Lauren Davenport: 'Just Play Lacrosse'

Lauren Davenport is the manager of athlete development at US Lacrosse. She has coached lacrosse at the youth, high school and collegiate levels.

“Just play lacrosse.”

“Why do you have to make this political?”

“Lacrosse is an escape — don’t talk about that here.”

“That’s not what they meant.”

“You missed the point.”

“Go learn history.”

If you have been on social media at any point in the last year, you have likely seen comments of this nature. These comments often come in response to posts about people’s identity, an organization or person taking a stand against discrimination, an organization or person advocating for something or a post of solidarity towards a cause (or allyship to those supporting a cause).

More specifically, these comments pour in most often with posts related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and/or gender — the parts of our respective identities that have been historically (and presently) marginalized, underrepresented, oppressed and discriminated against. However, posts of similar nature that support causes not tied to such identities often receive overwhelming support. Why is this? Why do posts of this nature evoke such a response — especially when the flip side is “cancel culture?” While I do know that social media can be a beast in its own, I do notice these consistent patterns of responses. When I see comments and responses such as the ones above, I am often left wondering where there is a disconnect or why these things are so contentious.

Personally, comments of this nature bring to light the need for a growth in empathy and balance of empathy. Empathy allows us to build relationships and connections with others by developing the ability to experiences another’s point of view in addition to our own. When we are empathetic, we can identify, understand and share thoughts, as well as the feelings of others. When we are empathetic individuals, we can better engage in perspective-taking (engage with different viewpoints), we can better understand the emotions of others, we may be moved to help others and most importantly — we consider the whole person.

"Empathy allows us to build relationships and connections with others by developing the ability to experiences another’s point of view in addition to our own."

Consider this scenario: Say you have a player who is usually running to practice and is about 5-10 minutes late at least once a week — usually missing the warm up — but often stays late to do some extra skill work after helping to clean up the field (without being asked to do so). The coach and the rest of the team notice this — mostly with the other players getting frustrated that their teammate can show up late and still play. Instead of reprimanding the player, the coach takes time to speak with the player after one practice and learns that the player rushes from school to pick up a younger sibling from a different school, drops the sibling off at aftercare off site and then rushes back across town to get to practice.

The player often works on skills after practice to make productive use of time while waiting for their oldest sibling to pick them up after picking up the younger sibling from aftercare. Even though this player would like to just show up and play, the player has other responsibilities outside of the sport. After learning this, the coach and other players on the team are no longer frustrated at the tardiness, understanding that there is more to this player than just coming to practice and competing in games.       

Think about this: In the scenario of the player, did you assign a gender or ethnicity to the player? Who did you imagine — someone you know, or someone you perceive would have this experience? These are the kind of things we need to be mindful of, whether we are interacting with people in person or on social media. This could very well lead the way for more bias and stereotyping that could further create divisions within our lacrosse community. To work on these things with empathy, however, we must truly acknowledge the disparities in sports.

A recent article from Axios’ deep dive, “Hard Truths: Sports” begins with “The Unequal Playing Field.” The article identifies that sports often mirror society — not just the fun and celebratory parts of society, but the unjust parts of society, too. The article goes on to share historical and present examples of common inequities from youth to professional levels of sport that often fall along racial lines. That article details information on the effect of household income impacting youth who participate in sports, the impact of the college sports industry, how stereotypes impact Asian Americans at the professional level and the barriers on the business side to sports. All of this to say, if you took the word “sport” out of the article, you would still yield similar information and findings to data based on the disparities we see across society. Why bring up all these things? What does it have to do with some comments on social media or a scenario of a player?

When you look at current events, it is unfair (in my opinion) to ask organizations, program leaders, coaches, athletes and families to “just focus” on the game of lacrosse — especially when we as humans need time to process the world. Whether people are processing the shootings in Boulder and Atlanta within a week of one another, the disparity in equipment and food between the women’s and men’s teams in the NCAA tournament or the continued increase of violence towards Asian American and Pacific Islanders in this country — there is much more to all of us than the game of lacrosse that we love. In fact, August 2020 was an example of the NBA, WNBA, MLB, MLS and Naomi Osaka in protest of Jacob Blake’s shooting. The part that some may have forgotten (and that came out in other social media posts and news interviews) was the sadness and impact the shooting had on these athletes — professional athletes of the highest caliber who still needed time and space to process what happened — who couldn’t just “suit up and play” given what happened. They also took a stand for what they believed in, calling out injustice and advocating for time away for them to process what happened without the need to “get their heads in the game.” The lacrosse community is no different.

When the comments come about just focusing on the game and not politics, I often wonder if people understand the inherent privilege of that. As I have stated before, I am a Black Woman — two of many of my identities that I love and celebrate. Whether I am coaching, in a meeting or at home eating a meal — that fact does not change, and there are certain aspects to just those two identities that will impact me in every space I occupy. I do not have the privilege to hide or “tone down” either of those identities (nor should I have to) so that I can have a better experience in spaces I enter. A sad reality is that because of those two identities, it is not safe or ideal for me to go to certain spaces (i.e. certain areas at night because I am a woman or even certain towns because of a lack of diversity mixed with racial conflict) — even on behalf of US Lacrosse. Even though everything is not to that degree, there are moments (on social media and in person) where I cannot “just work” or “just coach.”

There are days when personal moments in life or even national and global events impact me to the point that I need time to process and can’t just go on with “business as usual.” When I learned of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd last year, I sat in silence. I then checked on my close friends and cousins, especially those who are Black men. I heard their collective hurt and anger. When Christian Cooper was profiled in Central Park last year, I reflected on all of the times in my life — from childhood to adulthood — that I have been profiled, followed, stereotyped and met with hostility from people I knew and from strangers. There were many times on public transportation that people crossed the platform, bus or train simply because I was within 20 feet of them, on my phone and in broad daylight. These things happened regularly, just on the presumption that I must be doing something illegal or wrong or must be the stereotypical “angry Black woman” and need to be “talked at” a certain way. When these moments happened, I spent significant time having conversations with friends and family members to discuss procedures or systems to be put in place so we know if something is happening and someone needs to be on the phone as a witness or be ready to come support. We hope for incidents not to happen, but we have plans in place for when they happen — not if they happen.

When I learned of the Iroquois Nationals’ continued fight to compete on the world stage (and all the barriers they fight through along the way), I listened and worked to understand. When I continually see Asian American and Pacific Islanders met with the same violence, hate, aggression and profiling I have been met with, I listen, and I understand. For me, this is not about the very real human rights issues that are often politicized — it is about myself and others being considered a whole person to be met with empathy and dignity. It is about people who constantly fight barriers and systems that were once “acceptable” and that we challenge and push for change. So yes, it is a privilege to tell someone to focus on something else, especially when you’ve never had to live through such things.

For those who are allies and who do hold others accountable to use their privilege in ways that move us forward, I thank you. The thing about systemic issues is that it takes everyone to be part of progress and to move us forward. We are all needed, especially in a sport community that is not majority people of color. We need active allies who hold others accountable and act proactively in spaces that people of color are not in. We need active allies who have the power to make necessary change and make the changes happen. We cannot underestimate this force for good — especially when history tells us how vital it has been for the progress that has happened thus far.

As a lacrosse community, we still have a lot of work to do. We still need to stand in solidarity with and support the Iroquois Nationals as they continue to fight to compete on the world stage. We still have incidents of racism (not just towards Black people) in our lacrosse community. We still have a vastly disproportionate racial makeup of players and coaches within the lacrosse community. If we take the time to look at sports — our sport — as a mirror of society, we must also work on a more empathetic approach to those who are consistently taking a stand and going against “the way things have been.” The goal with this approach is not to excommunicate those who don’t “fall in line” with “the new way of doing things.” The goal is to shed light on the disparities, lead with empathy and invite all along on the journey. Ultimately, we must grow, shift and change. Our world needs it. Our lacrosse community needs it. The different voices of our community have been showing us this time and time again.

We can start with the comments often seen on social media posts. Even though social media platforms often are not the forum for empathetic discussions, we can do our part to change that. Before responding, we can take a moment to pause and self-reflect. In that reflection, ask ourselves, “What is it about this post that is sparking something in me, and is it necessary for me to say something?” Taking a moment to ask ourselves these questions opens the door to reflect on our own experience as it relates to the post. Meaning, is there something being misunderstood? Is the post triggering in some way?

Ultimately, any response in life (whether on social media or otherwise) is a direct result of our life experiences, perspectives and ways of thinking. If we see posts online that compel us to respond in harmful or dismissive ways, we should pause and ask ourselves why that is. If the post sparks disagreement, is there a productive and empathetic way to express that disagreement? Are there ways to lead with non-confrontational dialogue to create space for mutual learning without the intent of debate and changing minds (instead of assuming lack of knowledge)?

Whether it is that player who is late to practice a couple of times a week, a current event or a social media post, we can all benefit from pausing, perspective-taking and responding with a lens of empathy. We can take a moment to pause and ask ourselves why the post, comment or situation is sparking a certain reaction within us. We can take a moment to give ourselves and others space to react and share their beliefs and viewpoints. Ultimately, I do not believe we can just ask others to “just focus on lacrosse” when we as humans have so much more to us than just this game that brings us together. Part of being human is acknowledging the discomfort and the “-isms” that are faced in our world — racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, classism and other similar terms. Part of being a community is holding one another accountable, too. We need to be intentional and consistent about addressing wrongs that occur, and hopefully, seek to take a restorative justice approach to address those wrongs when they happen. All of this takes continued work and will not change overnight. However, we can continue to progress forward — even with the missteps along the way.

Lacrosse can be our escape at times; it can also be our forum to come together in unity to support one another. There are times when we can focus on the game, and there are times when we need to focus on the people who make up our community. There are times to celebrate and there are times for accountability and reconciliation for the things that have hurt our community. None of these are mutually exclusive things because the people of our community allow us to continue to play the game that brings us together.

Together does not mean together in agreement. Together means in honor, respect and empathy for one another. Those three things should be the main pillars of our lacrosse community.