US (PT) – It’s becoming difficult to drown out debate over recent widespread national anthem protests throughout competitive sports. Perhaps it’s the time of year, with the football season and America’s obsession of it neigh. Now, you can barely go on YouTube without hearing about the anthem protests.
I wanted to discuss this phenomenon not as a football player, but former lacrosse player. By the end, I hope to offer more perspective to what this means for those out on the field. Particularly those who’ve experienced the injustices they’re demonstrating against.
First lets clarify what lacrosse is for those unfamiliar. The game goes back many centuries in Native American culture, particularly First Nations peoples. In both the ancient and modern games, players use a stick with a netted head to pass, catch, and shoot a ball into a goal. Modern goals are a little taller than the average player, and a little wider than one’s arm span. Players wear helmets, pads on the chest, arms, groin, and thick gloved hands. It’s a rough and tumble contact sport with two tell-all nicknames. Modern players call it The Fastest Sport On Two Feet. For Native Americans, it’s always been called War’s Little Brother. Tribes would use it to settle disputes which would otherwise cause bloodshed. For all its ferocity, War’s Little Brother was also used as a medicine game.
Shortly after lacrosse was codified in the early 20th century, it became an almost entirely white sport. It’s a reality which remains today, though is quickly diminishing. Currently, college-level lacrosse is 86% white. Diversification is an enviable outcome as the sport spreads from its east coast strongholds across America.
I played in the first lacrosse team at Wauwatosa East High School around 2012 and 2013. Beforehand I’d never played, or even heard of it. Nevertheless, I was quickly pulled into the sport’s intensify, unique skill set, and history. Even after I stopped playing on a team, the game always returned to my life.
While I played, though, I became very acquainted with the sport’s racial tensions. I remember my father, mother, and grandparents first cluing me in. They claimed that because lacrosse was mostly white, that I should be prepared for bigotry. As an idealistic teen, I brushed this off as understandable fears of demons long departed. I was wrong.
I was the only African American player on my squad of less than 40 including a few inter-racial kids, Asians, and a Native American. No issue there, and besides a joke here and there I barely ever noticed. Racial tensions were always punctuated, however, when we played teams from outside Milwaukee’s densely populated city limits. They were filled with kids who grew up in isolated suburbs surrounded by woods and highways. Perhaps even few who’d perhaps never seen someone like me before. Curiosity doesn’t excuse racism though.
My first real brush was with Saint John’s Military Academy, and its notoriously hard line team. In lacrosse, rather than tackling, we ‘truck” each other. It’s essentially a hard shove that’s normally more than enough to ring a few bells and even cause concussions. The ball was nearby and I became part of the scuffle to retrieve it. There was a St. John’s player several inches taller than me, who trucked me and then got one back. After recovering, he walked up to me as the game drifted up field. Not wanting to be seen as weak, I matched his stare down. “You watch yourself out here boy, I’ll kick your monkey ass”, he said before running off.
St. John’s, I discovered, was notorious for such tactics but wasn’t necessarily alone. There was certainly a difference between how players closer to major cities reacted to black players. Some were accustomed, others would stare at you like a sideshow. A few would express their deepest feelings to your face. Other times, a ref sends the same message with bias calls or, conversely, not calling penalties against minority players. As a high school former player, when I watch college level lacrosse, I often see hints of the same.
If national anthem protests were going on when I played, I too would consider taking the knee. Not just because of what I saw firsthand playing lacrosse, but other personal experiences. Living in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa over the past few years, I’ve experienced my share of racial confrontation.
I’ve been called nigger, Uncle Tom, and been hassled by the police and residents for being “suspicious”. What was I doing? Walking down the street. In fact, the same police department stopped me 23 times over a single summer vacation in 2013. Any one of those times, I could’ve been a Trayvon Martin, or Jay Anderson.
Thankfully that hasn’t happened, but if it did would anyone care? I fear I’d be labeled a thug when I wasn’t, and my memory tarnished. Even though I’m lucky, I still was annoyed by people in the community telling me to just “get over it.” When you’re forced to live like that, do you blame anyone for taking the knee to bring attention to what people strive to ignore? That’s the point of the protests. Not to disrespect the veterans who depend on us to speak our minds when they can’t. Not to wish harm to police or start a race war. They’re kneeling simply says “we’re still here, we still matter, and we continue to suffer in silence with our people.”