The year was 2016. Dhane Smith had arguably the best offensive season in NLL history. He set a new record with 72 goals, and only a season after Shawn Evans set an NLL record with 130 points (shattering the old record of 116), Smith broke that record with 137. Smith was named league MVP.
Some months after the award announcement, I realized that Smith was probably the first Black player to be named NLL MVP. I checked and indeed he was. I was a little surprised that I had to go look that up, and that none of the press releases or discussion that I’d seen about the award had mentioned that fact. That made me wonder about how many Indigenous players had been named MVP. At the time, the answer to that was two: Jeff Shattler in 2011 and Cody Jamieson in 2014. In 2017, Lyle Thompson brought that number to three. And in all of those cases, all of the talk about those players and the award just dealt with how great a player they were, how good a season they had, and so on. Nothing about their background.
I remember thinking at the time how great it was that in the lacrosse world, Indigenous and Black players can be named MVP and it doesn’t make news. If a Black player had won the Hart trophy in the NHL, how many of the MVP stories would mention the player’s skin colour? I decided it would likely be all of them. How great it was that racism wasn’t a problem in lacrosse.
Damn, was I naïve.
It never even occurred to me at the time that I, as a white man, was the last person who should be claiming that lacrosse doesn’t have a racism problem. How the hell would I know? Without talking to the Black and Native players and getting their perspective, I had no way to know. I hadn’t done that, and yet here I was, proud of the lacrosse community.
A couple of weeks ago, Dhane Smith posted a series of tweets (go read them now if you haven’t already) regarding some of the issues with racism he’s faced in his lacrosse career. People assume he plays basketball or football. People are surprised he plays a “white” sport like lacrosse. (Not only is that racist against Black players, but it also ignores the Native people who invented the damn game and have been playing it since before white men existed in North America.) Other players (and likely spectators too) would throw racial slurs at him; it was a big deal if they got caught but it happened many times when they didn’t. That’s something Smith just had to live with and get used to. It’s insane that this is just a fact of every aspect of life for Smith and very likely every other Black athlete. It’s shameful that I didn’t fully realize that until now.
There was a time, not that long ago, when I thought that being Black was probably very difficult in places like the American south, but things were better elsewhere and not so bad in Canada at all. As a Canadian, I was kinda proud of this, even though I really didn’t have any basis for this opinion other than my own white privilege.
The Black Lives Matter movement has opened my eyes to a lot of the systemic racism that still exists, everywhere. Dhane Smith’s message opened my eyes to the fact that racism still exists in the lacrosse world, and that it was naïve of me not only to assume it doesn’t exist (or “isn’t that bad”), but to assume that I, personally, have any way to really know.