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.