Sticking It To The Norm

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By Shane Palmateer

What do you expect to see when walking down the street in inner city Harlem? Notorious for being a rough neighborhood, unfortunately one that deals with high rates of crime but something new is staring to show up in the city, young men and women walking around with lacrosse sticks. Lacrosse is a rich white boy sport. Or so many people think. There is an association with the sport of lacrosse and upper-middle class citizens particularly in Northeastern United States. While there is an association with more financially successful families and the athletes who participate in the sport, that common theme has begun to change with the growth of the sport in inner cities.


The sport of lacrosse is often seen as a sport for middle-upper class citizens. As it sits now the hot-bed of lacrosse particularly at the high school level can been found in the Baltimore area, up state New York and out on Long Island. Now these are not the only places that have a high competition level, however traditionally it is common to find a young man or woman walking down the street or playing in the back yard with a stick in their hands. But the sport of lacrosse has grown at such tremendous rates all across the country that it has become more and more common to see our youth walking down the street with a stick and ball in some of the more unlikely places such as Inner City Harlem, New York. There has become strong out reach programs across the country to bring lacrosse into areas with high at-risk youth. One of these groups was featured in Dicks Sporting Goods Sports Matter Series, Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership.


Much of the association with lacrosse and its participants can come from socio-economic situations. The concept Material Circumstances can be described as “the economic conditions underlying the society. To understand social events, one must have a grasp of the material circumstances and the historical situation in which they occur”. Sports in general can be expensive. One of the issues with certain sports and class involves finances. Costs for sports such as lacrosse can add up quickly, especially if equipment breaks or is outgrown. It is has become an increasingly expensive to play on travel teams, or even in recreational leagues.


There has been an incredibly growth in the sport of Lacrosse in North America and even in the world over the last decade. The most popular location is still in the Mid-Atlantic and North East regions of the United States. But at the collegiate level universities like Denver and Notre Dame are breaking the traditional east coast powerhouses. But what comes with the spread of the game across the nation comes the diversity of the game to different income levels in America. There has been growth of lacrosse in inner cities across the nation which are still in the process of growing and trying to bring lacrosse to those who are financially less privileged. One of the largest and most notable is an organization called Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership.


This organization began with 10 sticks for 11 players all of which were donated. The focus of Harlem Lacrosse has become helping young students develop their work and academic skills through dedication to lacrosse. By focusing on developing students through the sport it has taken individuals from lower income neighborhoods and assisted in their growth as young men and women into academic and athletic achievers. This organization has now grown to 8 programs in New York and Baltimore with plans to expand to Boston and Philadelphia. With the level of support it has received from college legend coaches such as Dom Starsia from the University of Virginia on the men’s side and Chris Sailer from Princeton representing the women’s side, there is outstanding support from some of the most elite college programs. The success that Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership has had in a short amount of time has been phenomenal. In an interview with the New York Post co-founder Simon Cataldo stated “We had a five-year plan 18 months ago, and we accomplished it in 18 months. We want to be in at least 10 schools in New York City in the next three years. We’re quite serious about the belief we think we should be in every inner-city school in the New York area.” With new coaches and teachers coming in each year from historically successful academic and lacrosse universities the opportunities for quality teaching and coaching is showing nothing but positive signs.


Sports bring people together. Whether it is fans, family or players, it creates a sense of unity across many social and economic lines. There is a common purpose of sports, to win. Unfortunately for quite some time, certain sports have become divided because class. But often on game day these lines become a little bit more blurred when fans are rooting for their team. Marx described this divide as material circumstances. More often than not a child whose family cannot afford to play a particular sport will chose another that eases the financial burden. But if there is an outreach to bring new participants into a sport there can be more growth and more breakdowns of traditional social and economic boundaries. The Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership program is attempting to break down these economic barriers by using external donations and support from individuals, companies, and foundations.


Harlem Lacrosse is just one of several programs across the country that is attempting to break down social and economic barriers to spread the sport of lacrosse to as many kids as possible. In the Chicago area there is a program called OWLS. This also has a similar approach to dealing with helping to bring lacrosse together with at risk youth in less affluent neighborhoods. Many of these young men and women would have never considered to play the sport of lacrosse because there were no resources as far as equipment because of the financial costs as well as a limited amount of adult coaches in the area. These programs which have focused on using sport to help motivate young men and young women have been an example of how sports can help break down the boundary lines of class.


Sports such as lacrosse are important for our society because it brings together many different walks of life. A sport, which was founded by the Iroquois Nation and adopted by westerners who observed, there is a special bond among the lacrosse community. With groups such as Harlem lacrosse and Leadership, Owls, and Lacrosse The Nations who has brought the sport of lacrosse into poverty stricken areas in Nicaragua and Costa Rica Sports should not be divided by social class, a sport that is growing as rapidly as lacrosse should be a focus to help spread physical activity through the sport to unite all youth despite what their financial situations are. Material circumstance is unfortunate, but as a society it is possible to break the stereo-type of lacrosse as a rich white boy sport and make it as common in every house hold as football or basketball. Sports are sports; they are the most fun when everyone gets to participate despite their social and economic status.

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