COLLEGE PARK – When Alex Heitkemper joined the Prince George’s Pride lacrosse club three years ago, he noticed something different about the team.
The club, one of only two youth lacrosse clubs in the county, challenged the notion lacrosse is a sport only played by wealthy, white athletes.
Heitkemper, 39, the commissioner for the club, has seen P.G. Pride grow at a rapid pace – from 65 to 130 members in just the past year. He marvels at the club’s ethnic and racial diversity, which reflects the large minority population in Prince George’s County.
“In some of these communities, a lot of these kids have never even seen a lacrosse stick,” he said.
P.G. County is 65.4 percent black and 15.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to 2011 U.S. census data.
Teresa Simms, of Fort Washington, and her sons, Gary, 15, and Brandon, 12, had no previous experience in the sport before joining P.G. Pride in 2010. Simms, who is African-American, said her family was immediately drawn to the diverse and welcoming atmosphere of the team.
“When I went to P.G Pride, it was a very diverse team, so that was very exciting,” she said.
The demographic makeup of P.G. Pride is uncommon for a sport that has struggled to diversify itself.
Officials with U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body of the sport, know they need to do more to shed lacrosse’s image as a majority white, upper-class, East Coast game.
“I think that the game will continue to be more and more diverse as we move forward,” said Joshua Christian, the managing director of sport development for U.S. Lacrosse. “It is not going to do it on its own.”
In 2003, the organization launched the BRIDGE (Building Relationships to Initiate Diversity, Growth and Enrichment) program, with a mission to teach lacrosse to “youth from diverse and traditionally underserved populations.”
The program provided funding to teams in minority communities. But U.S. Lacrosse officials said it was not doing enough to provide training to coaches and players to create sustainable minority clubs.
The organization eliminated BRIDGE in 2011. Last year, they launched First Stick, a program that provides training and funding to fledgling lacrosse clubs. It does not focus exclusively on increasing diversity in the sport, but it has helped teams in diverse areas like P.G. Pride.
U.S. Lacrosse officials said there has been a slight increase in diversity at the youth level over the last decade, though they could not offer precise numbers. The collegiate ranks have also seen a slight increase over the last decade.
Approximately 12 percent of student-athletes playing NCAA lacrosse in 2011 identified themselves as non-white, according to the NCAA, a jump from 10 percent in 1999.
Comparatively, in 2011 nearly 45 percent of NCAA football players identified as non-white.
Sean Calabrese, 26, a former All-America midfielder who played for the University of Delaware and Stevenson University, said that having more minorities playing college lacrosse will attract younger minority players to the sport.
“There’s a plethora of [minority players] that have gone through [the collegiate game]. It’s just a matter of seeing them at a consistent basis,” he said. “I think that will generate and retain interest.”
Having more minority lacrosse players in college will require a larger pool of minority youth players.
In efforts to increase enrollment, P.G. Pride hosts several clinics a year that provide training and equipment for new players.
Of the 130 attendees at a clinic last month in the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, there were 38 boys and 12 girls brand new to the sport, many of which were minorities, Heitkemper said. P.G. Pride has teams for boys and girls ages 8 to 15.
One of the attendees, Alexis Dash, who is African-American, had never picked up a lacrosse stick before attending a winter clinic. It did not take long for the 12-year-old to get hooked.
“It just seems really cool to play something that a lot of people don’t play – just be different from everybody else, just stand out,” she said.
Dash, a sixth grader at St. Columba School in Oxon Hill, was encouraged to attend the event by her mother, Monica Dash, who said she hopes the sport will open doors for her daughter.
“When you start going to college, you need the diverse background to get accepted,” she said. “If she was one of few minorities that could play lacrosse, that would be an advantage for her.”
U.S. Lacrosse officials said they are aware that the perception of lacrosse as a largely white sport represents a cultural barrier to increasing minority participation.
“We recognize where [lacrosse has] come from. [It comes] from a very white, East Coast, mid-Atlantic, upper mid-Atlantic history,” Christian said. “We embrace that and say that’s how the game has come to be. We also recognize that it’s an Native American game, ironically, and that it really came from people of color.”
Cost is also a big hurdle for many parents considering the sport. Equipment, including sticks and pads, can cost up to $400. U.S. Lacrosse is working with equipment manufacturers and retailers to bring down the cost, Christian said.
Barriers aside, those involved in the sport said they want to reach out to as many people as possible.
“One thing about the lacrosse community is they really, really want to grow the game,” Heitkemper said. “I think over time it will become more of a diverse crowd that plays lacrosse.”