Are the outliers “in?”
History was made in March when African-American swimmers finished first, second and third in a single event in the women’s Division I NCAA championship.
For a long time, when it came to African Americans and sports, it was a safe bet to follow the money. The trail ended at what it cost to play. Or what one could get paid for playing.
That’s one reason black and brown faces are so prominent in football and basketball. Besides being the most popular traditionally, these sports offer the most full-ride scholarships in college and the quickest road to riches in the pros.
But outliers are on the come-up, found in “action sports” such as motocross, skateboarding and Rollerblading; country club sports such as golf and tennis; and Olympic sports including speed skating (Shani Davis) and gymnastics (Gabby Douglas).
Don’t be surprised as another contender enters into view like a thoroughbred charging from behind to close ground on the leaders. This newest contender for black athletes was created by Native Americans and is considered this continent’s oldest sport: lacrosse.
According to a survey by governing body US Lacrosse, 99 colleges added varsity programs between 2013 and 2014. Participants in lacrosse nationally have tripled to more than 770,000 over the past 14 years, and 55 percent of players are under age 15. What’s more, the sport is moving past its traditional base on the East Coast: The University of Denver last weekend became the first school west of the Appalachians to win the Division I men’s title.
“The growth is faster than I thought it was going to be,” coach Bill Tierney told reporters. He led Princeton to six national titles before taking the job at Denver in 2009.
“It’s out there,” he continued. “There’s tons of teams playing great lacrosse.”
There aren’t a ton of black players … yet. The biggest wave is a few years away.
But the ones on the field currently are hard to miss for reasons other than their color. Especially Duke University junior Myles Jones, who has been compared to the game’s greatest of all time, NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown.
“[Jones] is a lot like him,” said Roy Simmons Jr., the former legendary Syracuse coach who played with Brown at the school. “This kid could be really special.”
A native of Huntington, N.Y., Jones was a first-team All-American this season and won the national award given to the top midfielder. He set the Duke record for career points by a midfielder and has a season left to pad it. At 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds, he’s an imposing physical specimen, more common on football fields and basketball courts.
But he picked up a lacrosse stick in the sixth grade and shortly thereafter was named to the Suffolk County All-League team each year in high school. A public high school, not one of those exclusive private institutions that produce the typical lacrosse player.
Jones and Duke failed at their attempt to three-peat as national champions. But Denver featured an African-American star of its own in freshman sensation Trevor Baptiste, a former junior Olympic swimmer from Danville, N.J., who has evolved into lacrosse’s foremost face-off specialist.
“I haven’t seen any freshman come in and be so dominant,” Inside Lacrosse Editor-in-Chief Terry Foy told Sports Illustrated. “What he’s doing is historic.”
Baptiste led the nation in face-off win percentage, set the regular-season record for face-offs won by a freshman and played a key role in helping Denver take the title game against Maryland (which has a pair of African-American players in Isaiah Davis-Allen and James Bull).
Other black players have experienced success previously, including Sam Bradman, Rhamel and Shamel Bratton, Maxx Davis, Chazz Woodson and Kyle Harrison. And the Morgan State Bears will always hold a special place in history for shaking up the establishment from 1970 to 1980. It’s been a slow process, but lacrosse is further along than it was 20 years ago, and promises to take a bigger leap over the next decade, as youngsters at the grassroots level begin to mature.
Unlike football and basketball players, who enjoy robust support through their scholastic programs, lacrosse players rely primarily on club teams. Imagine if high school hoops stars only had the Amateur Athletic Union. As more schools and youth organizations offer lacrosse in African-American communities—for girls, too—the sport’s governing body tries to spur them along.
In October 2013, US Lacrosse hired Eboni Preston-Laurent as senior manager of diversity and inclusion to help broaden minority participation. She began playing in sixth grade and later became a star at St. Bonaventure, winning Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2008.
US Lacrosse has a number of programs to support diversity, including grants, coaching fellowships and strategic partnerships. “I’m excited that I can now help open doors for others,” Preston-Laurent told Lacrosse Magazine.
The doorway is unlikely to be as wide and inviting as football and basketball. But it provides another entrance to sports for black youths, who very well could become similarly dominant performers within a generation.