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2009 E-Lacrosse Feature: A milestone for diversity within lacrosse

A milestone that transcended race and sport almost passed us by without recognition this past weekend. In an instant of switching midfields, during the U.Va.-Hopkins game, Virginia fielded an all African-American midfield for about 30 seconds in the third quarter until Rhamel Bratton scored a goal and the lines were changed. It was inadvertent, and not done with ulterior purpose or political aforethought, I am sure. But it happened nonetheless and it is momentous for all the good things it forebears and all the bad it supplants.

With 8:02 remaining in the third quarter of the Virginia vs. Johns Hopkins game Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, Rhamel Bratton took to the field. Another 9 seconds ticked off the clock before Eamon McEneaney, the ESPNU play-by-play announcer, noticed that Rhamel had come on and his brother Shamel had not exited the field. This was new and his co-host, color man and Army coaching legend Jack Emmer, noted it verbally.

Another 21 seconds go by and the ball is deftly passed around the Hopkins cage before Emmer makes another verbal note, thinking aloud basically, saying "You got Will Barrow and the two Bratton boys running together right now". And then a pause occurred, as if he was about to note the moment with more. As Rhamel was working a Hopkins short stick around the top of the box, Emmer drew the following context -- "All three of them can shoot it from the outside". Can they?

Rhamel's defender stumbled and the freshman found himself standing alone with the ball looking at the keeper. He fired a stand-still, 12-yard rocket and the moment was over. It was a moment that will be noted by history, regardless who missed it at the time. And plenty of folks missed it. The game was covered in the Charlottesville and Baltimore papers with no mention of the occurrence. It was not some slight. It was oversight by those in attendance but out of context.

Just to set the record straight, the first all African-American offensive midfield in Division I men's lacrosse history took the field for the University of Virginia at 8:02 in the third quarter on March 22, 2008 against the Blue Jays of Johns Hopkins University. According to the Virginia coaches, the 1994 Virginia team had a defensive midfield of Tommy Smith, Mark Dixon, and Woody Moore and they were all on the field many times during the course of that season.

I have now watched the 2008 moment on the ESPNU coverage many times and it is entirely unclear whether Coach Emmer did not see the context of the words he spoke, "You got Will Barrow and the two Bratton boys running together right now" or whether he was too unsure of the politically correct approach to the actual context of the moment (He coached against the Morgan State team in the 70's which was entirely African American so his context is quite different than most - he's not ignorant of lacrosse history at all). In any case, he pointed to their outside shooting and no one in the media covered a milestone that "quite a few people have been working for directly and indirectly for years", as Baltimore's urban lax guru Donnie Brown said to me on Monday.

Ryland Huyghue was the first black All-American player out of Long Island, and as a player at Nassau and Maryland in the 1970s, laid the foundation for the Dumpsons, Curtis Rountree and so many others, eventually including Johnny Christmas and Kyle Harrison. He was on the first post-collegiate club team that fielded an all African American midfield unit in Lenny Phillips, Danny Black and Huyghue. He is the coach at Cal State Fullerton and has been the head coach at UCLA, USC, Pepperdine and Occidental College over his long California coaching career. He is a past president of the California Club Lacrosse Association, where he held the post for 12 years.

Drew Pannell is the assistant coach at the University of Detroit Mercy's new DI program. Pannell is a Long Island guy, with a thick island accent. He played for Alan Lowe at Manhasset and the old police league before that, where he was coached by the late John Driscoll. He's been involved in lacrosse long enough to remember very uncomfortable times for black players. He's old enough to want to hate some of the people he loves, but he still loves them instead.

Huyghue knows of these times first hand, growing up on Long Island, being one of the first African-Americans playing the sport from the age of seven. "Don't get me wrong. Every team I played on there was never a color issue. It would normally come from the opposing team which had no African-American players. My fellow teammates stood behind me and supported me".

Drew Pannell and Ryland Huyghue are both founding members of the International Diversity Lacrosse Council. The IDLC, founded in 2007, provides services and programs that impact inner city and other under-served communities. The visions of this group are small (like funding urban programs and clinics) to the far reaching (like fielding the world's first lacrosse team from the African continent at the world games of lacrosse).

Both Mr Pannell and Mr. Huyghue noticed what happened on Saturday.

"There is major significance here," explains Huyghue, "The fact is that there are less then 2 percent of African-Americans playing the sport of lacrosse. It shows the sport has no color boundaries and that anyone of any background can play the sport and play it well. It also shows that the coach is looking at them as athletes whom he has confidence in to get the job done. What happened on the field on Saturday was a major advancement in the sport of lacrosse".

I asked Ryland if the location, Virginia, was significant to him. We noted that Virginia also had the first African-American athletic director in the ACC. "It shows our society is moving forward and we are coming together," He noted, "I was recruited by Virginia schools when I was in high school, but chose elsewhere because coming from up north back in the late 70s, Virginia wasn't one of the first choices for an African-American to go play. Today, I wouldn't hesitate going there. I commend the three [Bratton, Bratton and Barrow] for making the choice to go there and for the school, coach, players, and fans to accept them".

When asked if the kids involved will value the occurrence for it's historic significance, Huyghue became animated. "Absolutely! They will never forget that day for a few good reasons. First, they upset one of the top teams in the country with a huge tradition of winning. Second, to have three African-Americans on one team, it's rare and almost unheard of in the sport of lacrosse. Thirdly, to be able to play on the same line together and do the impossible. Those kids will remember that Saturday afternoon for the rest of their lives. That was history in the making. Wow!" Pannell, whose own son, Shaun Church, is the lone Long Islander and lone black player on powerhouse upstate New York community college team Onondaga, which is primarily Native-American, thinks the kids at U.Va. were less aware on the field and had other things on their minds, like Hopkins. "In a game like that all you want to do is win, but I feel those three young men after the game realized what had happened. It's something that will be with them the rest of the lives. It is something that will be passed down for generations.

Most people, even in attendance did not notice the historic instance, but Huyghue cuts the average fan a deserved break. "Most people watching the game were very involved at that point in a great athletic competition and were unaware of the history that took place".

But he expected the media to take note. "The media should be all over this because it was something good that happened. It wasn't a tragedy like the Duke scandal. Why do we always have to hear the bad things that happen? Why can't we for once, hear about something good and meaningful? This is what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for".

The pioneer in lacrosse continued. "ESPN, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, Turner, Sports Illustrated, US Lacrosse, and Inside Lacrosse should be all over this, as well as the local networks. This is monumental; Lacrosse is considered a game for the rich and affluent, even though it's the Native North Americans' game. This event signifies the opening doors, the hopes, and dreams for the African-American youth, and kids of all ethnic backgrounds in lacrosse. This is diversity at its best".

Pannell approached the media coverage, or lack thereof with humor. "I wouldn't say that no one made note of it because I did." And he added a call for unity. "The media should be letting the nation know that we as a country can play together and get the job done without it being about the color of your skin".

Pannell continued. "And it was against Johns Hopkins University. That's important". He said he wanted to allude to the Texas Western team [that played a historic national championship with five African-American starters], but that a starting midfield in May would be the equivalent of that. He was excited that the instance, however short, had occurred. "It just opens the doors for more kids to play," he continued.

Advances in race and gender equity are often hard to measure, but for these moments of clarity and obvious movement toward the goal of equity. An all African-American midfield on a DI field is a blaring example of that improvement in lacrosse's culture. The fact that it was no big deal to the spectators is another example, really, of a changed society. But it's also a sign of a changed society when all of us celebrate an occurrence like this together as a sport, not separated by things like race.

Our more perfect union is achieved in tiny steps. While this small instance, occurring for only 30 seconds in some obscure, otherwise homogeneous sport in Jefferson's Charlottesville went unnoticed by even those in attendance, it is a significant barometer on race in America and in lacrosse. It may surprise many, but we have yet to see three Native Americans pull off the same feat. Maybe we'll see it happen at Syracuse or even the University of Detroit over the next couple years. They are both actively recruiting many of those great Onondaga Community College players Drew's son plays with.

MArch 22, 2008
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