In April, Deadspin published a story about three Native American youth lacrosse teams that were expelled from the Dakota Premier Lacrosse League after voicing concerns about systemic racism within the league to administrator Corey Mitchell.
In March, coaches from the three Native teams asked for Mitchell’s help in curtailing incidents of racist abuse that their players had experienced during games. Mitchell responded by expelling the three Native teams from the league, just weeks before the start of the new season. During a subsequent recorded phone conversation with a woman who works as a grant writer for one of the Native programs, Mitchell repeatedly brushed off one of the Native coach’s allegations of racism. “Whenever there’s a conflict that comes up with Cody’s teams it’s never because the ref exists inside the human condition and people make mistakes, it’s because he’s always saying there’s a racial issue involved,” said Mitchell.
US Lacrosse has since completed an investigation into Mitchell’s handling of the situation, and sent a statement to Deadspin laying out the changes it will make in response:
Support the transition of this independent youth league’s governance structure from a private corporation to a nonprofit organization with a board structure that is representative of the programs and communities it serves.
In coordination with the Iroquois Nationals program, which represents Native American lacrosse as an independent member of the Federation of International Lacrosse, support the travel of several prominent Iroquois Nationals players/administrators to conduct a player clinic in South Dakota.
Develop a cultural competency curriculum that will be incorporated into our Coach Development Program and available to parents and program administrators.
Fund a Positive Coaching Alliance workshop for coaches and administrators in the region.
Establish a Native American Lacrosse Alliance to prioritize initiatives focused on supporting the continued development of lacrosse among Native communities nationally, as well as recognizing/celebrating the Native American origins of the sport and the important roles Native Americans continue to play in the sport today.
Identify and train additional US Lacrosse Coach Development Program trainers in the region.
Continue to offer grant programs and other resources to support the development of the sport in the region.
US Lacrosse also said that Cory Black Feather, the Native American coach of the first-year Oglala Wild U12 team, will have a seat on the newly constituted board. Corey Mitchell, the founder and administrator of the DPLL, will be retaining his position until the end of the season as well as aiding the transition.
So far, the Native American teams that were banned have not been allowed back into the league, and no promises have been made for the future. US Lacrosse declined to provide further comment for this story, and Corey Mitchell did not respond to phone calls.
The banned teams feel these solutions fall short. They don’t understand why Mitchell has been allowed to keep his position through the rest of the season while the Native teams have been left out, and they don’t believe that US Lacrosse’s investigation was ever meant to solve the issues at hand.
“Fuck US Lacrosse. They are not welcome on any reservation I work with,” said Franky Jackson, the director of Lightning Stick Society. “Trying to tell me that racism doesn’t exist. Trying to get me to answer for why another Native program is staying with the DPLL and not aligning with us. ... Steve [Stenersen, CEO of US Lacrosse] told me they had interviewed 19 people and had conflicting stories. I asked Steve, ‘did you listen to the recording?’ Because Corey admits the racism is going on and he’s not doing anything about it. And while US Lacrosse waits on their lawyer to finish that investigation, 130 Native kids can’t play lacrosse.”
When Deadspin asked Jackson what an ideal solution would look like, he said, “I want them to dissolve the DPLL and rebuild a league based off of US Lacrosse standard operating procedure with rules that address what’s going on right here and now. Not allowing Corey to pick all his friends for the board and push the league where he wants it to go.”
Jeremy Red Eagle, coach and director for expelled team Susbeca (which means dragonfly in the Dakota language) said the decisions by US Lacrosse were a “step in the right direction,” but added that he “wasn’t satisfied with the whole outcome.”
“With US Lacrosse putting racism against African-Americans in lacrosse on the cover of their magazine last month, I think this would have been a prime time to step up and really make this into the serious deal it is,” Red Eagle said. “It’s not really acceptable that Corey is still going to be involved and we are still out of the league.” He added that he would not be comfortable re-joining the league any time soon.
7 Flames coach Cody Hall, whose team was expelled, expressed concerns about the investigation itself. He said he was only contacted by US Lacrosse on March 29th, three weeks after the governing body had been informed about the situation. He said he was contacted again shortly before US Lacrosse made its decision on what to do about the allegations of racial discrimination, at which point he was informed about the status of the investigation. This pattern was reported by the other two Native clubs as well. Hall told Deadspin, “They’re not helping us, the three teams that got banned. But they’re sure helping Corey Mitchell. They’re not helping these kids. We got to come up with it on our own.”
“When an organization is genuinely interested in celebrating inclusion and diversity, they don’t typically respond by retaining a law firm,” Hall said. “We still have 130 kids not on a field playing lacrosse, that’s including all three programs. That is not an oversight. That’s a gross miscarriage of effort if growing the sport is your goal. Their investigation didn’t involve us, it didn’t involve them hearing the tape. Predominantly their conversation has been with Corey Mitchell, not with us. All three of us banned team directors were asked three questions by their lawyer. That’s it.”
7 Flames volunteer grant writer Ali Vincent said US Lacrosse only asked for the audio recording she made when she spoke with Corey Mitchell on March 8th, the day 7 Flames learned of their banishment. 7 Flames’ lawyers asked US Lacrosse to sign a non-disclosure agreement before receiving the tape, which they refused to do. Vincent told Deadspin that her attorney expressed shock at US Lacrosse not signing the NDA. “If they don’t want to sign it and listen to the tape, and have already made a series of decisions on how they are going to respond to this without actually hearing verifying evidence of discriminatory behavior, it’s pretty clear to me they don’t want an actual resolution to the problem,” she said. “They just want to mitigate. It’s a PR game for them”
7 Flames is driving 15 hours to Tulsa, Oklahoma this weekend to play a team that invited them after the Deadspin story. The team played a Native club from Nebraska twice, and are planning on hosting their own tournament this summer during their lacrosse clinic, which will also feature high-profile Iroquois players. They recently returned US Lacrosse diversity grant money for their new girls team, as they are not in a league. When Deadspin spoke with 7 Flames coach Jeremiah Moreno, he emphasized that his team is staying positive and “keeping the ball rolling.” 7 Flames also has set up a team in Georgia after a lawyer there got in touch.
Susbeca has been playing a local DPLL team, the Watertown Warriors, in scrimmages, although Red Eagle says it is not as much fun as playing in a league. Lightning Stick Society is playing in Minnesota. Frank Jackson, the club’s director, told Deadspin that he is partnering with Minnesota lacrosse teams to create a safe hub for teams from the Dakotas to play at the new lacrosse field being built on the Lower Sioux Reservation, where Lightning Stick Society is based.
Curtis Waltman is a freelancer and reporter for MuckRock, based out of Boston. You can find him on twitter @CHWaltman.