In a Letter to the Editor, two members of the Sewanee women’s lacrosse team discuss inequality in lacrosse.
By Sarah Strand and Sarah Hughes
When we talk about the abundance of racism and inequality in sports, lacrosse is an appropriate place to start.
The racial slanders shouted by fans at the Sewanee men’s lacrosse game this past Saturday has, and could have, occurred at any sporting event. But the targeted hate towards players on Emmanuel’s team serves as a reminder of the racial inequities, socio-economic barriers, and colonialist history of lacrosse.
For all of my teammates, fellow players, coaches, and spectators of this beautiful game, there are a few ugly truths we must remember as we digest this weekends’ events and brainstorm ways to move forward.
Lacrosse is predominately white.
Racial diversity on lacrosse fields is rare. In my entire lacrosse career, spanning ten years, four programs, and countless camps and clinics, I have played for one Black coach, and competed on the same team with only three women of color. Data from the NCAA in 2019 echoes this experience, reporting that 84% of women’s college lacrosse players identified as white, and 3.5% identified as Black. Demographics looked similar for men, with 85.5% white and 4% Black athletes.
The cultural contradiction of non-white lacrosse players leaves athletes of color feeling isolated. Gina Oliver Thomas who retired in 2013, was the last Black women’s player to compete on the US Women’s National team. She expressed to US Lacrosse Magazine this past July, “I had my Black friends and family that were like, ‘You’re white. You play a white sport and you act white.’ Then, you have the other side of it, where you’re around a lot of white people that don’t understand Black culture, so you’re defending that and educating them.” Lacrosse programs are not immune to racial issues, rather they are more vulnerable to them.
Traces of white supremacy can seep through the seams of the lacrosse community. The lack of representation in the sport combined with Sewanee’s taste for derogatory taunts subjected Emmanuel’s non-white lacrosse players to harassment. Lacrosse and all other sports teams need to recognize the repercussions of this language leaving Emmanuel players feeling unsafe, as well as Sewanee community members, and opposing teams. When sports are white-washed, racial intolerance is expected.
Emmanuel’s men’s lacrosse coach Trevor Craven stated, “Emmanuel College Men’s Lacrosse Program is one of the most, if not the most diverse men’s lacrosse programs in the country. We are proud of that and we believe that makes us better.”
The overtly racist slurs shouted on Saturday speak for themselves, and for the covert racism behind closed doors. Taking action at public occurrences of racism helps only when the foundational moments preceding the event are also addressed; something lacrosse as a sport often fails to do.
Lacrosse is a sport of extreme privilege.
Lacrosse is an inherently unwelcoming sport because of the true cost to play.
The initial investments of lacrosse requires a great deal of financial flexibility. A stick alone can range anywhere between $80-250. Additional expenses include: goggles, cleats, mouth guards, and other apparel (none of which are necessarily cheap). Men’s lacrosse also requires the whopping additional essentials of helmets, padding, and gloves.
Most collegiate lacrosse players can also tell you about the plethora of tournaments, camps, and clinics they went to throughout the summers of their youth (starting as early as second grade, continuing through high school). None of those were free— and a lot of them also probably came with the additional annual club team fee, paired with hotel rooms, airfare, rental cars, catered dinners, and massive tailgates. Some parents will even hire college lacrosse counselors, film editors, or private coaches to give their daughters or sons a better chance of making it to a desirable collegiate level (because college is an option).
The compounding costs of playing lacrosse make it the token sport of white privilege. In the vast majority of cases, you can only play if you can afford to pay, pushing it far away from being an equal-opportunity sports environment. By catering towards and operating on a wealthy market, (and hardly ever offering financial aid), the lacrosse industry continues to make itself available only for the few.
Lacrosse is a product of cultural erasure.
One of the most disgusting comments made this past weekend was towards a man of Indigenous descent. Lacrosse was the first widespread sport in North America, serving as a cultural, spiritual, and recreational practice for Indigenous people. Unsurprisingly, the game played today drastically differs from its origins, and has been reappropriated to serve the white man.
Only recently has lacrosse regained popularity past solely wealthy white private schools in the Northeast. Throughout the past 200 years, racial stigma has quelled participation in the sport because of ties to Indigenous history. In recent decades, white institutions took the sport and removed the cultural aspects of gameplay, creating uniformity and rules that made the sport appealing. The new easy rules and fast-paced gameplay made it gain popularity exponentially among wealthy private schools that could afford to build new fields and purchase equipment.
Lacrosse holds a mirror to the history of Indigenous cultural erasure and appropriation in the United States. The horribly devastating effects of colonialism on America’s Indigenous population is historical knowledge that is consistently suppressed. On Saturday, fans made light of a genocide that happened in Sewanee’s own backyard, to a man playing his appropriated stolen native sport.
Historical awareness calls on athletes and spectators alike to respect and appreciate its roots through expanding accessibility to gameplay and treating all who take the field with honor and sportsmanship.
So where do we go from here?
Lacrosse is an uneven playing field because of the hurdles it takes to participate.
The petition made by parents and student athletes a month ago for Sewanee athletic teams to travel ironically states, “The unifying power of Sewanee athletics to bridge the gaps that divide our country in politics, race relations, and many other areas should not be underestimated.” If people want this to be true, people must stop pretending to be colorblind and start educating athletes, coaches, club owners, and parents about how to bridge those gaps.
Sports are a mechanism for character development. They create an environment where you can grow through challenges and difficulties without the trauma of facing these things in a real world setting. Sports arenas should not be a place where players have to face the very real trauma of racial harassment.
Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in America, and should also be the fastest to help athletes become anti-racist. With demographics as rich and white as lacrosse, there comes a certain level of responsibility to recognize the issues that create exclusivity, and subsequently address them through awareness, and training. This begins with Sewanee lacrosse, and must extend nationwide.
If you are looking to support more diverse, inclusive lacrosse programs, please consider donating to Harlem Lacrosse.
Sarah Strand C’21 and Sarah Hughes C’22 are members of the Sewanee women’s lacrosse team.
Edit: This opinion initially misattributed a quote to Sewanee men’s lacrosse coach Nick DiBernadino, which has since been corrected.