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The Changing Face of Lacrosse: Long Associated with Privilege, the Sport Makes Inroads Into Harlem

A typical lacrosse high school team has 50 to 60 players. The girls' team at A. Phillip Randolph has just 16.

The Harlem team is only about a year old, but that’s not the most likely explanation for its tiny roster. Unlike basketball or baseball, the game has little name recognition beyond the elite private academies and wealthy suburban schools where the sport has long been popular.

And yet, for a sport that has traditionally been the purview of white privilege, lacrosse made its public school debut only recently, and in the most unlikely of locales. Last spring, A. Phillip Randolph became the first public high school in Manhattan to form a team. Ninety-nine percent of the school’s students are minorities and 59 percent are eligible for free lunch.

Behind the unusual pairing is a non-profit organization determined to reach the inner-city youth in Harlem and the Bronx. CityLax—a nonprofit run by a former college lacrosse player—insists that making the sport more accessible to a diverse group of players will help the sport, and help the players.

“Sure, we’d be happy if they became professional lacrosse players, but that’s not what it’s about,” said Matthew Levine, executive director of CityLax. Besides the exercise and camaraderie it provides, the game has an added advantage: athletic scholarships are easier to obtain when you play a non-traditional sport, he said.

Levine’s efforts with CityLax are part of a larger, nationwide initiative aimed at popularizing the game among minority populations. In the past few years, several state and national organizations including U.S. Lacrosse have developed after-school and weekend recreational leagues in urban areas. These programs, however, are targeted toward youth under 15.

The problem occurs when students go to high school, said Levine. Since few public schools have lacrosse teams and the existing youth leagues were not available for older students, many had to give it up. Levine, who also co-founded a youth lacrosse league in New York City, witnessed this outcome firsthand and it encouraged him to start CityLax.

CityLax’s outreach attempts coupled with support from New York City schools have increased lacrosse’s reach. In the last three years, the number of boys’ teams at public high school has doubled, to 12. Girls' teams at public high schools have experienced an even greater surge, quadrupling over the same period, from two to eight. Until A. Phillip Randolph got involved, all the teams were in the outer boroughs.

The number of girls playing high school lacrosse in the United States has more than tripled over the last 12 years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. It is the second-fastest growing girls' sport in the nation. Water polo is the first.

Part of the game's allure, ironically, is that it is so relatively unknown.

"There's a pent-up demand for a sport like lacrosse," said Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive for the Office of School Support Services. “The game attracts a certain type of student….usually with an adventurous spirit.”

For some of the students, lacrosse is the first team sport they have ever played.

“Many are not accustomed to thinking of themselves as athletes, but they are all athletes,” said Veronica Armour, the coach at A. Phillip Randolph. “They just need to change their perception.”

College scholarships are also an incentive, said Yoselis Peralta, a 12th grader and one of the team's captains.

“Colleges love it when you play a different sport, especially if you are from a different ethnic group,” said Peralta. But it’s not just the resume building that keeps her playing—it’s love of the game. “Your lacrosse stick becomes like your fifth limb—it becomes part of you.”

Some players cite the appeal of taking part in an underground sport.

“My culture is Dominican and no one has ever heard of it,” said Yorquidia Soto, a junior. “They [family and friends] were like, what is that?”

The girls giggled in unison, thinking about how many times they’ve been questioned about their lacrosse gear.

“When you walk down the street, people say, ‘What is that thing you’re carrying?’ ” said Soto. “Especially in the morning when the trains are crowded, that’s when people ask.”

The game's novelty does draw people, but it is also the toughest obstacle to recruiting, Armour said.

Levine agreed: “It was an enormous challenge because the kids didn’t know what the game was.”

Befuddled students and parents weren’t the only challenge. The Board of Education, the Public Schools Athletic League, and the New York Sports Commission also had to be convinced.

It took a while for New York to pick up the sport because there are so few open spaces in the city, said Amir Shayegan, the project manager at the New York Sports Commission. It is an issue the Department of Education is trying to correct; they have recently renovated several fields.

Shayegan said lacrosse is growing so fast nationally it was only a matter of time before it hit New York City.

The sport may be attracting a lot of attention today, but the game isn’t new. In fact, it is the oldest sport in North America, according to the Web site of the U.S. Lacrosse. Based on Native American religion, lacrosse was played to resolve conflicts, heal the sick, prepare for war, and generally develop strong men. Games between different tribes would sometimes last for days.

Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts and The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey were the first high school men’s teams in the late 1800s. In contrast, the first women’s team started in 1926 at The Bryn Mawr School, a prep school in Maryland.

It’ll be some time before teams like A. Phillip Randolph will be well-matched against adversaries like Horace Mann School, an exclusive, private academy in Riverdale that has been playing lacrosse for years. In the first ever Mayor’s Cup tournament in April, where the girls' teams from public, private and parochial schools faced off, A. Phillip Randolph finished 11th out of the 12 schools competing. Horace Mann placed first.

The girls at A. Phillip Randolph occasionally get frustrated with losing, said Armour, but they never give up. “They’ve never thrown in the towel."