African American Athletes Gaining in Lacrosse
By Paul Hirsch
In 1953 the Brooklyn Dodgers made history by starting five players of African descent (Americans Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jim Gilliam, plus Cuban Sandy Amoros). It was the first time that more than half the starting players on a major league baseball team were Black.
Last year a similar moment took place in collegiate lacrosse when the Baltimore Sun reported that Virginia fielded a midfield made up of all African American athletes for about 30 seconds in the third quarter until Rhamel Bratton scored a goal and the lines were changed.
Drew Pannell and Ryland Huyghue are both founding members of the International Diversity Lacrosse Council (IDLC). According to the Sun, the IDLC, founded in 2007, provides services and programs that impact inner city and other under-served communities.
“There is major significance here,” Huyghue told the Sun. “The fact is that there are less than two percent of African American athletes playing the sport of lacrosse. It shows the sport has no color boundaries and that anyone of any background can play the sport and play it well. It also shows that the coach is looking at them as athletes whom he has confidence in to get the job done. What happened on the field that Saturday was a major advancement in the sport of lacrosse.”
When many Americans think of lacrosse their minds flash back to the Duke lacrosse rape case which ended in the charges dropped against the accused players and severe penalties against the local prosecutor for misconduct. In this case, the alleged victim was African American, the accused were Caucasian, and there was one African American athlete on the team.
At the height of the coverage, Duke African American athlete and lacrosse player Devon Sherwood stepped forward and told ABC News that his White teammates were being stereotyped and were victims of reverse discrimination. Sherwood also said that members of the Black community in Durham accused him of selling-out the race because of his Duke scholarship and his position in the traditionally White sport. “It’s terrible to find yourself being stereotyped,” Sherwood told ABC News, “regardless of who you are.”
Major League Lacrosse claims that African American athlete participation in the sport is growing. Former All Star Goalie Bill Daye, an African American who had to retire because of a neck injury, is bullish on the progress he has seen.
“I think it’s great for lacrosse that more African American players are involved and it has made the game more diverse,” Daye said. “When I began playing I was one of the few Black athletes involved and sometimes I took some heat for it because it was thought of as a sport in which only White athletes participated.
“I simply fell in love with the game as I’m sure other African American players have. For that sole reason it should not matter what color your skin is but how you perform when you step on the field.” Daye particularly cited John Christmas, Damien Davis and Kyle Harrison as examples of what African American athletes can accomplish as prejudices and barriers fall and more opportunity is realized. “I hope they will pave the road for more Black lacrosse players to follow,” he said.
“Lacrosse has never had a platform like the NBA, NFL, or Major League Baseball,” said Joshua Christian, Managing Director of Sports Development at US Lacrosse. “Lacrosse doesn’t have those iconic figures like Michael Jordan. The general public just hasn’t been exposed to it. There are no identifiable heroes.”
In fact, the biggest lacrosse figure is better know for playing football, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown. Brown was a two-time lacrosse All-American at Syracuse University from 1954 to 1957. Brown is considered by many to be the greatest ever to play the game and was inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 1983.
As lacrosse raises its profile and African American athletes emerge as stars, African American participation will grow. As has been proven for more than 60 years, the need to win and the rewards that follow will trump any need to exclude.
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.