Championship energizes Morgan State club lacrosse team’s push to revive varsity status
Administrators weigh funding, Title IX concerns as players at multiple Black colleges call to add sport, create option for athletes wanting to attend HBCUs
Morgan State University junior Kobie Johnson thought his dream of playing collegiate lacrosse had ended when he initially made the decision to attend a historically Black university. However, Johnson, an avid lacrosse player from Prince George’s County, Maryland, was surprised to learn Morgan had a club team.
“I never thought that HBCUs would ever have lacrosse. I gave up on that idea, like, when I was young, just because that’s how the environment was,” Johnson said. “Now that I’m playing on this team with so many Black players, and my opponents have a ton of Black players and it’s college, it’s like this is a dream that I gave up on when I was a kid.”
Johnson, now team captain, remembers a time when Morgan State’s program struggled to field five consistent players for practice; it now has approximately 30. The Bears participate in the Next Collegiate League (NCL), a club lacrosse league that includes seven historically Black colleges and universities: Morgan State, Delaware State University, Bowie State University, Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Coppin State University and Norfolk State University.
Although Morgan defeated in-state rival Bowie on May 7 to win the NCL Championship, the ultimate goal for Johnson and his teammates is to lay the foundation for their club program to transition into a NCAA Division I varsity sport.
In 1970, Morgan State became the first HBCU to field a men’s lacrosse team, and within two years it was competing at the NCAA Division II level. Affectionately known as the Ten Bears, they completed one of the biggest HBCU upsets in history in 1975, defeating then No. 1-ranked Washington and Lee, a team that came into the contest with a 28-game winning streak; it had not lost a home game in three years.
Morgan State ceased sponsorship of the sport in 1981 and, according to lacrosse coach Skyler Hargrave, students formed a club team in the early 2000s, competing independently with the hope of restoring the historic program.
“This win helps give us momentum to further applying pressure on our athletics department to take us seriously and realize lacrosse at Morgan is sustainable and important to our school and the Morgan community,” Hargrave said. “This is the next chapter in Morgan lacrosse history. We are happy to honor the legacy of the Ten Bears and restore the standard that was set by such a historic group of Black men.”
Morgan State athletic director Dena Freeman-Patton, who is close to completing her first year in the role, has met with Johnson and Hargrave about the possibility of the university adding lacrosse.
“With that said, there’s a lot of interest in our community. There were several other sports that Morgan no longer sponsors that have been coming up as well,” she said. “So, my first order of business is to evaluate the program.
“I’m working right now to try to make sure that we’re in line with gender equity, because we have to make sure that’s right first before we move forward.”
The biggest hurdles to adding men’s lacrosse, as with the addition of any varsity sport, are securing funding and ensuring that institutions remain in compliance with Title IX, which requires university athletic funds be equally distributed among men’s and women’s programs.
Playing on a predominantly Black team and competing against other predominantly Black teams is a new experience for many club players. Currently, African Americans make up 4% of male lacrosse players across all three NCAA divisions, up from 3% 10 years ago.
“It’s a reality for a lot of players who play lacrosse. Now, they are the only Black kid, and that’s why a lot of guys who play in their youth, they don’t play in college because they don’t want to be the only Black kid on the team anymore, because there were no Black teams to play on,” Johnson said. “But now there are some, so these kids aren’t gonna give up on their dreams like the kids from my generation did.”
The NCL has helped club lacrosse players at HBCUs build their own community, and their camaraderie extends off the field as well.
“Brotherhood in the community that I’ve gotten through this lacrosse team has been, like, my life. It’s been my support system,” Johnson said. “It’s been everything that I need socially. It’s not just about lacrosse, whenever I see them, it’s ‘How are you doing?’ ‘How’s everything going?’ Everybody’s family to me.”
During semester breaks, players who live in the same area come together and play pickup games to stay active regardless of which team they’re on. Multiple teams have explored hosting youth camps to teach kids how to play lacrosse.
Playing lacrosse in the NCL also has lessened the pressure of playing the sport as African Americans.
“I had no idea it was this much fun to play with the Black team, just because you can finally come out and you can just play your sport and not be stressed about having to perform better than everybody else just to get the equal opportunities,” said rising Morgan State junior Malacai Davis. “Don’t worry about any random unjust treatment. You just come out, you have fun and then you work hard.”
Morgan State’s team isn’t the only program hoping to turn men’s lacrosse into a sponsored sport.
Julian Dixon, a midfielder for Delaware State’s club lacrosse team, also has met with university officials to explore the possibilities of finding funding for a potential team. Delaware State won the inaugural NCL championship last season.
“Since most of our MEAC [Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference] schools are kind of northeast, there is a popularity [for lacrosse] here,” Dixon said. “I think as it gets more popular and people start speaking out, not only on Morgan and Delaware State’s campuses but on other campuses, that there may be an opportunity there elevating them to the Division I NCAA level.”
Most of Morgan State’s and Delaware State’s Division I sports compete in the MEAC. Under conference rules, six or more member institutions need to add a sport for it to become a conference-championship sponsored sport. Currently five member schools – Morgan, Delaware State, Norfolk State, Coppin State and University of Maryland Eastern Shore – have men’s lacrosse club teams that potentially could be elevated to varsity status.
“We want to be able to have our institutions look at adding sports that are going to add championship access for our student-athletes,” said MEAC commissioner Sonja Stills. “There’s a lot of factors that go into it, but I’m sure you know, if you already have a club sport and there is strong interest, it should be an easy transition into a varsity program.”
Hampton University is the sole HBCU to compete in men’s lacrosse at a Division I level as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, and the University of the District of Columbia competes in Division II men’s lacrosse.
Virginia State University is the first Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) school to add men’s lacrosse and will begin its first official season in 2024. The Trojans, who will compete as an independent team in Division II for their inaugural season, will spend some time scheduling scrimmages with HBCU club teams.
“We looked at some of the growing emergent sports pretty much around the country and what some of our HBCU sister institutions were doing and adding,” said Peggy Davis, Virginia State’s associate vice president for intercollegiate athletics.
“What we wanted to do is we wanted to provide additional opportunities and one of the reasons that we chose soccer and lacrosse, of course, is because it’s a nontraditional sport on HBCU campuses, both of those sports, and so that was part of our process and reasoning.”
Davis hired Shaun Church in August 2022 as the program’s first coach. His extensive résumé includes winning two Division III lacrosse championships as a player at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland.
Church hopes the Trojans could serve as a blueprint for more HBCUs to add lacrosse.
“I want to show people that we can play lacrosse at a high level, you know, and that it can be done at an HBCU and that everything needed in support of the sport and the student-athletes, every facet is going to be handled,” Church said. “So I’m trying to use this platform I have to really kick open a big door and I’m trying to let everybody run in.”
The CIAA hasn’t added any sports during commissioner Jacqie McWilliams’ 11-year tenure, but the nation’s oldest HBCU conference does not oppose expansion.
“We’re doing a membership survey and identifying what sports we should be looking at and watching to add in the conference if we need to do that. I think that conversation will take place over the next year or two,” she said.
Over the last five years HBCUs have expanded their athletic programs beyond basketball, volleyball, and track and field, sports traditionally seen at most HBCUs. Morgan State has added wrestling and women’s acrobatics and tumbling, and Fisk University and Talladega College have added women’s gymnastics. This season, Dillard University added baseball, and Philander Smith College and Wilberforce revived baseball programs.
“I just think [adding nontraditional sports] just opens up the door to … young people who are looking for an avenue or going to a Black school but choose not to because we don’t offer the sport that they have,” McWilliams said. “So if you want to play and get an education, you’re limited to where you can go if you want to play certain sports right now.”
Despite more than four decades of Morgan not having a varsity lacrosse program, the historical relevance of its past team isn’t lost.
“As we continue to move through history, a lot of history gets lost, but a story that should not ever be lost is Morgan State lacrosse,” McWilliams said. “Because I think it’s a good foundation and a memory for a good reminder for us, our kids, our communities [that] we can play lacrosse. We don’t have to just act like it’s a new sport to our communities because it’s really not.”
At Morgan State the history and tradition of the Ten Bears’ legacy continues. Ten Bears member Donnie Brown was instrumental in teaching Malacai Davis the fundamentals of the sport and was his youth coach for several years. Members of the Ten Bears who live locally often visit the club team to share stories of their glory days and the challenges of being a Black lacrosse program in the early 1970s.
“The Ten Bears era is extremely monumental to me. I’ve never been inspired by anything like that in my life,” said Johnson, Morgan’s current team captain. “They went from literally starting from the bottom to ultimately beating the No. 1 seed in the country in five years. … That’s unheard of.
“It makes me think what if they never canceled the team. They’d still be a powerhouse today, and the game would look a lot different and be a lot more diverse.”
Many of the current players advocating for their respective universities to sponsor men’s lacrosse know they won’t have a chance to participate with the program but hope the next generation of prospective student-athletes will benefit from their efforts.
“This is for all of our younger siblings, children, even people that are still in high school right now. I know our hard work means that they can hopefully have [an] HBCU that they can go to and play lacrosse. That is everything because a lot of them are going to be good enough to get offers,” Malachi Davis said. “So being able to do the groundwork and lay the foundation for these teams so schools like Morgan or Bowie can give them a chance to play lacrosse, that’s what we’re doing this for.”