Behind the Whistle: The Hidden Impact of Sport


This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Karen Healy-Silcott is the head women's lacrosse coach at Howard University.

On opening weekend of the 2023 season, Jenny Levy and the North Carolina women’s lacrosse program gave my team an opportunity to start our season in an unprecedented way — with a doubleheader on a national stage. Despite losing to Delaware State University, my team had an incredible time playing in a great stadium and engaging with the UNC team and local youth players.

Many people expressed displeasure about our choice to play in Chapel Hill. In truth, as a team, we had initial reservations about accepting UNC’s offer. We worried about optics. We worried about sincerity. Were we just being used as pawns to burnish UNC’s efforts to showcase their inclusivity during Black History Month?  

Our team has a wide range of maturity levels and life experiences. Some have serious trauma and anger from race-related issues. Others are so comfortable in “white spaces” that they are sometimes called “sellouts.” We had discussions about humility and trust; about taking chances and handling criticism; about growing the game; about being an integral part of efforts to diversify the sport; about empowerment. I vouched for Jenny Levy’s integrity and honor. We decided to participate regardless of the opinions of the doubters and naysayers on social media.

Playing our opening game at UNC had a positive impact on my players’ growth, and more importantly, on the youth group that came to the game. They got to see an entire field of women who looked just like them in that venue, reminding us that by simply existing as Black lacrosse players, we represent hope. Spending time with that group of young girls was worth the trip itself. They did not care that we lost; they cared that we were there.

When I heard my team singing along during the playing of “Lift Every Voice,” I knew how much it meant to them to hear that anthem on a campus other than our own.

Many of my coaching peers have reached out to me since the game at UNC. They ask what they can do to show support without being performative or disingenuous. To effect meaningful change in our sport, the path forward begins with building trust through discussions like the ones that came out of the opening weekend celebration. Conversations about race call for humility, openness and a willingness to take chances. It’s a delicate balance requiring deep reflection and the courage to endure some emotional discomfort and even pain. Growth is uncomfortable.

Coaching one of only two HBCU teams in NCAA Division I (out of 120+ programs!) is a badge of honor that makes me burst with pride. The job comes with a huge sense of responsibility and can also be exhausting and lonely. I am grateful to those who reach out in support, not just when ugly experiences are exposed to public view, but in the quieter moments of self-doubt.

Time will tell if the engagement between the UNC and Howard players leads to ongoing relationships. I know that Jenny Levy and I will continue to look for ways to build trust and community across racial lines long after Black History Month is behind us. 

And now in my “in lieu of flowers” moment, I would ask you to donate time and resources to helping new and existing youth programs in your area. If we have more minority kids starting young, it eventually won’t be so lonely at the top.


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