2013-07-17 / Front Page

U.S. Lacrosse attempts to be more inclusive

Officials seek to lure minorities
By Jim McConnell

More than 250 girls’ lacrosse teams participated in a showcase tournament at River City Sportsplex last month. At least that many are expected for a similar tournament this weekend. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer More than 250 girls’ lacrosse teams participated in a showcase tournament at River City Sportsplex last month. At least that many are expected for a similar tournament this weekend. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Like golf and tennis before it, lacrosse is trying to shed its image as the exclusive domain of affluent white men.

In the absence of a superstar like Tiger Woods or Serena Williams to lead the push for diversity, the sport’s national governing body formed a task force to explore avenues to increase participation among underrepresented groups.

As the sport continues to increase in popularity, some worry the game is becoming too exclusive. There are high barriers to entry – equipment is expensive, as are the coaching and training resources – and lacrosse has long been viewed as the province of elite, eastern universities and Ivy League schools.

Laura Hebert, chair of the U.S. Lacrosse executive board, noted that its First Stick program has helped to establish more than 1,000 new lacrosse programs that “provide playing opportunities for kids of every socioeconomic demographic across the country.” It’s part of U.S. Lacrosse’s 2013-15 strategic plan: strengthening access and opportunity for all.

That’s something Paul Ralph and the Midlothian-based Richmond Shock lacrosse club have been doing for the better part of the last decade.

Through its “No Child Left Behind” program, the club has established a fund to help children overcome financial barriers and participate in lacrosse.

Families whose children are eligible for free school lunch or breakfast can qualify for “No Child Left Behind.” So can families who have experienced a significant loss of income due to illness or incurred unusual expenses because of an emergency (fire, storm, etc.).

The club waives team fees and provides loaner equipment for use by participants in the program – saving families hundreds of dollars in the process.

“I’d do anything to help kids,” said Ralph, a New York native who has lived in Chesterfield since 1988. “I don’t have a halo on and I don’t have all the answers, but as long as I have money in a checking account, I’m not going to tell a kid he can’t play.”

Money long has been one of the most significant impediments to growing lacrosse beyond its roots in eastern elite prep schools and small private colleges.

According to Jay Coakley, professor emeritus of sociology and sport at the University of Colorado and co-author of the widely distributed textbook “Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies,” the growing popularity of lacrosse is tied to issues of social class in America because “the families of lacrosse players are much more likely to have above average income and wealth.”

The sport‘s evolution, Coakley said, is reflected in the increased presence of young women on lacrosse fields across the nation.

“Women have been making an entrance into lacrosse partly because there are so many daughters of wealthy people playing the sport,” he added. “They want their daughters to have the same opportunities of their sons, and they’ve got the resources to do it.”

Last month, more than 250 girls’ lacrosse teams paid $1,500 apiece to participate in the Champions Cup at River City Sportsplex.

Beginning Friday, 250 more teams will play in the Capital Cup, another tournament hosted by the International Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association, at the athletic complex located on Genito Road.

Between the two showcase tournaments, approximately 20,000 girls who play lacrosse will travel to Chesterfield from as far away as California for the opportunity to impress college coaches and earn coveted scholarship dollars.

“We’re very fortunate to have these tournaments in Chesterfield County,” said county resident DeVoe Reagan, whose daughter, Casey, will play in the Capital Cup. “You can’t underestimate how important showcase events are to girls who want to play in college.”

While women are playing lacrosse in unprecedented numbers these days, that’s not the case for minorities. The most recent NCAA figures show that less than 2 percent of all Division I men’s lacrosse players are black.

“If we expect lacrosse to become the 100 percent inclusive sport that we all purport that it should be, then the manner in which we handle race, among other things, needs to be part of that discussion,” said Chazz Woodson, a midfielder for the Ohio Machine of Major League Lacrosse and one of America’s best-known black players, in an article on the U.S. Lacrosse website.

In the aftermath of the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape scandal, Coakley was invited to speak to a national lacrosse convention in Philadelphia. His message – that the sport desperately needed diversity – wasn’t well received. “When I gave my presentation, probably about 100 white men walked out,” Coakley recalled.

He offered up slides of photos culled from college websites, which showed a preponderance of white men playing the game. “I was accused on local talk radio of pushing political correctness and not understanding what lacrosse is all about,” he said.

While his club helps any children who express an interest in playing lacrosse, Ralph said some people place too much emphasis on having certain numbers of various demographic groups represented in the sport.

The reality, he said, is that other sports remain far more popular than lacrosse in the black community.

“Our philosophy is to give all kids the best opportunity to succeed as players and people,” Ralph said. “I don’t care what a kid looks like. Tell me somebody isn’t being allowed to play and I’ll have a huge problem with that.

“But I don’t see a lot of black athletes switching to lacrosse,” he added. “If they’re that good, there will be many more scholarship opportunities available in football and basketball.”

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