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College Lacrosse's Continuing Diversity Concerns

The New York Times shines a light on college lacrosse's diversity issues.

Rick Stewart

Division I college lacrosse has a diversity concern, not necessarily a pervasive diversity problem. As the game continues to grow across the country -- not just at the highest collegiate level, but lacrosse as a whole (from youth to professional levels) -- lacrosse will start to look more and more like the nation in totem: A complex quilt of diverse backgrounds. In a crowded scene of athletic pursuits (is there a nation that is as athletically diverse as the United States?), the domestic iteration of lacrosse is slowly moving away from its East Coast, predominantly white history to a game that represents a wider swath of the American experience.

That's why the revelation in The New York Times that only 1.9 percent of Division I men's lacrosse players are of African American heritage isn't necessarily a problem. As lacrosse-oriented people -- such as the profiled Kyle Harrison -- continue to bring the game to non-white youth players and fold them into the fabric of lacrosse, the collegiate game's percentage of African American (and any other ancestral heritage) players will grow (hopefully) at the same rate as overall participation in the game. This is more of a function of getting young people to put down their baseball gloves or basketballs or football helmets and pick up a lacrosse stick. Providing playing opportunities for individuals and regions that haven't had the opportunity to play the game in the past is the functional building block to achieving the game's goals. It's initiatives like City Lax that become so important for the growth of lacrosse and the game's diversity; the potential impact of pursuits like City Lax are relevant to the future look of Division I lacrosse. College lacrosse simply hasn't felt the impact of these efforts yet, but it will hopefully come in the near future. The concern is being addressed.

The piece in the Times, however, does note that diversity problems still exist. Lelan Rogers, Syracuse's defensive coordinator, is the focus of an issue that arises not only in lacrosse, but throughout the nation as a whole:

Woodson, who played at Brown from 2002-5, said a racial epithet had been directed at him three times during his collegiate career, once by an opposing player and twice by teammates. He said he chose to tell no one at the time, revealing the instances only in an editorial he wrote for Lacrosse Magazine in December criticizing a viral marketing campaign by a sports equipment company that some felt had racial overtones.

As one of the most prominent black players of the last decade, Woodson said he regularly received e-mails from children, teenagers and parents asking for advice or simply thanking him for being a role model. And though he is always conscious of race as it relates to his sport, Woodson said he was still shocked each time he heard of a new incident in which it played a role.

That was the case when Woodson was made aware of an instance earlier this season in which an assistant coach at Syracuse, Lelan Rogers, used the word “colored” to describe an opposing player.

Drew Jenkins, a junior midfielder for Syracuse who is black, said the defense was going over scouting reports when Rogers used the word. Jenkins said he considered boycotting the next game and asking the two other black players on the roster to join him before ultimately deciding against it. He did, he said, demand an apology from Rogers.

“I didn’t mean it in a derogatory way,” Rogers said. “I made a comment — an inappropriate comment. It was wrong at the time. I apologized there, on the spot. I apologized again to the team later. I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I meant it in a good way. But obviously it came across not in a positive way.”

Syracuse Coach John Desko, who has been a member of the Orange coaching staff since 1980, sat next to Rogers for an interview in Desko’s office. He acknowledged that he was not always sure what was or was not acceptable language when it came to race.

“Sometimes I think you find it confusing if you have to call someone an Afro-American or have to describe somebody,” Desko said. “I am sometimes myself confused on what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

Rogers' comment is unacceptable, not just in the context of the atmosphere that college lacrosse is seeking to develop but in life in general. Epithets that are associated with hate or nonacceptance -- in the context of race, sexual orientation, creed, or any other delineation that seeks to create inequality -- are without the bounds of acceptable behavior. Noting that a player is of African American heritage should not matter -- Desko's comment regarding the appropriateness of describing the background of a player confuses the issue: it should only matter that "Number 12" has specific skill attributes or playing tendencies, not that he is African American or Latino or whatever -- in how any of us go about our business, lacrosse-related or otherwise. It's 2013. Using epithets from the 1950's -- an era wrapped in intolerance and hate -- simply has no place in our society.

Drew Jenkins deserves praise for demanding an apology from his head coach and understanding that comments such as what Rogers uttered are unacceptable in any context. Rogers' immediate apology does indicate a recognition that what he said was unacceptable, but his rationalization for saying what he said makes absolutely no sense and does not absolve him for spouting the epithet. It will be interesting to see how Syracuse's Director of Athletics, Daryl Gross (an African American), deals with this situation.

It's a shame to hear that these kinds of things are still happening in college lacrosse, but it's also heartening to know that players and others will not tolerate these circumstances and are doing something about it. The more we all -- players, coaches, fans, and interested parties -- continue to have discussions about building a culture of acceptance, the easier it is to eradicate incidents like these. The game's health is dependent upon lacrosse embracing an atmosphere that shuns exclusion.