LaxCon 2021 Recap: X Out Racism Panel

The concept that everyone can contribute to creating a more welcoming culture in lacrosse was the main focal point of the “X Out Racism” panel discussion, presented as part of LaxCon 2021. The panelists stressed the need for collaboration and teamwork to bring forth impactful change as lacrosse moves actively to offering inclusivity to all.

“If there’s a way that we can make this better and positively impact our game going forward, I think we all feel obligated to do so,” said John Tillman, men’s head coach at Maryland. “I think there’s so much that we can all do at every level. We can remove the obstacles, and we can do it together.”

For Tillman, the shaping of an inclusive team culture starts well before players arrive on campus.

“At our level, it starts with the recruiting process,” he said. “We explain to them that this is what we value, and this is what we are. At Maryland, I think the kids in our locker room realize that what makes us different really does make it great, and I think that’s something that we all can learn.” 

Jamie Asaka, a girls’ high school and club team coach in Seattle, noted that it’s important to have open and honest conversations. As an Asian-American, she grew up without seeing many people in the game who looked like her. Now working in partnership with one of her coaching colleagues, she is quite intentional in her efforts to change that situation.

“Having a peer that identifies similarly to me has been a game changer in my life,” Asaka said. “She and I created a club team together, and I think we draw players to us because there’s an understanding that we’ve had shared experiences. We know that there’s an under-representation in our sport (of Asian Americans), and we have mentored players through that in the past. Talking openly about our identities has made for some great connections.”

PLL player Jules Heningburg, a founding member of the Black Lacrosse Alliance, grew up as a minority player in New Jersey, and referenced some of his own motivation in becoming an outstanding lacrosse player. 

“Once I noticed I was on the outside looking in, I had to do what I could to fit in,” he said. “I had to make sure I was exceptional on the field so that I wasn’t an outlier. That’s what drove me from a young age.

“There’s been a lot of obstacles for me and for teammates in this sport that I hope the next generation won’t ever have to go through, and they can enjoy the game for what it is. I just want to be able to leave the game a better place than when I first started playing in second grade.”

The panelists stressed that coaches can help to establish an inclusive team culture by setting the proper tone for the players. Tillman expressed the importance of coaches being out in front on the issue of inclusivity, and in helping to overcome the pratfall of pre-conceived notions.

“We all notice, when we first meet somebody, a difference, whether its color, size, or whatever it may be,” Tillman said. “I think the important part is not making some sort of judgement, or having an impression, just because of the way they look. The emphasis should be on character, work ethic, and what somebody is bringing to the team. That creates a very accepting environment, one where you are judged more on what you are doing for others more so than what you look like.”

The panelists noted that a conscious effort and willingness to provide and receive education across all age levels is part of the solution. 

Kali Bills is the women’s head coach at Elmhurst (Ill.) College and also serves as a US Lacrosse Sankofa clinician. Growing up as a youth and high school player in Scottsdale, Arizona, Bills cited the lack of diversity in her own lacrosse experience. It wasn’t until her third year as a college club player-coach at Northern Arizona University that she encountered a teammate of color. 

“I learned a lot from her,” Bills said. “She opened up to me and that’s when I knew this was important and this was real. We knew we needed to invite more players of color and of different backgrounds to experience the game.

“Being a part of Sankofa has been a growth opportunity for me. It’s been so different from where I had grown up and what I had been exposed to. The opportunity to serve young children who have never had experience with the game has been such a blessing.”

Session moderator Jeremy Ardrey is the executive director of Nation United Foundation, an organization committed to promoting health and wellness by actively supporting greater participation in the sport of lacrosse across ethnic, socio-economic and geographic boundaries.

He shared one of the mottos of his organization, which highlighted the importance of collaboration in bringing far-reaching changes. 

“If you want to go somewhere fast, go it alone; if you want to go far, do it together. Today is about togetherness. We want the impact of this work to go far.”

The panelists had strong words of support for the Zero Tolerance Policy recently introduced by US Lacrosse, but also noted that a formal policy is just the starting point.

“Any steps that we take towards naming and claiming support for an anti-racist measurement and policy is really good,” Asaka said. “What US Lacrosse is doing is obviously a great first step, but seeing that trickle down to the day-to-day behaviors and the micro-aggressions that take place regularly will be the next step ahead.”

Additional resources from US Lacrosse were cited as an option for increasing awareness and education.

“If you’re a coach, the best thing you can do for yourself and for your student-athletes is to complete the Cultural Competency online course,” Bills said. “As coaches, we need to do our research. There has to be an intrinsic desire to understand, to listen, and to get answers. We can all be leaders in this movement. We all have influence. Let’s use it for good.”

“We really have the ability to impact the game,” Heningburg said. “The bigger this sport gets, the more responsibility we have. But it will not grow if we don’t address these things. And that takes a collective effort. A little bit of work every day, and over time, it will add up.” 

Tillman noted that the time for remaining silent in the presence of discrimination and inequality is now gone.

“In this day and age, it needs to be confronted and properly addressed,” he said. “Saying nothing is wrong. Be part of the solution. Don’t just be a person who is doing the right thing. Do more. That’s how we’re going to get to where we want to get to.”

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