrosse. I've watched Johns Hopkins officials work with Westinghouse Corporation to form the Baltimore City Middle Schools League in the 1980's, and then watched as hundreds of inner city kids participate in the Charm City Youth Lacrosse clinics on Saturday mornings throughout this spring.

US Lacrosse has also made funds available for programs that were struggling financially if they applied and local college coaches have contributed equipment and other resources in building programs.

Is the sport perfect?

No, but lacrosse has made tremendous strides. You can't always see it on the field, but the best is yet to come. Lacrosse is a sport that had a lot of stereotypes but there is no need to believe some of them anymore.

Perception isn't always reality.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

 

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