My name is Michelle Staggers and I grew up in Northern Virginia. I graduated last year as a member of the Duke women’s lacrosse team. I have spent a ton of time reflecting on my experience as a Black woman playing a predominantly white sport at a predominantly white institution like Duke University.
From the time I was little, my father and uncle pushed me and my cousins to excel in sports. It started out at rec league. But as I got older I never stopped dedicating hours to practicing basketball and lacrosse in the off-season and eventually tried out for travel teams. By 7th grade, I had made up in my mind that I was playing a sport in college. There’s actually research about the socialization of African American kids into playing sports like basketball and football. Our community lives for sports! It’s what we see on tv. We all have that one coach who changes our life and becomes a mentor to us. Everyone shows up for the big games. It’s what we know. This is all fine until black kids believe their only option in life is to play a sport.
Junior year of high school I earned a scholarship that allowed me to transfer to private school. I knew that opportunity was my ticket into college sports. I would find out later that many of my black student-athlete peers at Duke went to private school. No one speaks about the private school to college athletics pipeline funneling local elite black athletes to PWIs. The system in place is advantageous for big university programs. At 16 years old, I didn’t know what to look for in a school. During the recruiting process, I should’ve asked the coaches questions about what they were going to do to support me as a black player on the team. In the moment, I was blinded by the grand opportunity to play for a Division I school of such a high caliber. When I committed, I was told that I was “athletically gifted” but lacked “technical skill”. I didn’t understand that it was how all black lacrosse players were usually stereotyped. Especially for black women, playing defense was the norm because we weren’t seen as being multifaceted athletes, capable of being more than just fast or strong.
The sport of lacrosse is a uniquely elite space. Growing up, I was shielded from a lot of harsh realities for so long―especially the sin of racism. I believe the Lord was intentional in His timing. I suffered a brutal concussion before my sophomore season and it left me in pieces, trying to mold back my identity without the sport I had depended upon to give me my worth. In a time of soul-searching, my eyes were opened to more of the systemic issues that plagued our country. No coach ever shared this side of life with me. No amount of training, practices, weightlifting, games, or championships, was going to prepare me to face the world as a young, educated Black woman.
Many black student-athletes tend to only identify as an athlete because it is the only identity being reinforced. The term is “identity foreclosure”. The problem is what happens when these four years are over? Who are we? What kind of leaders have we become? We are not put in a position to be agents of change in society, equipped with the tools to dismantle the systems that weigh down the black and brown communities.
Blackness is not recognized in the realm of sports. It is to our detriment that when put on our team jersey, we must somehow dissociate from our black skin. I am apt to believe that the college athletic enterprise―functioning more like a billion dollar business― fails to prepare young African American men and women to curate a future for themselves. My prayer is that the athletes of today will know they can dream to be whatever they want. The revolution is now.