Behind the Whistle: The Hidden Impact of Sport

Behind the Whistle: The Hidden Impact of Sport

This story originally appeared on Behind the whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is republished with the organization’s permission. Karen Healy-Silcott is the senior women’s lacrosse coach at Howard University.

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

A lot of people expressed their displeasure with our decision to play at Chapel Hill. In fact, as a team, we initially had reservations about accepting UNC’s offer. We were worried about the optics. We worried about the sincerity. Were we just being used as pawns to spruce up UNC’s efforts to demonstrate its inclusiveness during Black History Month?

Our team has a wide range of maturity levels and life experiences. Some have severe trauma and anger due to racial issues. Others are so comfortable in “white rooms” that they are sometimes referred to as “selling out.” We had discussions about humility and trust; about taking risks and dealing with criticism; about the growth of 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.

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Playing our opening game at UNC had a positive impact on my players growth and more importantly the youth group that came to the game. They saw a whole field of women who looked just like them in that place, reminding us that simply by existing as black lacrosse players, we represent hope. Spending time with this group of young girls was worth the trip. They didn’t care that we lost; They made sure we were there.

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

A lot of my fellow coaches 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 bring about meaningful change in our sport, the way forward begins with building trust through discussions like the ones that emerged from the opening weekend celebration. Talking about racing requires humility, openness and risk-taking. It’s a delicate balance that requires deep thought and the courage to endure emotional discomfort and even pain. Growth is uncomfortable.

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

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Time will tell if the commitment between the UNC and Howard players translates into lasting relationships. I know 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 like to ask you to donate your time and resources to help new and existing youth programs in your area. If we have more minority kids starting young, eventually it won’t be so lonely at the top.

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