DURING A 2016 FIELD TRIP TO BROWN UNIVERSITY, a school-aged Hakim Hicks picked up a routine ground ball on the turf at Stevenson-Pincince Field. Behind him, he heard a voice.
“Keep it up,” said a man. “One day you will be here.
Hicks looked up and came face to face with Dylan Molloy, a Brown forward and Tewaaraton Award winner that year.
Molloy’s words of encouragement were a rare experience for Hicks, not because he lacked talent, but because he lacked role models.
Hicks, who is black, struggled to find lacrosse players who looked like him growing up. He always does. Of the 15,138 male lacrosse players in all NCAA divisions in 2021, only 584 were black — less than 4% — according to a survey conducted by the NCAA.
Young lacrosse players, from youth level to college, are leading a charge of activism in the sport, with older players acting as role models for the next generation, building community and creating space for black voices in lacrosse simply by being visible.
Now a midfielder at Johns Hopkins, Hicks receives almost daily direct messages on Instagram from young black lacrosse players across the country asking him for advice. And Hicks is happy to oblige.
“The other day I got one from a little boy in Florida, and he was asking me how to deal with racism as a young black lacrosse player, because we just don’t have a lot of support in the sport,” Hicks mentioned. “And it sort of suffocated me, because when I was younger, I remember it was something I struggled with.”
Hicks was an early member of PS Chapter 76 of Harlem Lacrosse in New York, a school-based nonprofit that provides support both on and off the field. Players like Molloy frequently visited Hicks and his classmates at school to talk about what it took to be a Division I lacrosse player.
“It seemed a little unbelievable at the time because they weren’t really coming from a program like ours,” Hicks said. “They did not come from circumstances. They weren’t from downtown, where lacrosse just isn’t one of the things people care about.
But at Johns Hopkins, one of the nation’s preeminent varsity lacrosse programs, Hicks and his teammates can share those same feelings with young players from a place of empathy.
“Being able to go tell them now that I’m just like them and really came from the same shoes they walked in means everything,” Hicks said.
“People need to see people who look like them.”
— Dan Lebowitz, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society
ATHLETE ACTIVISM IS NOT NEW. From Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games in 2016, black athletes have driven social change in sports.
“There have always been those brave athletes who stepped up to use their voices not knowing what was going to happen to them,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
But athletes who don’t have millions of Twitter followers or aren’t regularly on national TV have just as much of a place in activism, even if what they’re doing isn’t as visible. As is the case with Hicks, much of that activism takes the form of being role models.
Solace Porter, a black lacrosse player at Division III Oberlin College in Ohio, spent the winter semester of her freshman year building a community lacrosse program in Barbados, where her father was born.
“I’ve taught girls ages 5 to 10 about lacrosse and leadership skills, so this is my primary way of conveying my love for lacrosse while championing diversity,” Porter said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF OBERLIN ATHLETICS
The reason so much of the advocacy for diversity in lacrosse comes from the players is because of the need for black role models in a sport that is largely white.
“In activism around certain causes, people have to see people who are like them,” Lebowitz said.
But as much as athletes can drive change and inclusion at the interpersonal level, many lacrosse players see a need for institutional changes.
“How our society works with hierarchies, it’s usually best when [change] comes from the top down,” Porter said. “People like me and other athletes are definitely advocating for this, but progress has been slow, and I think that’s because it’s not coming from those in positions of power.”
MOST NCAA LACROSSE COACHES ARE WHITE. Of 915 head coaches in the three NCAA divisions, 26 male head coaches and 18 female coaches last year were black, according to the NCAA. Only 129 of the NCAA’s 1,106 athletic directors were black.
Despite such skewed demographics, many teams, including those at Johns Hopkins and Oberlin, have planned and delivered diversity, equity and inclusion workshops to educate the largely white lacrosse community, which which Porter called the first step to creating institutional change.
“Our main focus right now is to get everyone involved and aware of microaggressions and things like that,” Porter said. “The most important thing is just to educate everyone so that everyone is informed, because the biggest downside is assumptions and things like that due to not being well informed.”
When the men of Johns Hopkins faced Maryland last year, players and coaches wore shirts emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” The game aired on ESPN and thousands watched the Blue Jays’ support for the move.
“But the most important thing is that before we sat down as a team and talked about it,” said Cody Ince, a second-year midfielder for the Blue Jays. “By having this conversation with each other, we were all able to learn more about the situation, learn more about each other’s backgrounds, and in turn, when we go out into the world, we have these new ideas.”
Hicks echoed that sentiment, saying that after awareness, the next step in building diversity in lacrosse is understanding. Reaching this level requires a desire to learn.
“Any teammate who is really trying to be an ally to their black teammates, you just have to talk to them,” Hicks said. “You have to know where they come from. I know a lot of people don’t want to do this because it’s extra work on top of the many things they already have to do. But for that to really happen – for there to be change – we need to understand each other.
With six black players on its roster, Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, Maryland is home to one of the most diverse high school lacrosse teams in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association.
But Calvert Hall players always look outside their team for inspiration and connection, and social media has been the driving force in forging those relationships.
Whenever Calvert Hall junior midfielder Jordan Jackson plays against another black player, he always makes sure to ask for their Instagram handle or phone number.
“It’s great to see a familiar face when you’re out there,” Jackson said. “When I play a black person, I just see what they do and how things are going in their life. I think that’s the best way to connect, and that’s how you build a little community. within the greater community.
Senior midfielder Jaden Snow feels like he already knows most of the black players he meets on the pitch. But as he got older, the bonds he forged grew stronger.
“It’s become even more connected — guys who are in college, upper division or pros, even with guys still in high school,” Snow said. “Sometimes you feel lonely when it’s just you or just a few of you.”
The rise of the Blaxers Blog account on Instagram, which highlights the accomplishments of black lacrosse players, has also contributed to that sense of connection, according to Calvert Hall junior MJ Davis. (Blaxers Blog and USA Lacrosse Magazine are content partners.)
And just as Hicks serves as a role model at the college level, Snow, Davis, Jackson and their teammates worked to inspire the next generation of black lacrosse players.
“There are a lot of kids I see who really want to play this sport, but they just don’t have anyone to look up to,” Snow said. “And when they see me, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, maybe I can really do this. “”