December 5, 2012

Woodson: Race Matters and the Discussion That Needs to be Had

by Chazz Woodson | Special to LaxMagazine.com | Related: Miller Plans to Play MLL

MLL and Team USA veteran Chazz Woodson says the controversy surrounding Warrior's #NinjaPlease ad campaign indicates an ongoing discussion about race is needed for lacrosse, as a sport, to continue to progress.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Chazz Woodson is an attackman for Major League Lacrosse's Ohio Machine and one of three black players in the professional outdoor league. He's also a Team USA veteran, most recently being named to the U.S. squad for January's Champion Challenge.

There's a moment in "Ghostbusters" when Gozer the Gozerian tells the Ghostbusters to "Choose the form of the Destructor!" After some brief "who dun it?" dialogue, Ray Stantz says, "I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us: Mr. Stay Puft."

It's a great moment in the movie. The look on Ray's face when he realizes that he's unintentionally released the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on New York City is priceless. And while this discussion has absolutely nothing to do with ghosts, Ghostbusters, or unbelievably tall men of the marshmallow persuasion, the look on Ray's face is strangely representative of how I felt when this whole issue of Warrior's #NinjaPlease marketing campaign began to take form.

I felt like I'd brought this on with my mind. But now that it's arrived, the question is no longer who dun it? The question is what do we do with it? We discuss it. Why? It's not to beat a dead horse. It's because in order for this great game to take off, there's got to be a continuous dialogue about how best to make this game accessible and appealing to the largest audience possible. Anything short of that makes lacrosse simply a glorified social club, with membership requirements that some people will inherently never meet, and that others will choose not to buy into.

There's been some down time since my original Facebook post regarding the Warrior ad that prompted a significant amount of discussion throughout the online lacrosse world. In fact, there's even been some down time since I was initially presented with the opportunity to write this piece. That's a good thing. It's allowed me to sit back and think about the way I want to present this.

There are so many different ways to go with it, and I wanted to make sure that what met your eyes was unfiltered, and was my own voice. So please know that I'm not speaking for anyone else. I stand by my opinion, and I welcome dialogue. I've said that from the beginning. I discussed various angles of the ad with a handful of people with whom I did not agree. I enjoyed it. I think they enjoyed it. But those people were actually discussing it, and doing so intelligently. They were not jumping on this as an opportunity to slam my (or anyone else's opinion), nor were they rude, derogatory, or offensive. You don't learn anything from discussing uneasy issues with only people that agree with you.

Having said that, and particularly while the thanks giving feeling is still in the air (yes, I meant to type thanks giving that way), it's important for me to say that I absolutely cherish my lacrosse experience. I appreciate the opportunities and the platform that I've been given through this sport. You're reading this because I've been able to make a name for myself in sport that has historically seemed very alienating to a lot of other Black people. Throw it up there with hockey, tennis, and golf. It's something, for so long, and for so many reasons we just didn't really play. If I was just some guy writing an opinion piece because I came across this story on the Internet, chances are good that you probably would never see it.

But lacrosse has been a blessing in my life. It's opened doors to me, and networks to me, that I may have otherwise never had access to. I have a very large extended family through lacrosse, many people that I'd be honored to call my brothers and sisters. I have ONE brother. So when I put anyone else in that category semantically, figuratively, comparatively, or otherwise, I don't do so carelessly. But I've spent some down days with this sport on and off the field, and I've unfortunately also met a number of people through this great sport with which I'd never want to associate myself.

But, that's life, isn't it? You don't connect with everyone, you don't like everyone, you don't associate with everyone, nor does anyone expect you to. Agreed. In the context, however, of a sport — a constantly and continuously evolving sport — that for so long predominantly served one community, association and social construct matter.

Lacrosse is often discussed from a "we" perspective. It's a fraternal game. From the inside out, that's very inclusive. From the outside in, it's very exclusive.

As a Black player, I have on many occasions felt like the outsider on this inside, an experience shared with a number of other Black players that I've had the good fortune of engaging with. And it's a very tricky position to find yourself in when you're young and developing your identity; particularly when the people you most identify with, question you for playing a white sport. Just recently, I received a message on Facebook from a young Black player, who said that his teammates on the track team made fun of him and his two other friends for going out for the lacrosse team. They were the only three Black players on the squad. At some point I hope this won't be the case, but the truth is, I receive similar messages and emails that address alienation at the hands of their lacrosse teammates or from others because they play lacrosse fairly regularly. I once wrote in one of my spoken word pieces:

I was that kid that learned to Bruce Wayne my friends by day and switch identities right off the bat, man, when I approached neighborhood parks on dark nights cuz the sights and sounds of a lacrosse field made no sense to the neighborhood natives.

Creative as I was, I learned to switch codes, like I switched clothes, continuously and consistently. Careful not to let my young ego betray my level of maturity, cuz proper grammar was sometimes a liability....

And when night turned to day, I replaced my ebonically laced silence with collared shirts and ties, to both prepare myself for the future, and appease my Birkenstock bred brethren, cuz too dark might come across as threatening...

I learned to tight rope. Swing from both ends of the rope simultaneously without being hung...

"We all are caretakers and ambassadors for of the sport," Woodson says. "At some point, in order to truly progress the sport, we have to be willing to examine the image on a more critical level."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Race matters. It may not directly affect everybody, every day. But it affects a lot of people every day. If we expect lacrosse to become the 100 percent inclusive sport that we all purport that it should be then the manner in which we handle race, among other things, needs to be part of that discussion. We can't effectively suggest that our club is open to anyone, but have a dress code that only a select few want to wear.

Great, Chazz. What does this have to do with Warrior's campaign?

Simple. While offending anyone was probably the furthest possible thing from their minds, the racial undertones of the ad predictably did offend a number of people. And it's the predictability that makes this significant.

As we've found out, there were a number of people that found the campaign offensive, disturbing, or simply in poor taste — some of them after the discussion began or after a little research on their own. To me, it's not the words that are the biggest issue. After all, neither Warrior nor their marketing team made up the phrase "ninja please." I'm disturbed by the fact that the campaign was cleared. Either the marketing team did a poor job of researching this (a quick Google search would have done the trick), or there was nobody that had the gumption to pull the plug on it. In my opinion, that simply suggests that nobody was even worried about who might be offended.

I'm not suggesting that we walk on eggshells. I'm suggesting that when there's a clear possibility of offending someone, particularly when there are countless other ways to go about accomplishing your mission, it makes sense to avoid doing so. For, arguably, the biggest and most recognizable company in the game to drop the ball here suggests to me that we may not be ready for the next big lacrosse boom that we are so eagerly waiting for.

But it's not even the campaign that may be most telling. When I posted on Facebook, and more specifically when Jovan Miller posted on Twitter, some of the reactions — the dismissiveness, the hate, and negativity that spewed forth from people that believed this was a non-issue — were downright and still unsurprisingly shameful. I say unsurprisingly because I happen to be very conscious of the fact that there are a lot more racist and hateful people in America than we like to acknowledge. And because I know all too well that there are too many of those people in our lacrosse family.

I've had a love/hate relationship with this sport over the course of my 21 years of involvement, because it's put me in awkward mental and emotional positions numerous times. On three separate occasions, I've been called a nigger — to my face, by members of the lacrosse community. Once by an opponent. Twice by teammates; the very same guys that I was working my tail off for, day in and day out. The same guys that I was supposed to go to battle with. The same guys I trusted to have my back. And people wonder why I keep the lacrosse community at arm's length. It's probably cost me some opportunities, and I understand and accept that. But it's been necessary for my sanity. In fact, it's probably what's kept me involved this long. It's allowed me to separate the good from the bad.

I don't bring that up for pity, sympathy, or empathy. I only want you to realize that if it's happened to me, it's happened to a lot of other people as well. And for some people, this image of intolerance, willful ignorance, and exclusion becomes the face of the sport — deservedly or not, fair or not. Having said that, lacrosse and the advancement of the Game cannot be viewed from a strictly racial perspective. Warrior's campaign has provided us an excellent opportunity to discuss the image of lacrosse, and how we want to move forward as a sport; on the field, but more importantly as a community and as a culture.

How do we take lacrosse, the oldest sport in North America, and make it representative of North America?

Lacrosse is an amazing sport. It has grown leaps and bounds, even since I was coming up. It will continue to grow. The image is one of the big things holding it back though. John Jiloty made a very good point in one of the "Winners and Losers" posts on Inside Lacrosse: "Men's lacrosse placed fourth (86%), and women's lacrosse first (94%) in the most recent NCAA study on graduation rates. Those are pretty impressive numbers. Does lacrosse still need to tone down the party image and have its players and leaders be more responsible? Definitely. Every lacrosse player should be conscious of people's knee-jerk reaction to think of them as arrogant, entitled jerks. But studying hard and graduating are definitely great things for the sport and its image."

I agree. We all are caretakers and ambassadors for of the sport. In fact, many of us that have made a name for ourselves within the sport often become salesmen for it. And unfortunately the good things don't always make up enough for some of the bad things. It's like trying to get somebody to date your not-so-attractive friend and trying to sell this person on your friend's personality. Sure it works sometimes, but other times, they'd rather just stick to what they know.

Is that a stretch? Hmmmm....

At some point, in order to truly progress the sport, we have to be willing to examine the image on a more critical level. And part of that examination has to be the way that we deal with race, and inclusion, and not just from a "don't-say-the-N-word" standpoint.

Lacrosse is a very fraternal sport. But the fraternity seems to struggle with those that do not subscribe to its tenants, because it fails to figure out what makes the foreigners tick. But how do we reach out to, and actively seek to engage other communities in a manner that is not only inviting, but appealing?

How do we create a public image for the sport that is representative of something that we are all proud of?

How do we take lacrosse, the oldest sport in North America, and make it representative of North America?

How do we take something that has done so much for so many of us, and use it to do so much, for so many more?

I don't have the answer. But I know that we must first be willing to acknowledge that we're not yet where we need to be. From there we can map our mission and consciously pursue its fulfillment.


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