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A Summer of Activism in Professional Lacrosse


This article appears in the September/October edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

Not long after news broke in May of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Jules Heningburg heard from a familiar voice.

“We need to get together,” Kyle Harrison said in an email, “and talk about what’s going on.”

Harrison, lacrosse’s most notable black player, wanted to speak with Heningburg, a 24-year-old emerging star in the Premier Lacrosse League, about racial issues both within America and their predominantly white sport.

What started as an email thread between the Redwoods LC teammates and other black players in the PLL soon turned into a group chat and then a Zoom call every Friday. Feelings of anger and sadness eventually gave way to discussion about how they could use their platforms and the national spotlight of the PLL Championship Series to shed light not only on the Black Lives Matter movement, but also the racism that resides in some corners of the lacrosse community.


“If Chazz Woodson calls you up to the big leagues, you have to step up your game a little bit.” — Dominique Alexander


Chazz Woodson, the recently hired Hampton men’s lacrosse coach and former 10-year pro, challenged black players Dominique Alexander, Romar Dennis, Trevor Baptiste, Tyler Warner and Heningburg to take the mantel from the forerunners like Harrison and him.

“I have taken a lot of runs, and I am not as effective as I used to be,” Woodson wrote. “I could draw a slide here or there, but you young guys have to take over and start putting points on the board here.”

Woodson and Harrison have been outspoken about racial issues plaguing lacrosse for years and have led efforts to bring the game to minority communities.

“Alright,” Alexander thought after reading the email. “If Chazz Woodson calls you up to the big leagues, you have to step up your game a little bit.”

As millions of Americans took to the streets this summer in protests against police brutality and support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the black players in both the Premier Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse used the spotlight of their bubbled 2020 seasons to draw attention to their message about systemic racism and inequality.

“Ultimately I am much more than a lacrosse player,” Heningburg said. “If you can’t respect and acknowledge me for who I am off the field, I don’t really see why I am someone you’d want to be a fan of. Those things are very intertwined.” 

Heningburg helped establish the Black Lacrosse Alliance, designed the logo of a black fist clutching a stick and reinforced that message in a 79-second TV spot that ran on the PLL’s social media channels and on NBC Sports.

“If you cheer for us in there,” the video concludes, “stand with us out here.”  








Demonstrations during the PLL games at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, ranged from kneeling during the national anthem to wearing Black Lives Matter warm-up shirts, jersey patches and leg sleeves.

On the other side of the country, a group now known as the “MLL Four” made their own statement. Dismayed by the league’s inactivity on social media and what they conveyed as a lack of support for players of color, Connecticut’s Kris Alleyne, Chesapeake’s Isaiah Davis-Allen, New York’s Mark Ellis and Philadelphia’s Chad Toliver took matters into their own hands. They stood separate from their teammates at midfield when the national anthem played before MLL games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. (Read more about the MLL Four in a feature starting on page 44.)

“When I looked at Colin Kaepernick stuff, I was like ‘Why is he doing that?’ He knew he was going to get hit with adversity and the overall message wouldn’t be heard,” Davis-Allen said. “Now I get it. We were doing something that we believe strongly in. This is an issue in our game.” 

“Years down the line, I am going to be able to say I took steps to change the game of lacrosse,” Toliver said. 

“We were the four black players in the MLL in 2020,” Ellis said. “No one can take that away from us.” 

The PLL’s black players carried the movement from there. Heningburg had spoken with members of Major League Soccer’s Black Players Coalition and connected with players in other leagues to develop the framework for the BLA. Although Heningburg was eventually ruled out of the Championship Series due to complications from COVID-19, members of the BLA helped execute the plan at Zions Bank Stadium.

Before each game in the series’ opening weekend, the league held a moment of silence “in recognition of the ongoing fight against racism and prejudice.” Although NBC Sports did not air the national anthem, photos of players kneeling and teammates placing their hands on their shoulders populated the PLL’s social media channels. “We need to be unapologetic and keep things real,” Dennis said. “We hoped the league would be supportive and they were. It just aligned perfectly.”

Both the Black Lacrosse Alliance and MLL Four have pledged to help move their leagues and the sport forward regarding diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The sport is very much reflective of the state of our country in a lot of ways, and the mission to create positive change in lacrosse will pay dividends down the line for the rest of the country,” Heningburg said. “If we can change lacrosse, we can change the country.”




PHOTO BY ALEX McINTYRE/MLL


WHAT NOW?

US Lacrosse in August released an anti-racism statement and actions the organization has undertaken to address systemic racism within the sport.

“Over the summer, US Lacrosse staff members engaged in unprecedented dialogue on racism and white privilege, within and outside of lacrosse, and several colleagues and friends have bravely shared personal examples of the challenges they have endured throughout their lives,” the statement said. “The people of color within US Lacrosse staff recently met as a group to discuss and recommend strategies to mitigate implicit bias and eliminate racism within the organization, and we have given a great deal of thought as to how recent tragedies can empower US Lacrosse to lead a sustained effort to eliminate racism from the sport.”

US Lacrosse identified 10 initial actions it will pursue now and into the future related to staffing, volunteer leadership, mission and operations.

Staffing 

  • Create a new staff position and related job description — Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — that will report directly to the CEO. Eboni Preston-Laurent, a former collegiate player and coach who most recently served as Senior Manager of Diversity and Inclusion, has been promoted to this new role. 

  • Enforce policies that mandate an inclusive hiring process for all US Lacrosse staff positions and include people of color on interview panels. 

Volunteer Leadership 

  • Mandate an inclusive hiring process for U.S. team coach and support staff positions and assure equitable opportunities for player tryouts and team selections to field U.S. teams that look more like America’s ethnic landscape. 

  • Require cultural competency and diversity training for all who serve within the US Lacrosse volunteer structure. 

Operations 

  • Establish and adhere to policies that require diversity, equity and inclusion factors in the selection of sponsors, partners and suppliers. 

  • Incorporate a permanent display on the contributions of African American players, coaches, officials and contributors in the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum. 

Mission 

  • Assure that all US Lacrosse print, digital and social media content consistently depict lacrosse as an inclusive sport. 

  • Translate US Lacrosse resources and media content into other languages. 

  • Develop a cultural competency course specifically designed for youth players. 

  • Develop best-practice anti-racism policy and related resources that organizations and leagues can adopt as a consistent framework across the sport.