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USA Lacrosse Magazine
| Nov 25, 2023

Magazine at 25: What it Means to be Black in this Sport

By Joey Coffy | Photo by Heather Ainsworth

As part of recognizing the 25th anniversary of USA Lacrosse we’re looking back at some of the most impactful stories that we’ve shared in USA Lacrosse Magazine. This article on Cornell's Joey Coffy, as told to Matt DaSilva, was the cover story of the April 2018 edition, which included a 12-page section featuring faces and voices of the black lacrosse community.

This is a predominantly white sport, and I do stand out based on the color of my skin. One piece of wisdom that I’ve derived from my Cornell experience is to make it about the sport, make it about the team and make it about nothing else.

Coming off of my sophomore year, I had a really strong year and was fortunate to have been awarded a lot of accolades. I knew people were now looking at me. I was going to be a name on people’s scouting reports. But then I also started to think about what I really look like, particularly in juxtaposition with my teammates and competitors. I rarely come in contact with an opponent who looks like me.

I put a lot of pressure on myself. People are watching me not only because I had a strong season, but because of the color of my skin. I don’t want to give them a reason to spew any negativity towards me.

There was one game in particular where my mom and my younger brother were in the stands. They set up an indirect. It might have been a questionable foul, but it was an opportunity for me to score, so I didn’t really care. I nailed it. We went up.

After I scored the goal, my mom and my younger brother overheard a parent on the opposing side call me a cheater and a [N-word]. My brother, who was 7 at the time, was so disturbed by the comment, he went up to the parent and said, “My sister’s not a cheater.” My mom pulled him away and told him, “That’s not your fight.” Although she was beside herself with anger, she didn’t want a little black boy looking like the aggressor in the situation. That’s the stuff your average white family wouldn’t have to deal with watching a lacrosse game.

Going into my junior year, when I struggled with what it means to be black in this sport, I played a lot of defense that year. It continued to chip away at my mental game. It was almost like a demotion. In my coaches’ eyes, it was really a promotion — an opportunity to really hone in on an innate skill I have of being really athletic and having good feet. But because of these experiences and the way I perceived black female lacrosse players in the past, I thought this was a demotion.

I’m sure you’ve seen that a lot of black lacrosse players tend to be on the defensive end. It does send a message about how we ended up here. Was it solely because we were athletic? Or was it because of the entire package? I’d argue it’s the entire package, but perception is everything in life.

I have amazing teammates. I’ve always had amazing teammates wherever I’ve gone. They’ve always been extremely accepting of me, and I consider them all my best friends. But there are certain topics that I can’t necessarily lean on them for support or for empathy, because it’s something that they’ve never had to live through and it’s something that they don’t particularly understand. Sometimes it’s a look. Sometimes it’s the way someone says something to you.

My teammates have been extremely inclusive and accepting. I don’t sense that my blackness is something people see first in me before they see my character and my personality and who I really am, but there are certain issues or certain obstacles that I’ve had to overcome that I know a lot of them can’t relate to. They’ve never had that interference with racial friction in their lives.

You know how the N-word is used in rap songs? And my team, we like to dance. We always have songs like that in our locker room. There was a point I had to start telling people not to say the N-word, even though it just happened to be a part of the song. At the end of the day, you need to understand the connotation of the words that you’re saying and your audiences. It’s a word even I feel uncomfortable using. I’ve never had to live through the true meaning of that word, and therefore I don’t feel worthy of saying it. A lot of people that do use the N-word in these songs are justified in the way that they use them. When you have people saying it even innocently, taking on the vernacular, it can be really offensive. In addition to being the only black person on my team, it also gave me a platform to educate the people around me about what is acceptable and what isn’t. These are all really good people.

I’ve become a lot more comfortable talking about this with people who don’t look like me. Race has bifurcated a lot of communities. You get a lot of people who are not only intimidated or angered by the conversation, but you also get a lot of people who assume they won’t find common ground. Having often been in situations where I am the only black person in the room, I can sit in the middle and almost be a mediator for this conversation, because it needs to happen. We’ve got to resolve our racial issues if we want to progress as a nation. That’s something I want to see over my lifetime.

I’ll be working at J.P. Morgan next year doing sales and trading. It’s actually a very athletic environment — a lot of acting and reacting. There are a lot of athletes on the desk. We have a couple of former lacrosse players. There are three former NFL players on my desk.

Particularly as it relates to this conversation about race, there are 15 people on the desk. There’s one woman, there’s one black male, and I’m the perfect intersection. So once again, I’m going to show up, look around and I’m going to be the only person on my desk who looks like me. I’m going to draw from my experiences at Cornell. It really shouldn’t be something that matters. It shouldn’t have something to do with the way you perform at your job.

And you know what? Being the only black person in the room, sometimes it’s kind of fun. I’m embracing it.