Bringing Lacrosse to Baltimore’s Toughest Neighborhoods
A couple of years ago, Lacrosse Magazine ran a piece featuring two arguments on the exclusivity of lacrosse — one swearing it is, the other refuting the point. The article surprised me. It hadn’t occurred to me that the sport is seen as, well, controversially exclusive. Further reflection led me to face facts that my lack of awareness was a result of my having been lucky enough to be included in the first place — I’ve played lacrosse since I was seven.
Anyone active in the sport will tell you that lacrosse has come a long way in the last decade, and that’s true. Instead of playing one another over and over again, club teams from Baltimore, New York, and Boston now play teams from Georgia, New Hampshire, California, and Texas. While broadening the geographical horizon is a great start, it doesn’t necessarily bridge the racial and economic gap that exists in lacrosse. The cost of putting one safely equipped young man on a lacrosse field is around $400 per season. The cost for women is a little less, between $200 and $300. That’s several thousand dollars, just to field a team. Not everyone can handle that expense for a sport, especially when that money will be spent twice or three times over to replace equipment.
It doesn’t seem fair for kids to be kept from a sport because they can’t afford it. A lot of people, when presented with that opinion, would probably agree, but might also say that it’s not their responsibility to pay for other kids to play lacrosse in addition to their own, and that’s not unreasonable. Important to note: There’s a lot of money being donated in the world of lacrosse — people give thousands of dollars to teams that don’t need it. I would venture to guess that most of the time this is not because they are averse to helping people who actually need help, but rather that they don’t know how they can do that.
Baltimore features some of the best quality lacrosse in the country, and has recently produced some of the best intentioned as well. Baltimorean and former All American Ryan Boyle founded the Baltimore Youth Lacrosse League in 2007 with the help of Rob Lindsey and David Skeen. All three were raised on Baltimore lacrosse and wanted to find a way to give poor kids the same opportunities that allowed them to thrive. When they found no such thing, they created their own. And while much of the program focuses on teaching skills, the larger goal has always been nobler. The program caters to kids in rough neighborhoods, those most at risk of falling in with a bad crowd.
Interestingly, another program bridging the lacrosse gap in Baltimore pairs inner city youth and Baltimore’s finest. In the Parks and People Foundation’s Baltimore Middle School Lacrosse League, under the direction of police commissioner Fred Bealefeld, several officers from the Baltimore Police Department serve as volunteer coaches, coaching kids from some of the worst areas in the city. And despite the unfavorable reputation the police may have in some of those neighborhoods, discipline is rarely an issue. On the field, officers are coaches; kids are just kids, no matter their background.
BMSLL volunteer coach A.C. George, who played at North Carolina and coached at Walbrook Middle School, says the pairing works–they are helping keep kids off the street.
“These kids are at an age that gangs target for recruiting, and this gives them a much better option,” George says.
The program is growing by leaps and bounds. At NCAA men’s finals in Baltimore this spring, all teams in the new league participated in NCAA-sponsored clinics. This summer the 19 players travelled to New Hampshire for a five-day lacrosse camp. George, a retired McCormick Spice executive, fielded 12 teams this spring and would like to grow to 16 to 18 teams in 2012.
Ideally, these programs help kids get involved with lacrosse when they’re 11 or 12 — next, they play for their high school team, then they get to go on and play in college. After just one season, George sent Jamar Peete to play at Limestone College in South Carolina: the first of what promises to be a long string of successes.
Charm City Lacrosse, a program out of Baltimore city, takes the outreach one step further with a program for six- to 10-year-olds. Kids learn skills, training, league play and receive mentoring. According to the website, the program also aims to open doors to scholarship opportunities at private schools.
Seems like the meaning of these programs and the kids they help should be enough to make any lacrosse fan feel that fighting for the sport to be more inclusive is worth their time, maybe even their money. Many who watch the sport have complained repeatedly that professional lacrosse doesn’t get enough coverage, or funding, or publicity, and it certainly doesn’t get nearly the amount of sports like baseball, soccer, football, or basketball. Then again, it doesn’t cater remotely to the same number of people. For as long as lacrosse remains exclusive, it will also remain largely un-televised. Certainly it’s understandable from a financial standpoint–stations don’t want to show something that only a few thousand people are going to watch when they can broadcast to millions–but it makes sense socially as well. People don’t want to watch a sport they never had a chance to play and thus know nothing about. Making the sport inclusive is win-win for everyone, and it starts right here.