Last season, the National Lacrosse League made headlines for a disturbing racist incident at the Philadelphia Wings vs Georgia Swarm game. Star player from the Storm, Lyle Thompson of the Onondaga Nation, was taunted by the Philly crowd for his braided ponytail; even the announcer joined in, calling for the crowd to “snip the ponytail.”
Tragically, most spectators don’t know that lacrosse was invented by the Iroquois who played the game nearly 1,000 years ago. The game is very much tied to Native Americans’ community and spirituality, and 10% of the league is comprised of indigenous players. The response from the incident was swift and serious and has led to broader conversation and awareness around the games’ origin. The NLL made a league-wide commitment to formal education and sensitivity training for players, owners, and staffs called “Roots of the Game.” Further, next season will bring with it a heritage appreciation night hosted by every team in the league.
Thompson, one of four brothers in the league, responded to the incident in his own way. He and his brothers were raised to believe that wearing their hair long showed pride in their heritage, as well as resistance to assimilation. He started a T-shirt campaign called “Back the Braid” with proceeds going to free summer lacrosse camps his family runs in partnership with Nike. Their goal, in addition to bringing awareness to lacrosse’s roots, is to encourage more Native kids to play the sport.
Why We Like It
Not only did the National Lacrosse League make amends for the poor behavior of its fans and announcer, but they’ve also started taking real steps to bring more awareness to and opportunity for Native Americans in the sport. Diversity and inclusion is a critical piece of any sound corporation, and sports leagues are no exception. We applaud the NLL’s initial efforts and will continue to track its progress.
Secondly, Thompson’s t-shirt campaign was a simple but powerful way to send a direct message to anyone who might be uneducated or downright disrespectful towards his people’s heritage. His family’s camps, in conjunction with Nike, will also continue to spread the game to Native communities which will build the pipeline for growing the league’s indigenous population.
For years now, the Philadelphia Eagles have been ahead of the curve when it comes to community impact. The Eagles Care team has taken a thoughtful, deliberate approach, focusing their efforts on capacity building for local non-profits, in addition to traditional community engagement strategies. Rather than running one-off events or cutting checks to organizations, the Eagles partner with select non-profits for an entire season to equip them with the tools and resources they need to be more efficient and impactful through the work they are already doing. The Eagles' newest initiative - the Eagles Autism Challenge - is no different.
Not only is the team raising money for innovative research, but they are also playing a role in deciding where and how the funds are utilized in the field of autism. Together with leading doctors, scientists, and organizations, the Eagles are showing professional teams how to move the needle in a major way. Launched last year, the Eagles' Autism Challenge raised $2.5 million in just one event and granted money to several local institutions. This year, the team has opened the grantee pool to any research institution in the city and will lean on the knowledge of nine autism experts to grant out $3.5 million.
Why We Like It
The Eagles’ focus on capacity building has set the team apart in the sports philanthropy space. Their intentionality, patience, and investment into Philadelphia has and continues to have a ripple effect. The team is leveraging their influence and resource to make non-profits better; a shining example of how to truly use sports for impact. Through the Eagles Autism Challenge specifically, the team has done several things really well: 1) invested in a cause close to the owner’s heart - Jeffrey Lurie’s brother is on the spectrum 2) called in professionals to assess the grant applications 3) mobilized their fanbase to raise big money in very little time. The Eagles do not believe in community relations for the sake of their brand; the team is committed to long-term, sustainable programming, and other professional teams should take note.
Philanthropy Playmakers is a sports philanthropy consulting firm that advises non-profits, athletes and foundations. Our core competencies include fundraising strategy, strategic planning, marketing, and communications at the intersection of sports and philanthropy. To learn more, contact us.