Long-awaited move toward diversity draws cheers, ESPN

For The Baltimore Sun
Hopefully, more historically black universities will look to add lacrosse in the future.

It's been 35 years since the "Ten Bears" at Morgan State took the lacrosse world by storm. In four of five years between 1970 and 1975, they were ranked in the Top 20. The "Ten Bears" upset highly ranked Washington and Lee University during the 1975 regular season. Six years later, Morgan State cut its program.

Since that time, lacrosse has grown from the Carolinas to Florida to Texas and west into California and up the coast to Oregon and Washington state. But this explosion hasn't been matched by diversity. A 2010 NCAA study reported that just 1.9 percent of Division I lacrosse players were black and that fewer than 10 percent were nonwhite.

Hampton has added a Division I men's varsity lacrosse team beginning in 2016. The first game is Saturday against Division II Roberts Wesleyan. Located in southeastern Virginia, Hampton is a historically black university with a student population close to 5,000. The Pirates compete in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, and the athletic department offers 14 varsity sports.

ESPN SportsCenter will broadcast live from Hampton's campus Saturday.

"In order for this great game to take off, there's got to be a continuous dialogue about how best to make this game accessible and appealing to the largest audience possible," Chazz Woodson, a former collegiate star at Brown and in Major League Lacrosse, wrote in a Lacrosse Magazine piece in 2012. "Anything short of that makes lacrosse simply a glorified social club, with membership requirements that some people will inherently never meet, and that others will choose not to buy into."

That's the problem. Lacrosse is stunted because of the membership requirements. It favors those with money.

The game has shifted from a high school-based sport to being club-centric. Club programs come with a hefty price tag. They have too often replaced cheaper recreational programs, and players are being recruited out of summer tournaments, not in-school games during the spring.

It can cost more than $300 to fully outfit a youth player, and that doesn't include shorts, sweats, T-shirts, a mouthpiece, a ball, cleats and socks. The financial barrier to play can be overwhelming. Then add in the yearly expense of club lacrosse, travel teams, camps and showcase events — not to mention the cost of private instruction. Chasing the dream costs a family thousands of dollars a year.

Meanwhile, terrific work is being done in Boston, New York, Denver, Miami and right here in Baltimore by organizations determined that the game should be made available to all young athletes.

Charm City Lacrosse is 8 years old. This spring the program will teach and instruct 500 boys and girls in Baltimore. According to executive director Artie Spruill West, the operating budget is $300,000 and includes scholarships to summer camps, field trips to games on college campuses, practices and game costs. Charm City is supported by volunteers and through contributions from corporate donors.

Spruill West attended Howard on a lacrosse scholarship. "My dream was to go to Howard," she said. "I didn't realize they had a lacrosse team at first."

I asked her how Hampton would influence the boys at Charm City.

"It's very exciting," Spruill West said. "Hampton can have an immediate impact because the men's game is growing quickly. Former African-American players like Chazz Woodson, Damien Davis, Johnny Christmas, Jovan Miller, Kyle Harrison and Drew Jenkins have laid the foundation. Our kids benefit from seeing the images of Myles Jones at Duke and Hampton players taking the field together."

The Pirates can become heroes and role models. Young kids will look at the television and say, "I want to be like him someday. That can be me."

Who is Myles Jones? He's a midfielder from Duke. He's African-American. His eye-catching ability combined with his infectious personality is what the sport desperately needs. Kids flock to him postgame and on social media.

On the field, Hampton may struggle for years. Even a fifth-year program like Michigan is 0-22 against Top 20 competition. But the Wolverines have provided a national boost by bringing more resources to the sport, and the school was instrumental in the formation of a Big Ten lacrosse conference.

Richmond, Furman, Marquette, High Point and Boston University have also added varsity teams within the last five years. Richmond made the NCAA tournament in 2014 and High Point last spring. They're all gaining steam — but it's not easy to climb the rankings. While new schools spread the footprint to the Midwest and the South, they don't transform the demographic like Hampton can.

Hampton's closest opponent is Richmond, 85 miles to the northwest. The two schools scrimmaged in late January. The Pirates' abbreviated schedule features just six games. Hampton competes as an independent. Will the Pirates persuade other historically black colleges and universities to consider adding lacrosse? I sure hope so.

"Will Hampton's administration support lacrosse so that it survives?" asks Spruill West. "Will they invest the time, resources and money to make it work?"

Right now the Pirates have team members who didn't play high-level lacrosse in high school. It's one thing to initiate a team. It's another to be committed to winning. Time and patience will be essential.

Wins and losses won't be the storyline Saturday. Let's celebrate this team, its entrepreneurial spirit and its inclusion for what it represents for the future. It's been 35 years since the "Ten Bears" at Morgan State, and very little has changed. Improving diversity must be addressed.

Hampton is a catalyst. While the Pirates won't radically transform the landscape of the game overnight, they will be a destination and finish line for African-American youngsters who are cradling a stick and ball. Hampton gives them a vision, a dream and a purpose. It's time to advance the dialogue of diversity.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.

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