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Both Northwestern and Central Michigan players lifted their sticks — in silent protest of ongoing racism targeted toward HBCU women’s lacrosse programs — before their NCAA first round matchup. (Image courtesy of @NULax on Twitter)

Northwestern’s lacrosse players compete for something bigger than themselves

How the Wildcats are using their sport’s growing platform to call attention to social causes.

The spectators at Martin Stadium hummed with excitement ahead of the rivalry-fueled matchup between Northwestern and Syracuse until the buzzer sounded to end the pregame period. Then, rather than the usual whistle to start the first quarter, a quiet calm settled over the lakeside field where a forest of lacrosse sticks reached toward the sky in silent protest.

For close to a minute seemingly every eye in the stands rested on the scene, the goal of which was to call attention to recent racist incidents targeted at the women’s lacrosse teams of two historically Black universities.

The demonstration before the NCAA Quarterfinal matchup in Evanston was one of several that took place before the tournament’s other contests to raise awareness about prejudice and a lack of diversity in the sport. According to the NCAA’s 2020-21 Demographics Database, of nearly 13,000 NCAA women’s lacrosse players, only 3.2% are Black. Nearly 16% of these Black women play on one of three established HBCU teams — including Howard and Deleware State Universities.

In February, a group of white boys accosted Howard’s team with racial slurs while the women were walking into their first game of the season at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. In April, police pulled over DSU’s team bus in Georgia for a routine traffic stop when they decided to search players’ luggage for drugs — predominantly marijuana — using narcotics dogs.

“They were racially profiled in a way that’s absolutely inexcusable,” said senior goalkeeper Madison Doucette. “I’m extremely proud of the NCAA for taking a stand, and I think the biggest thing we can do is use our platform.”

While the ‘Cats didn’t make it to the NCAA title game, the level of exposure given to the tournament this year was the most it's ever received. For the first time, all NCAA women’s lacrosse games aired on ESPN networks. The title game between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 3 Boston College on May 29 was the most watched women’s college lacrosse game ever, averaging 428,000 viewers and peaking at 590,000 according to ESPN PR.

Ratings for Northwestern’s matchup against the Orange on ESPNU aren’t available to the public, but it’s clear every tournament team that participated in a protest reached a record number of eyeballs thanks to the sport’s growth on a national stage.

Image courtesy of NCAA Lacrosse.

In addition to the pregame protests, Northwestern players and coaches attended every NCAA game up until their Final Four loss with red and blue ribbons tied onto their shoelaces, representing the school colors of both Howard and DSU.

“There was a great level of hurt by these incidents, and we want to make sure we stand and support and do our part,” said coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. “We want to make sure we give visibility.”

First-year midfielder Sammy White, Big Ten Freshman of the Year and one of just over 400 Black female NCAA lacrosse players, recalled seeing a player with her skin color on Northwestern’s team the first time she watched the Final Four as a child.

“I was rooting for her the entire time,” she said. “It was so nice to see she was on the field, and the fact I can also give those [memories] to other young girls is such an amazing thing.”

Present in Northwestern’s lineup when White started following the team was Taylor Thornton, one of the greatest players in program history. Thornton played for the Lakeshow during its 2011 and 2012 National Championship campaigns, the two most recent NCAA titles won by the ‘Cats. In addition to setting a number of program records, the Dallas native earned two consecutive Tewaaraton Award nominations and four All-American Lacrosse Conference selections during her time in Evanston.

Taylor Thornton (image courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Since 2010, only five Black players have suited up for Northwestern, including Thornton (2010-2013), Jess Carroll (2012-2015), Spring Sanders (2013-2016), White and her current first-year teammate Helaina Harris. But, the lack of diversity within the program is most likely attributable to the lack of diversity within the sport overall.

“I knew I looked different, and I liked that,” Thornton said to Inside Lacrosse. “I wasn’t trying to fit into a mold, and I think I was really lucky because I had a coach who praised that and didn’t want me to change.”

Thornton’s emphasis on Amonte Hiller’s supportive leadership style rings true today. During the 2022 season, Amonte Hiller and her coaching staff encouraged players to publicly represent causes they care about. On Senior Day versus Johns Hopkins on April 16, the team hosted a “Courage” game in which NU players each picked a cause they wanted to publicize and play for that day.

Image courtesy of @NULax on Twitter.

They brought awareness to 16 different causes, including cancer research, domestic violence, gender equity and mental health. The regular-season game was not broadcast on ESPN, but the idea of taking the field for a reason other than scoring goals and winning games persisted into the postseason. For the Wildcats and their NCAA counterparts, lacrosse’s growth on a national stage will continue to provide a platform for players to promote diversity in the game they love and draw attention to social issues affecting themselves, their families, their friends and those within the sport.

“It means a lot to be able to play for our loved ones and let people know we support them and we’re thinking of them,” said senior attacker Elle Hansen. “It allows us to play for something so much more and brings more fight, energy, will and heart to everything we do.”

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