Isaiah Davis-Allen thinks he may be the only person of color in the National Lacrosse League who is from the south, and that makes a big difference.
“Technically the south,” the Philadelphia Wings’ defender says, since he comes from Fairfax County, Virginia, which is in the far northeast part of the state, abutting Washington, DC, so it’s not very far south. Still, there are big differences for a black person even a little further south.
The history of race and racism in the United States is not old news when you’re in the south; it is living history. The movie Remember the Titans was based on a true story about a coach being brought in to coach the football team at a high school that was recently integrated. The father of one of Davis-Allen’s friends was on the Titans before integration came to the school. The challenges and wounds are that fresh.
That is why it is important not just for people of color that they get a chance to take part in lacrosse and other activities, but for white people as well.
For the former point, just seeing someone who looks like you can change what you believe you’re able to do. For Davis-Allen, growing up in a community where football, baseball and basketball reign, a couple of factors led him to the sport. One was that a lot of military families live in his hometown, so “navy folks brought the sport down.”
That gave him a chance to see black people playing lacrosse, which simply wasn’t the case in many areas nearby. “There is a whole section of D.C. that doesn’t have the sport,” he points out. With exposure to lacrosse, Davis-Allen began to follow it and started to see black players playing at higher levels.
“Jovan Miller was a big player at Syracuse at the time, so when I saw him I thought I could play,” Davis-Allen says. “It’s important to have superstars of color because that’s what everyone sees.”
“Part of the reason it’s important to see players of color isn’t just for the people of color but also for everyone else,” he adds. Davis-Allen has run into some obstacles related to race in his life, he says. That hasn’t really been the case among professionals, though, either in the NLL or the PLL, where he also plays.
“At the pro level, it’s been pretty accepting.”
Davis-Allen says he gets the sense that the makeup of the sport is different in Canada, where the vast majority of NLL players grew up, than where he is from.
“I’ll never forget talking to people up here (North of where Davis-Allen grew up) when I first played lacrosse, how accepting they are. I said ‘I’ve a feeling you have no idea how it is in certain other places,’” Davis-Allen explains.
There is pushback against inclusivity for black people. “Being from the south, you see that every day. It is hard to be the person who looks different in a locker room.”
Trying to get a sense of what he means, I mentioned to Davis-Allen a time that I was in Barbados for a vacation and my mother and I took a bus which was standing room only, and on which we were the only two white people. Everyone was friendly and accommodating, but it was an odd feeling not to look like anyone else around you.
“Yes, that’s how it works for me every weekend,” Davis-Allen interjected. Going from Baltimore, which is mostly black, you’re just going to completely different atmosphere.”
And not everyone is pleased to see members of different races intermingling.
“My cousin is from Prattville, Alabama,” Davis-Allen explained. “Down there, cities are still fairly segregated, schools are still fairly segregated—he moved up here and felt the difference immediately.”
“Coming from the United States, there’s still only about half the country that has moved beyond segregation in the school systems, and Baltimore is not one of those areas,” Davis-Allen says.
“School attendance is based on zoning,” he continues. “As neighbourhoods change, the zones change. For example there’s a whole difference here in Baltimore (where he now lives), city vs county. They wanted to extend our light rail from Baltimore out to Carroll County.”
According to the US Census Bureau, Carroll County’s population is over 90% white.
“There was pushback,” Davis-Allen says, “because [Carroll County residents] didn’t want the influx of people of color coming out there.”
Unfortunately, that example is not an isolated instance. “You see it in D.C., too,” Davis-Allen says. “It’s been the same in any city I’ve seen.”
Davis-Allen wants young black people to get the chance he has gotten, to play lacrosse and go as far as they can with it. He sees value in letting them see people who look like them. Box lacrosse has an edge over the field version of the game in achieving that.
“I coach a lot in Baltimore and I have coached in the Bronx,” Davis-Allen says. “The participation we get with players of colour is more in Baltimore. A bunch of the kids I coach showed up to the Wings game against PCLC and they loved it. It’s important because when you’re starting off the sport, there are costs which can be barriers to entry. It’s easier in box because you don’t need as many players. We can play a pretty good version of box on a tennis court or parking lot or in a gym to get them started.”
As far as making the adjustment to playing the box game after starting out in field lacrosse at the relatively late age of 14 and now having just played box for four of five years, Davis-Allen says there was plenty to learn and adjust to when he tried to make it in the NLL
“It was a lot of watching, a lot of studying, a lot of asking questions. Coming from a defense perspective, it was a completely different experience. You pride yourself on staying in front of a guy outdoors. Indoors it’s not as important, it’s more team defence. In field, I made my money being able to cover the ball. The transition took a while. I’m still learning the nuances, still a work in progress. I still feel like I’m learning every practice, every game, asking questions of more experienced teammates and the coaches.”
The coaches in Philadelphia have been integral to him learning the box game.
“Having a coaching staff that’s willing to work with you, giving me minutes is important. Film study is huge, trying to figure out not just schemes on a surface level but why coach is telling me to do certain things, then trying to execute on the floor.”
Then there’s the challenge of alternating seasons between the NLL and the PLL. “It’s tricky going back and forth from outdoor to indoor and indoor to outdoor,” Davis-Allen says. “Every year it’s a bit of knocking the rust off. Luckily, there’s a lot less rust to knock off now.”
Davis-Allen is pleased that he has had the opportunity to make the move indoors, to add the box game to his life experience. And he is happy that the National Lacrosse League has recognized and celebrated Black History Month.
“It’s great what the NLL is doing, they’ve always tried to be progressive as far as the overall sport has gone.”
Being from the south, Davis-Allen says that such actions undertaken by the NLL are more important than many people realize.
“It’s important to note that my experience here in the States is obviously different from people in Canada or even more north in the US. I’m only about three hours away from where [black teammate] Trevor Baptiste grew up, but it’s a vastly different area.”
The process of the races learning to live comfortably with each other is ongoing, but steps like a professional lacrosse league celebrating Black History Month help to keep progress happening.