Podcast: Lacrosse Close-up

With Anna Zim­mer­mann and Raye Neil | Octo­ber 30, 2023 

Today we talked with UConn lacrosse play­er Raye Neil about her expe­ri­ences with being the minor­i­ty in a pri­mar­i­ly white sport and what it has been like as a black female ath­lete to com­pete at a high level. 

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Hel­lo and wel­come. My name is Anna Zim­mer­mann, and today I have guest Ray Neil with me.

Raye Neil: Hi, Anna. I’m so excit­ed to be here.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: I’m so hap­py to have you.

Raye Neil: Yay. But yeah, my name is Raye. I’m a senior on the wom­en’s lacrosse team. I have the plea­sure of play­ing with Anna every day, and I’m real­ly excit­ed to talk to her a lit­tle bit more about my past with the sport and everything.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Good. Okay, so today we’re going to be talk­ing about the strug­gles and hur­dles of being a com­pet­i­tive ath­lete as a black female ath­lete in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white sport. And I know that you have a lot of expe­ri­ence with this, obvi­ous­ly, and I also know that you’re real­ly open and pas­sion­ate about it. I know you’re on the social issues com­mit­tee on the team, so, we hear a lot about what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in just our small com­mu­ni­ty of lacrosse. So when did you start play­ing lacrosse?

Raye Neil: well, fun­ny sto­ry, the first time I picked up a stick, my par­ents made me do, like, a clin­ic thing when I was in kinder­garten, but it was one where every­one got a boys stick, so I actu­al­ly absolute­ly hat­ed it. And then I stepped away for five more years, and then I actu­al­ly start­ed play­ing when I was in fourth grade, so I was like ten years old, I think.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Okay, where are you from again?

Raye Neil: New Hampshire.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: New Hamp­shire. Is lacrosse big there?

Raye Neil: No, I was lucky that the area that I was in, I’m from Exeter, New Hamp­shire, and that sea­coast region of New Hamp­shire, it’s pret­ty promi­nent, so I had a lot of peo­ple to look up to. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Block sis­ters, they played at Syra­cuse, but they were from the town over next to that. Like, my area was pret­ty big in lacrosse, but not so much the whole state. Yeah, it was hard to find.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: And I know that that’s part of the issue with lacrosse is just like a lack of out­reach. There’s not a huge — it’s grow­ing, the com­mu­ni­ty is grow­ing, the sports grow­ing. But it is tough because I know whether it be like, low­er income areas or even just like a lack of knowl­edge, I know a lot of peo­ple, whether it be like, out west or even south, real­ly like the vari­ety of peo­ple that come into lacrosse. And I know that there’s just a lack of diver­si­ty in gen­er­al, whether it be like, where you’re from. But I actu­al­ly saw a sta­tis­tic that said, like, 86% of all lacrosse play­ers are white. And I think the sta­tis­tic for black peo­ple is 3.4% of all col­le­giate, like, through all divi­sions. So I was won­der­ing, how that’s affect­ed you. What has your expe­ri­ence been with that?

Raye Neil: Yeah, absolute­ly. you’re def­i­nite­ly right. It’s not a very diverse sport nec­es­sar­i­ly. And like you said, there’s def­i­nite­ly a lot of peo­ple who are work­ing and push­ing to embrace that diver­si­ty, because there are peo­ple of col­or who do want to play the sport and who, like you said, maybe just don’t have access to it or maybe aren’t famil­iar with it. So it’s def­i­nite­ly been a jour­ney. I’ve learned a lot being a black woman play­ing lacrosse, but I would­n’t change a thing. Absolute­ly. but yeah, so like you said, when I was young, I was for­tu­nate enough to have a real­ly close friend who was also bira­cial with a white mom and a black dad. So we fond­ed over a lot of things. We also loved the sport of lacrosse, which was real­ly awe­some, but there was nev­er some­one in my area who I could look up to as a black or even a per­son of col­or play­ing the sport of lacrosse. And that was men and women. And obvi­ous­ly that was also kind of the case in col­lege. Yeah, there were a few peo­ple every once in a while, but it took a long time for there to be con­sis­tent­ly faces of col­or in our sport, which is okay. But it’s just so inter­est­ing to me since it did start out as a Native Amer­i­can sport, I know, and now it’s com­plete­ly shift­ed into a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white sport. So I am very hap­py that there were orga­ni­za­tions like Harlem Lacrosse and oth­ers that are work­ing to get the sport back, to peo­ple of col­or. But at first, I don’t think I real­ly thought about how I was dif­fer­ent or that my skin col­or could be used against me, I guess, with­in the play. But I think I’m real­ly for­tu­nate for the way that I was raised and the way that my par­ents taught me. Even­tu­al­ly I did learn that I was viewed as dif­fer­ent, which is okay, and I came to terms with that, I think, but it did make a defen­sive mind­set about myself. So I’m already always ready to pro­tect myself, always think­ing that ran­dom peo­ple are think­ing the worst of me, and lit­tle things like that. so there was one time in high school, I was on a team and it was just like a one tour­na­ment team that we had to try out for. And there was this one girl that I did­n’t real­ly get the best vibe from, but noth­ing too crazy. And then I would just hear lit­tle whis­pers or com­ments and stuff. And I just don’t think that that nec­es­sar­i­ly hap­pens to every­one. And it might not have been a racist sit­u­a­tion, but imme­di­ate­ly my my month to that because I don’t know, that just how I was raised. And then I would talk about it with my par­ents after and they’d be like, yeah, I noticed that too. Which just kind of con­firmed for me that okay, maybe that was­n’t some­one who’s going to be my best friend, but that’s okay. So I think that was the first time in a tru­ly lacrosse set­ting that I was like, whoa, I need to be aware of my sur­round­ings. yeah. I nev­er want­ed to be too aggres­sive. I nev­er want­ed to be over­ly swing­ing or over­ly crazy with my checks or any­thing, just because I knew peo­ple could use it against me. And I did­n’t like that idea.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Have you ever had an expe­ri­ence where that did happen?

Raye Neil: Prob­a­bly depends on who you ask, in my per­spec­tive, yes. just, like, lit­tle things too. Peo­ple made com­ments about my hair, like, my gog­gles, like, mak­ing sure they’re around my hair and stuff. I’m like, well, it’s on my head, like every­one else’s, actu­al­ly. yeah, so it’s def­i­nite­ly been crazy. Or I feel like we’ll do back to back plays and some­one can do the same exact thing as me, and then I’m the one get­ting the foul, so I always keep it in the back of my mind also.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Yeah. and I thought that it was also inter­est­ing how you talked about lacrosse orig­i­nal­ly orig­i­nat­ing from Native Amer­i­can cul­ture, because now it’s con­sid­ered the white sport or, like, the frat boy sport, you know what I mean? It’s just like this cul­ture around douchey white guys beat­ing each oth­er with a stick, and the cul­ture is so much rich­er and so much deep­er than that, and it’s become so lost on the peo­ple who play the game and view the game. And I want­ed to talk about the instances of severe dis­crim­i­na­tion in the sport, and I know just over the past two years, the instances that have hap­pened with the Howard’s wom­en’s lacrosse team. Do you know details of that story?

Raye Neil: I believe they were pulled over on a school bus, which in itself is kind of crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school bus being pulled over unless there was some­thing vis­i­bly wrong with the dri­ver from the out­side of the vehi­cle. So just that alone was real­ly crazy to me. And then I believe imme­di­ate­ly it seemed like the police offi­cers were look­ing for drugs and look­ing through every­one’s bags with­out real­ly a war­rant. Yeah.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: It just esca­lat­ed for no rea­son very quick­ly. Yeah. And then there was also the case in which the Howard’s wom­en’s across team faced racial­ly moti­vat­ed ver­bal slurs and assault when they were walk­ing onto the field before game. Obvi­ous­ly, these things are real­ly hor­ri­ble to hear about from any­body’s per­spec­tive, who­ev­er you are, those are real­ly hor­ri­ble. That just should­n’t hap­pen to any­body. But I know it’s almost in the same way that a man will nev­er under­stand what a woman goes through. It’s like, how did those things affect you per­son­al­ly? Whether it be, like, your men­tal health, like the con­ver­sa­tions you were hav­ing with your fam­i­ly, or the way that it impact­ed your com­mu­ni­ty or your per­spec­tive, or even just the way you go about your­self. Because I know that instances like those can kind of cause you to step back and have tough con­ver­sa­tions with your­self and almost ques­tion the way that you’re just going about your nor­mal life.

Raye Neil: absolute­ly. I think kind of how you were say­ing ear­li­er, it def­i­nite­ly made me take a step back and it def­i­nite­ly was a gut check moment. i, think I’ve been for­tu­nate, or I know that I’ve been for­tu­nate to not have faced such direct dis­crim­i­na­tion sur­round­ed by this sport. so just to think about how safe I feel with our team and with our coach­es and when we’re trav­el­ing, I feel safe because there’s 40 of us, there’s so many of us. We’re on a Yukon pro­vid­ed bus, we’re trav­el­ing through the air­port with all our gear. Like every­one knows who we are. I feel safe. So to have that bound­ary be crossed so vio­lent­ly and so quick­ly real­ly made me take a step back and I just had to reeval­u­ate. It almost feels like you can nev­er tru­ly just be set­tled because there’s always going to be some­one lurk­ing in the cor­ner. who thinks you don’t deserve to be here, thinks you have no right to play­ing the sport or what­ev­er it might be. or thinks you’re car­ry­ing drugs just because you’re black.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: That’s just very confusing.

Raye Neil: Espe­cial­ly girls, who go to Howard, who are very smart, very capa­ble, very ath­let­ic. They play a sport. If you were to look at their stereo­typ­i­cal, all of their oth­er char­ac­ter­is­tics, most peo­ple would­n’t go assume, would­n’t jump to drugs, but since they are black, that is why. So it’s just def­i­nite­ly a gut check and just makes you sit and think. I think again, I’m for­tu­nate that our team is very sup­port­ive and wel­com­ing and I’ve nev­er felt like that on our team. So it could have been real­ly easy for me to put up walls with my team­mates, but I already felt like I had those con­nec­tions form where I was able to talk about it freely and under­stand peo­ple’s per­spec­tives. Yeah. Is there always the fear that maybe some­one dis­agrees with me? Sure. But I have trust in my team­mates and my coach­es. That’s not the sit­u­a­tion here.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Yeah. M well, that’s awe­some that your team and our team has cre­at­ed this atmos­phere that allows you to feel like you can be like your authen­tic self and you don’t have to. And I know that it’s dif­fer­ent in every sit­u­a­tion and, it’s eas­i­er in some­times rather than oth­ers, but hav­ing a safe envi­ron­ment like that where you don’t feel like, oh gosh, maybe I should­n’t say this or maybe I should­n’t bring up this issue that is real­ly impor­tant to me, to our team. Because what if they don’t under­stand? Or what if they don’t want to under­stand? And I think that, you’ve done a great job of cre­at­ing aware­ness and cre­at­ing just con­ver­sa­tions about things like that in a way that some­one who’s white would­n’t be able to because it’s very eye open­ing to have, your per­spec­tive and Alana’s per­spec­tive and Raya’s per­spec­tive. I think that they’re all real­ly impor­tant voic­es that need to be heard. And you speak­ing up and talk­ing about those things is real­ly impor­tant. Again, to pro­mote the diver­si­ty in the sport and pro­mote accep­tance and just knowl­edge, because just some peo­ple just sim­ply aren’t aware. So I think that you’re doing great things. so what’s been your biggest hur­dle, either inter­nal­ly or exter­nal­ly, while com­pet­ing com­pet­i­tive­ly in a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white sport?

Raye Neil: Yeah, that’s a real­ly good ques­tion. I feel like along with the things that every col­le­giate ath­lete faces, just, like, lit­tle things, like eat­ing enough, sleep­ing enough, mak­ing sure that you are show­ing up on time and man­ag­ing your class­es and every­thing like that. Def­i­nite­ly all those things. But I, think when I was younger, I almost had a sense of impos­tor syn­drome. Almost. Yeah, I love the sport, and, yeah, I might be scor­ing goals in 8th grade or what­ev­er it is, but no one on the left or the right looks like me. So it’s like, why am I here? Why do I feel like I can take it to the next step when the peo­ple next to me don’t feel the same? It was just a lot of ques­tion­ing, I think. And again, I real­ly am a big advo­cate for, vis­i­bil­i­ty, and hav­ing role mod­els that look like you goes a real­ly long way. So I think, yeah, I had my friend who was my age, which was awe­some, and I bounced so many things off of her all the time. But there was­n’t real­ly any­one that I can remem­ber until I came to col­lege, which was Cindy Wat­son. Shout out to that I could tru­ly look up to and be what she knows how I feel on the day to day. She knows how I feel in lacrosse. She’s been through sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences to me. And if I had a bad day, I knew I could turn to her sim­ply because she just under­stood things at a deep­er lev­el. So I think kind of that idea of imposter syn­drome and just, like, won­der­ing why I deserve to be here, I guess. But then it took a while, but I think I got over that. And I under­stand that I do deserve to be here. And I’ve worked hard to be here. And just because might not have looked like every­one on the left and right of me in high school, that might not have nec­es­sar­i­ly been because of lacrosse. I also grew up in New Hampshire.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Which well, obvi­ous­ly, it’s not your job to fix. This is some­thing that is very much a com­mu­ni­ty issue, and it goes much deep­er with­in I don’t know what you would call not like the sys­tem of lacrosse, but what would you say?

Raye Neil: yeah, I know what you mean.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Yeah. Okay, let me think of a bet­ter way to phrase this. what would be advice that you would give to either a younger you or a young girl who looks up to you who’s in the same posi­tion that you were when you were her age?

Raye Neil: that’s a sweet ques­tion. I def­i­nite­ly think just being will­ing to talk, I think, can go a real­ly long way. I’m very grate­ful for the posi­tion that I’m in cur­rent­ly and with our team. Thank you for say­ing all those nice things about me being will­ing to talk to each talk to every­one. But I think it’s awe­some that the only rea­son that I feel like I can talk to peo­ple is how recep­tive every­one is. And in high school, I was nev­er as vocal about these type of top­ics, even though it’s always been a strong pas­sion of mine. So I think, yeah, I might have felt, like, iso­lat­ed maybe in high school, but I also was­n’t telling peo­ple that I felt that way or I was­n’t talk­ing about what my per­spec­tive was on the field or any­thing like that. So I think if I could go back, I would like to just open my mouth a lit­tle bit more and share with peo­ple what I’m going through, because I’ve seen here, every­one is more than will­ing to learn and will­ing to help me through those things, but I have to be the one to start that con­ver­sa­tion. And like you said, it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly my job to fix, but every­one wants to help, so the more con­ver­sa­tions, the bet­ter. So that would prob­a­bly be my advice to younger girls. But also, we’re also hope­ful­ly in a time where we do have peo­ple to look up to and yeah, there’s still a lot more work to go, but find those role mod­els and stick with them because they will moti­vate you more than I think I real­ized when I was younger.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Yeah. Awe­some. It was great to talk to you about this today, and I’m real­ly glad that we were able to sit down and have this con­ver­sa­tion. So I appre­ci­ate your openness.

Raye Neil: Yeah, thank you so much for tak­ing your time. It real­ly means a lot to me, and I know it would mean a lot to every­one else, too. Just the fact that you even thought of this as a top­ic is real­ly cool. Thank you.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Awe­some. Well, thank you. And bleed blue. Every­one. All right.

Raye Neil: Thanks for com­ing in.

Anna Zim­mer­mann: Ray. Neil, that was awesome.

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