A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Still Breaking Barriers: There’s Progress and Success for African Americans in Lacrosse.
PHILADELPHIA, PA.—Kyle Harrison is one of the best lacrosse players in the country, who possesses the stunning combination of grace, speed and power. The senior midfielder from Johns Hopkins will play in his fourth Final Four when the Blue Jays meet Virginia in today’s 2 p.m. NCAA Division I semifinal at Lincoln Financial Field.
An all-American last year and a sure repeat pick and potential player of the year this season, Harrison has cat-quick moves, is able to spin by defenders with seemingly relative ease, and has a shot that shakes the net with his force.
Yet despite all his success, the fact that he is an African American player in a sport still dominated by white suburbanites continues to make Harrison stand out as much as his sterling performance on the field.
“I’m looking forward to the day when this isn’t a story,” said Harrison, who is used to being interviewed on this topic this time of year when the Final Four brings greater attention to the sport.
For now, it is a story. Not one as big as when his father, Miles, helped start a Division I lacrosse program at historically black Morgan State in 1971, but a story nevertheless.
“Compared to 10 years ago, the number of black players competing in lacrosse is great,” Harrison said. “I remember when I was the only black player on the field back then.”
This season, there will be a total of nine black athletes on the Final Four teams, which also include Maryland and Duke, who meet today at 11:30 a.m. in the first semifinal.
While there is progress, the number of black superstars on the collegiate level over the years has been a select few.
According to NCAA statistics, from 1957 through last season, there were only seven African American players who received first-team all-American honors in lacrosse.
Legendary football star Jim Brown was named an all-American in 1957 at Syracuse.
Syd Abernathy, who played attack at Navy, was named in 1981. The others were Rutgers midfielder Albert Ray in 1982, Maryland defender Brian Jackson in 1987, Virginia defender Tommy Smith in 1996, Princeton defender Damien Davis in 2003, and Harrison last season.
In addition, current Virginia senior attack John Christmas of Lower Merion High, whose family is from the Caribbean, was a second-team all-American in 2003 when he helped lead the Cavaliers to the NCAA title.
“I think there has been growth in the area [of black athletes playing the sport], but it has been slow growth,” Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. “Most of the growth has been from people who have moved out of the inner city. The game still has to be brought to the inner city.”
Starsia used Philadelphia as an example.
“Even around here, you need fields to play, and where are the fields?” he asked.
Harrison has to look no further than his father as his inspiration in the sport. Miles Harrison helped start the first lacrosse team at Morgan State during his senior year. The year before it was a club team.
“What my dad did was very inspiring because nobody knew what he and the team went through,” Kyle Harrison said.
All his father did was help integrate the sport during a racially divided time in the early ’70s.
Miles Harrison, who is a surgeon at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital, has cowritten a book with former Morgan State coach Chip Silverman called 10 Bears, which chronicles the early years of Morgan State’s program. After 10 seasons, lacrosse was disbanded at the school in 1980.
After his senior season, Miles Harrison was selected to play in what was known as the North-South All-Star Game.
“My performance was worthy of all-American consideration, but nobody covered us,” he said yesterday in a phone conversation while he was driving from Baltimore to Philadelphia for the weekend festivities. “It’s all about being exposed to the sport.”
When asked why lacrosse hasn’t drawn the large numbers of black athletes that other sports have, most everybody said that cost was a major factor.
“You can walk in urban neighborhoods and see a basketball court,” Miles Harrison said. “The cost is prohibitive for equipment in lacrosse, and there must be a concentrated effort to bring it to the communities.”
Once players start playing the game, they usually get hooked.
“It’s just a great game to play,” said Maryland goalie Harry Alford, one of three African American players on the team.
Alford takes his role seriously as one of the rising African American players in the game.
“I think that it really helps that we are having more [black] players perform at a high level,” Alford said. “I know black youngsters can look at us and say, ‘If they can do it, we can, also.’ “
The sport’s tremendous growth, especially at the high school and youth levels, has been good for all races.
“I’m living in Georgia and people know now about lacrosse,” said Brian Jackson, the aforementioned Maryland all-American in 1987 who is a major in the Marines, where he serves as a lawyer. “I think as the popularity of the sport grows, you will see more and more blacks get involved in the sport and more excelling in it.”
Jackson grew up outside of Baltimore, which, along with Long Island, N.Y., is considered a hotbed for lacrosse.
“Lacrosse is played in predominantly well-to-do, middle-class areas in the Northeast,” Jackson said. “People my color didn’t grow up playing.”
And Kyle Harrison, who hopes to play professionally, looks forward to the day when his skill takes precedence over race.
“I love the fact that black people look up to me and people like me and John Christmas are role models for the black community,” Kyle Harrison said. “But when it comes down to it, I’m a lacrosse player and what I would really like is to be a role model for everyone.”
There have been six African American first-team all-American selections in Division I lacrosse since 1957, when Jim Brown was a star at Syracuse.