Lacrosse was supposed to be Nadirah McRae’s ticket out of North Philadelphia.
Growing up in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the teen had never had the chance to play any type of organized team sport, let alone one that required expensive equipment like a stick and cleats. But after a team was started at her school, a teacher encouraged her to give it a try.
It turned out she was a natural. “I kind of gravitated to the sport as if I played it before,” Nadirah says. “When I'm playing lacrosse and I'm on the field, it's like it's nothing but me and the field out there.”
In fact, it was more like she’d been playing all her life. The speed Nadirah developed running around the neighborhood and playing basketball translated well to lacrosse, and the game soon became one of her favorite activities (second only to sleeping, she says). By her senior year — after just one season — Nadirah was a top scorer on the Strawberry Mansion High School team and had landed the holy grail for any high school athlete: An athletic scholarship at a Division I school, the University of Hartford.
"Even with her asthma, she would be able to dodge defenders where they would have to triple team her to stop her,” says her coach Jazmine A. Smith, who helped the teen reach out to recruiters, making sure her talent didn’t go unnoticed.
In many ways Nadirah’s scholarship was a victory for both athlete and coach — and for Black girls everywhere. Smith, known to athletes as “Coach Jaz,” has been working for years to introduce girls of color to field hockey and lacrosse. Securing a scholarship like the one Nadirah was offered was her ultimate goal for players. Nadirah saw the opportunity as an “empowering” one that would not only allow her to get an education, but to also make an impact on the “culture and the history of the sport. “It’s changing the whole scenario [and] giving other African-American females the opportunity to even try to play lacrosse,” she says.
But, due to what was either a screw-up of epic proportions or a case of outright discrimination depending on who you ask, Nadirah’s dream of playing college lacrosse — along with a four-year scholarship estimated to be worth up to $250,000 — all went down the drain before she even stepped foot on campus. In August of 2017, just days before she was supposed to move her already packed bags into her dorm, the scholarship offer fell through because of what essentially amounted to a paperwork problem, interviews, court records, and emails allege.
“It felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest,” Nadirah says. “Nothing like this should ever happen to anybody in my opinion, because it’s like literally having your dreams snatched away from you.”
In September of 2017, Nadirah became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Strawberry Mansion and the Philadelphia Unified School District. The suit claims the treatment of the team at the predominantly black school amounted to gender and racial discrimination that violated the players’ rights to equal treatment under Title IX and Title VI, the landmark laws that prohibit discrimination at institutions that receive public funding.
Strawberry Mansion denies claims of discrimination and says the team was treated in accordance with district athletic bylaws. The legal fight, as most are, is a complicated one riddled with he saids, she saids, and contradicting facts presented by both sides. But it also shines a light on a bigger problems of diversity and inclusion impacting players beyond Philadelphia. At its core, it raises a question advocates have been asking for years: What will it take to finally close the athletic opportunity gap for girls of color?
Smith spent her early years in North Philadelphia, less than a mile from Strawberry Mansion. When she was four, her family moved to live in the suburbs, with her grandmother, who urged Smith to try out for field hockey and lacrosse. She went on to play on the varsity team at her high school, which was home to a championship-winning program and high-caliber coach. For much of that time, she says she was the only Black girl on the roster. “Mentally and physically I had to perform at a higher level because of my race,” she recalls. “It was hard, but I wanted to prove I belonged there and that I love the game.”
Today, lacrosse is one of the fastest growing youth sports in the country, with more than 770,000 participants played at the youth or high school level as of 2016, according to US Lacrosse. High school programs have increased by 25 percent nationwide since 2011 and the number of women’s teams on the college level has quadrupled since the 1980s. With more than 300 scholarships now available across levels of collegiate play, the sport’s rapid rise makes it ripe with opportunity for young women.
And yet, the opportunities remain concentrated in predominantly white (and affluent) communities. If she had gone to Hartford, Nadirah would have been one of a small minority of Black players competing at the collegiate level as a whole. More than 80% of Division I women’s lacrosse players are white; just 2% are Black.
These stats are a reflection of a nation-wide problem: Public high school teams in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods across the country are routinely hampered by inadequate resources, and this adds up to unequal access to opportunities for success, experts say.
“Lower-income communities often don’t have the resources to provide girls, or boys for that matter, opportunities to play ice hockey or field hockey or sports that might be a bit more expensive in terms of the resources and space required,” Dr. Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor at Purdue University who studies gender and sports, explains. “Some schools just don’t have space for soccer fields [or] a lacrosse field. Look at swimming: What if a school doesn’t have a pool? Socio-economic issues definitely will impact who’s playing sports because of what sports are offered in the school.”
Research suggests this hits girls of color the hardest. A 2015 report by the National Women’s Law Center found that 40% of heavily minority schools experience “female opportunity gaps” for sports, compared to 16% of predominantly white institutions. The report found just 20 sports team slots for every 100 female students at majority minority schools. (At predominantly white schools, the rate jumps to 51 spots per 100 girls. In both cases, the opportunities for male students are higher than for female peers). What’s more, the research suggests that opportunities for those young women of color are heavily concentrated in basketball and track. The gap widens for sports like field hockey and lacrosse.
“The playing field is definitely not level yet,” Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of education for NWLC, says. “Schools that are predominantly students of color, they tend to have fewer opportunities and are also taking those more limited opportunities and giving them out in an unequal way. It’s really disturbing.”
Smith has spent much of the past decade focused on changing these stats full-time. Her nonprofit Eyekonz is a girls sports league that’s part club team, part character-development curriculum serving girls 5 to 18 in Philadelphia. Many of the girls come from underprivileged backgrounds and have never before been exposed to team sports, period. Players attend clinics and summer camps where Smith teaches them the fundamentals of the game. Smith says donations and corporate sponsorships cover participation costs for many girls (Refinery29’s requests for a copy of the nonprofit’s tax forms supporting those claims were not fulfilled by press time). In 2015, she was given a contract to start and coach field hockey and lacrosse teams for girls at Strawberry Mansion.
She thought the opportunity would bring even more girls of color into the sport she loves. Instead, Smith says the Strawberry Mansion team was under-resourced from the start and that the district’s treatment of the team put the girls at a disadvantage. She says while the girls initially had the support of the school administration, things took a turn for the worse after a change in leadership and plans to move the team from junior varsity to varsity level were scrapped. The lawsuit filed last fall claims that “the District funds, supports and encourages girls at schools like Northeast” — a top-performing public school in the city with a championship-winning field hockey team — “to play Lacrosse while refusing to make those opportunities available to girls of color at schools like Strawberry Mansion High School.” The suit also alleges that the funding the school did have available went mostly to boys’ sports, offering a double whammy of injustice for the female athletes: "The Strawberry Mansion girls' team were not provided complete uniforms or cleats but the football team received complete uniforms and proper footwear."
Beyond that, Smith says games and buses were canceled and the schedules pit the teams against other predominantly Black schools, not wealthier, white schools with more established teams and players. She started speaking publicly with local reporters, telling them the team was being relegated to a “Negro League” and clashed with a new athletic director over the program’s direction and scheduling issues. At the end of the season, Smith learned her contract to coach would not be renewed.
Nadirah still had a standout season. Her story of overcoming challenges, including caring for her mother with severe lupus and struggling to get by financially, was featured on ESPN.com. As the network reported, she once fainted at a field hockey game because she didn’t have any food to eat all day. She was bullied at school because she was in a same-sex, interracial relationship. She saw college as an opportunity to break out of that life and set out on her own path to success.
But the scholarship and her ability to play was contingent on Nadirah graduating and meeting NCAA academic qualifications, and it turned out Nadirah’s overall GPA and test scores were too low. Smith and the University of Hartford coach, Meg Decker, began guiding Nadirah through applying for what’s called an eligibility waiver, which the NCAA offers to some student athletes in extenuating circumstances. In order to get the waiver from the NCAA, she needed to make a case that she could succeed in college, despite her high school grades. Nadirah wrote a personal statement explaining why she thought she could succeed and the coaches collected news articles about the adversity she’d overcome.
When I'm playing lacrosse and I'm on the field, it's like it's nothing but me and the field out there.
Then, in July, Decker reached out with another issue: The NCAA had not received proof of Nadirah’s graduation. (That paperwork wouldn’t have guaranteed approval of the waiver, but it was a necessary step.) Nadirah says she asked for her transcript multiple times, but the Strawberry Mansion counselor didn’t believe her and “continuously advised her to set sights on less prestigious schools,” according to the lawsuit. Decker also called and emailed the school repeatedly, according to legal filings. In late August, Nadirah and Smith received a final verdict from Hartford: Nadirah wouldn’t be able to play lacrosse and get a scholarship that year.
The news set off a scramble to get Nadirah into a nearby college in time for the fall term. “This entire process started because Nadirah is truly someone special. I believe she will succeed in her dream of becoming a sports journalist,” Decker wrote in an email to Smith.
Nadirah's uncle reached out to a local law firm about the situation. On September 12, 2017, during a press conference in the 18th-floor offices of a downtown office building, attorneys with Freiwald Law announced a class-action lawsuit with Nadirah as the lead plaintiff.
“When I finally got accepted to the university on a scholarship for lacrosse I was ready to start another chapter of my life,” Nadirah said in a statement to reporters at the time. “I thought going to a whole different state, meeting new people, and learning new things to become a better person would be the ultimate goal I could achieve in my life to make myself and my family proud for making something of myself… Losing my scholarship broke my heart into a million pieces, because going to Hartford meant a lot to me, because it finally felt like I was setting myself up for the greater good.”
The school district has repeatedly disputed Smith’s claims, and they’ve said that there is no evidence of gender or racial discrimination. Officials maintain that the team was simply placed in a developmental league, which is similar to a club program, in accordance with district athletic bylaws overseeing the creation of new teams. District spokesman Lee Whack told ESPN last year that games were canceled because "not enough players were available and/or their coach was not present." “We are focused on making sure our students, no matter what school [they attend], have access to opportunities to be student athletes across a variety of sports. It’s our goal to make sure they have a great experience but also that programs are sustainable. We will remain focused on that,” Whack told Refinery29. “We want to make sure there are more opportunities. Our students definitely deserve these opportunities and as we continue to grow as a school district we want to make sure these programs grow.”
The school district has sought to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the allegations don’t meet the legal requirements for discrimination and harassment and that the Strawberry Mansion team was treated like any other new program. Other predominantly Black schools do have lacrosse or field hockey teams, they’ve pointed out. And when it comes to the allegations about the charges against the guidance counselor who allegedly failed to produce the transcript in time, Nadirah’s complaint “provides no concrete facts or details supporting such an allegation and, in any event, fails to allege how that has harmed her, if at all,” legal documents from the district say. The district’s lawyers have also argued that Nadirah lacks standing to be the lead plaintiff in the case because she has already graduated. (Additional players have since joined the suit.)
For now, the case is still pending in the courts, and could languish there for a long time. If the judge sides with the girls, Nadirah and other players could receive monetary damages. But no matter the outcome, the damage to Nadirah’s current prospects is done. She likely won’t be recruited at this point for a scholarship. Her best option now is to play lacrosse at a junior college and get good enough grades to transfer.
After Hartford fell through, Nadirah did one semester at nearby Cheyney University, a private college with no lacrosse program. But without practices to attend, and with all the continuing drama and depression about what could’ve been, the transition was rough. Her grades weren’t great, and she lost her financial aid. She moved back home in January.
Now, she splits time between her grandmother and her dad, looking for a job. Playing college lacrosse may now be a longshot, but Nadirah says she isn’t ready to let go of that dream — or her goal of being a sports anchor in ESPN someday — anytime soon.
“I want to be still be a part of the sports world because that's where I feel as though I really belong and where I'm meant to be,” she says. “I've already made a difference in lacrosse. I want to make a difference in the sports world as well.”
As for her former classmates at Strawberry Mansion? They won't be playing lacrosse this spring, either. The school will not be hosting a team. Whack said it was due to a lack of student interest.
Update (4/10/2017): This story has been updated to specify that the timeline of events leading up to the lawsuit included promises regarding the team's varsity status.