As the head coach of the Howard University men’s lacrosse team, Duane Milton has been fielding a wide variety of invitations. Since last fall, his squad has been asked to participate in a lacrosse invitational in Japan, and play an out-of-league game at the University of Michigan; the team was even encouraged to attend the Beltway Bash, an annual local lacrosse tournament. “Usually they don’t extend the invitation to first-year teams,” Milton says.
Despite its newness, the program has received a ton of attention—especially given that the team has yet to play a single game.
Milton has unshakable confidence in the abilities of the players he has assembled, but he knows that the interest in his lacrosse team isn’t entirely fueled by their skill on the field. “People are like, ‘Uh-oh, here’s Howard. The brothers are getting ready to get in uniforms.’ It’s like we’re the Harlem Globetrotters,” Milton says. “We won’t be doing tricks, but we’re unique, and they want to see if our players are up to competing.”
The Howard team is currently the only all-black collegiate men’s lacrosse team in the country. Milton, 36, is hoping to go the opposite route from Tiger Woods. Instead of trying to downplay his team’s race, he sees it as a valuable marketing opportunity. When contacting one company in his search for equipment, Milton introduced the issue of race himself. “I said, ‘That’s right. Howard. Lacrosse.’”
“It’s about how it will benefit us,” he says. “It’s an opportunity, a business. There are contracts, sponsorships that can benefit us if our uniqueness is recognized—and it also benefits [sponsors] if they’re working to diversify the sport.”
The squad, which will remain classified as a university club sport until it is able to attain varsity status, isn’t the first lacrosse team at the historically black Howard—there is already a women’s lacrosse team playing at the varsity level. But the men’s team is a new development (a previous attempt at a men’s team failed), and as often occurs when the “first black” anything emerges, it seems that everyone is eager to either support the pioneering efforts of the team or hope to witness its failure. Milton says that at least one team has already dismissed the idea of Howard men’s lacrosse. “They laughed, like, ‘Yeah, we can’t wait to beat the brothers.’”
The idea to create a men’s lacrosse team at Howard came last year as Milton, a personal trainer who works with students, walked across Greene Stadium. He spotted two young men playing with lacrosse sticks and struck up a conversation with them. In the five months since that initial conversation, the team has drawn 32 potential players of various experience and skill levels.
It’s hard to tell if the attention the team has received is well-intentioned, but it’s a far cry from what the squad’s players are used to. “We all grew up in the same environment,” says Christopher Lewis, an 18-year-old freshman from Nashville, Tenn., who was one of the founders of the squad. “When a kid plays lacrosse as an African-American, when all the other kids are playing basketball, football—they’re playing a relatively obscure sport, especially in the black community. You hear little comments.”
Milton says that despite the progress they’ve made, there is still the occasional remark about their mission: “‘You know brothers don’t play lacrosse!’ or ‘Lacrosse? What’s that?’” But at this level of the game, the talk of whether lacrosse is a “black” sport or a “white” sport, no matter how ridiculous the argument is, has worked in the team’s favor. Players hope they can use the attention to fulfill their goal of having a Division I varsity team, and to educate and interest blacks who are unfamiliar with the sport.
“Eventually, we want it in the black community, for people to look at it like ‘I can play in high school, college, start a black team,’” says Laurence Wilson, an 18-year-old freshman from Green Bay, Wis. “We’re looking at it that way.”
Milton, who played lacrosse himself in high school and college, imagines that once the season starts, the focus will shift from race to record. “We’re going to be competitive in this game that we’ve traditionally been left out of,” he says. “We’re happy to be recognized because of our uniqueness as a black team, but as lacrosse players, we want recognition and respect.”CP