Howard-Delaware State Game in Chapel Hill Sparks Important Conversations


Last May, women’s lacrosse players raised their sticks at the beginning of games to show solidarity with the Delaware State women’s lacrosse team after details emerged of an unwarranted search and seizure of the team bus by Georgia police during a road trip.

Teams also issued releases on social media and had public address announcers read words condemning racism.

The gesture was nice. Appreciated even. But was it enough? Certainly not.

“It’s one thing to raise a stick,” Delaware State head coach Pamella Jenkins said. “It’s another thing to actually reach out.”

Boston College was proactive, inviting the Hornets to a team tailgate last spring. In November, Delaware State and Howard, another Historically Black College and University (HBCU), got another invite. This one came from North Carolina head coach Jenny Levy, who wanted to know if the teams were interested in starting the 2023 season in Chapel Hill as the first game of a doubleheader that would also include the defending champs’ bout with James Madison.

Jenkins was a quick yes.

“I thought it would be great for our team, a great way to start off the season, especially given how our season ended last year — to be able to play on the road in that environment and have that positive platform,” Jenkins said. “We were all in.”

The date — the day before the Super Bowl — felt appropriate.

“On Super Bowl weekend, we got to play our Super Bowl game,” Jenkins said. “Does it get better than that?”

Howard head coach Karen Healy-Silcott was more conflicted. The same weekend last year, Healy-Silcott and the Bison were subjected to racist and misogynistic comments from spectators during a game against Presbyterian, another moment highlighting the burden Black lacrosse players carry. Healy-Silcott knows people want to help, but the decision was not a no-brainer.

“It was a bit of a hard decision,” Healy-Silcott said. “It didn’t come without uncertainties. There’s optics around it. There are people [online] who were vocal about their displeasure of us playing there … There was a fear that it was performative.”

Ultimately, Healy-Silcott and the Bison decided to go.

“Why UNC?” Healy-Silcott said. “Why did we go there? The reality is that they had resources to do things we couldn’t do … Playing at an HBCU in a sport that is predominately white is hard. To ignore those differences is ignorant, but to judge my team’s actions for wanting to go and perform on the best stage is overstepping.”

Resources like ESPN-affiliated ACCX Network. Say what you want about cord-cutters. ESPN still has its luster in sports communities, and Healy-Silcott has the call log to prove it.

“The press and everything we got for this weekend did its job,” Healy-Silcott said. “I’ve been fielding calls from my peers, and one of the main questions is, ‘How can people show their support without having the fear of a white savior complex?’ It’s a badge of honor to be a Black lacrosse player, but it’s also exhausting and can feel hopeless at times. People want to help, but they don’t always know what to do. “

The truth is, there’s no straight answer.

“Even my players were conflicted about wanting to stay home,” Healy-Silcott said. “Sometimes, people are feeling strong and want to be a voice of change, and other times, you want to hide a little. All I know is that it meant something to my team to hear ‘Lift Every Voice’ on a campus other than our own. I knew it meant something because I could hear my girls singing.”

It was an unforgettable moment for Jenkins, too.

“We were all like, ‘Wow, is this really happening?’ We’re playing on the field of champions, and they’re playing ‘Lift Every Voice,’” Jenkins said. “It was an incredible moment for sure.”

It was more than cameras and music, though. UNC ensured there was an all-Black officiating crew: Larry Carr, Christopher Branch and Michael Nelson.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know we had three Black officials in lacrosse,” Jenkins said. “All the little details showed how important it was not just to us but for them to get it right for us.”

The night before, North Carolina, Howard and Delaware State all sat down for dinner — a chance for everyone to mix, mingle and learn.

“I was really big on, if we are going to do this, I want the players to have authentic conversations,” Jenkins said. “I even said it at the dinner. ‘We all put our socks on one at a time. It’s just the outside that is different. We are all the same … with similar goals.’ It wasn’t forced. It seemed very genuine. Kudos to UNC players. They bought in and were ecstatic to be there.”

Jenkins hopes the weekend inspires people to continue to have authentic conversations and grow the game into one that welcomes everyone. She knows not everyone has the platform and resources like a defending national champion — but they don’t need it.

“I don’t think it has to be as big of a stage that UNC has given us,” Jenkins said. “I think an olive branch that acknowledges what we have gone through and continue to go through in the sport would be appreciated. I don’t expect it to be this big.”

Exhibit A: James Madison.

“JMU wrote a letter to our team, and we read it on the bus,” Jenkins said. “It was so moving, and we appreciated it so much. That’s what we really appreciate — when you are not following the masses but what happens behind closed doors that stands out. Yes, Jenny did this big thing, but she also reached out to me individually before this even happened, and she also [did this game] as well.”

Healy-Silcott agrees. She’s can’t advise all NCAA women’s teams on how to approach race and what they can do to change the game and greater system. But she hopes people take some of what they saw Saturday and use it to better the game for the next generation.

“I think the goals that Jenny, Pam and I thought could come out of it [were accomplished],” Healy-Silcott said. “We did get a platform. We did play in front of a youth group. We lost, and they were still so happy to see us. It meant something for my kids that, no matter what, they were having an impact on a group of girls at a game. I hope this doubleheader creates conversations and thoughts. At the very end, we had fun playing a lacrosse game.”


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