The sport of lacrosse started as a Native American tradition centuries ago. Early European settlers observed tribes playing a far more aggressive variation involving long sticks that were affixed with hooked nets on one end. Those tools worked great for catching and re-slinging a deerskin ball among teammates en route to the goal. But because the games involved thousands of players on a sprawling field and could last for days on end, the real win was being able to knock out other competitors along the way.
The whole exercise approximated battle training. When compressed into something more appropriate for club play in Montreal circa 1842, the French also renamed it. Various indigenous names like baggataway and tewaraathon were replaced by the current one, which pays homage to the fact that those sticks looked a lot like a bishop’s religious staff.
But some people’s ignorance of this history—combined with racial insensitivity and obvious racism—led to an especially ugly moment for the professional indoor National Lacrosse League last season. During a home match between the Philadelphia Wings and Georgia Swarm, one of the Wings announcers repeatedly mocked the braided ponytail of Swarm star player Lyle Thompson, who is Native American. Public rallying cries included “Let’s snip the ponytail” and were followed by some fans shouting that they should scalp Thompson.
In response, the NLL just made a game-wide commitment to increase awareness and appreciation of the sport’s indigenous heritage among both teams and fans alike. Although details are still vague, the new initiative is called “Roots of the Game” and includes formal education and sensitivity training for team players, owners, and their arena staffs. Starting next fall, every team will host a heritage appreciation night for fans, and ensure that culturally relevant messaging is incorporated into everything from in-game giveaways to youth sports clinics. The league will expand web coverage explaining these connections.
While the announcer was fired and the team publicly apologized, the incident points to a larger concern for the growing sport. Philadelphia is one of the several newly added franchises in the rapidly expanding NLL, which has grown to 13 teams and projects to add one team per year for the next several years. Unlike the typical field game, indoor or so-called “box” lacrosse is played in an ice hockey rink with turf laid down. Each team is allowed five players plus a goalie (half the number in outdoor).
Close to 1 million people flowed through the league’s turnstiles during the 2018–2019 season, a 28% uptick over the previous season. Some of that growth is happening in areas where the origins of the sport are obviously forgotten. The league’s logo may be a stylized morning star—a Native American symbol for hope and guidance—and roughly 10% of current players are indigenous, but that’s hardly overt. “We have more new teams coming into the pipeline . . . we think it’s important to continue educating,” says NLL commissioner Nick Sakiewicz. “There’s no better time than the present to talk about things like inclusion and diversity and the respect that we should show the indigenous people that invented the game that we play.”
Roots of the Game will build on awareness work already being pioneered by Thompson. The high-scoring athlete is one of four brothers in the league, all of whom share a similar hairstyle. He grew up with the Onondaga Nation in New York, where not cutting your hair was seen as a sign of embracing your ancestry and fighting spiritual and societal assimilation. “The one thing my father always said was be proud of who you are, and our hair was a symbol of it,” he tells Fast Company. “I wanted to take that negative situation and turn it into something positive.”
After the January 2019 incident, Thompson started a T-shirt campaign called “Back the Braid” through the apparel company Lacrosse Unlimited. The proceeds go to support a series of free summer camps that he, his brothers, and other lacrosse players and coaches hold in collaboration with Nike to encourage more Native American kids to be involved in the sport. Thompson is one of Nike’s N7 ambassadors for Native American and Aboriginal athletes, and the company has made spots about the movement.
In June, the NLL sponsored a theme night at the Swarm’s own home game rematch against the Wings. Athletes on both teams wore promotional T-shirts during warm-ups, and there was a giveaway for fans. The proceeds from that promotion went to the league’s charitable partner Right to Play, a global organization that provides positive activities to protect and empower kids.
Frank Brown, a Wings player who is Native American and from the Seneca Nation in New York calls the league’s latest move an important commemoration. “The relevancy of the league is getting larger, and larger and larger,” he adds. “It’s only right for the league and individual organizations to put forth that effort to educate everyone who loves the sport on exactly where it comes from.”
Thompson agrees. “I think the league is really taking the right steps. Not to make it right, but to create the future so that things like this don’t happen,” he says.