By Al Mattei


The past 25 years, since the passage of Title IX legislation, has seen numerous changes in American women's sports. Participation has risen in multiples of 10, funding by multiples ranging between 50 and 100.

But in the sport of field hockey, the sport is still as it was in the early 1970s: overwhelmingly female, overwhelmingly white.

While there are numerous prominent African Americans in the sport today as elite players, coaches, and umpires, they have found it difficult to bring others into the sport they love.

Diane Horsey, for example, has been a coach at West Chester (Pa.) East for the past 15 years, and has had few African American students try out for her teams.

"I've tried to recruit African American players, but they have had other interests," Horsey says. "Also, it's experience, and having to go to camps. There have to be more opportunities to sell our sport; we're too set in our ways."

Donna Nicholson, who is an umpire in the highly competitive Lower Bucks County (Pa.) region, started playing around the time of the passage of Title IX, which sought to guarantee gender equity in sports. However, she did not see her participation in field hockey as a gender or racial statement -- though she was one of only eight black students in her class at Levittown Pennsbury (Pa.).

"The only reason I went out for the team is that we needed more bodies," Nicholson said. "I was on the basketball and softball teams, and our gym teacher wanted more players. The coach knew I was an athlete."

These days, Nicholson is not only an umpire, but a gym teacher at her alma mater. As such, she is in the position to influence young players into going out for field hockey. However, she has found few takers.

"I don't think they even try out for the team," she says. "There are a lot of attributes that they can bring to the game. They can be very successful, but they don't even try."

Mim Chappell-Eber, former chair of USA Field Hockey's minority women's committee, knows several reasons why the interest in field hockey amongst African-American youths is not strong. The biggest reason is the economic barrier which must be hurdled before coaches can recognize talent.

"Realistically, field hockey is still perceived as a white elite sport, and until we get a more diverse pool of athletes from which to pick our national teams, we will not have the best players on the field," Chappell-Eber says. "It's a very expensive sport to play: not because of the equipment, but in camps, festivals, and Futures. You have to get seen in order to get picked."

These days, scouting for the 75 Division I colleges and the various U.S. national teams is mostly done in four venues: the USFHA Outdoor and Indoor festivals, the AAU Junior Olympics, and the National Futures Tournament. Given the travel involved, it is a very expensive proposition for minority families.

"With all of these players vying for the little money that is in field hockey, and if you can't go to all these places where you are meant to be visible, how are you going to be seen?" Chappell-Eber says.

And in places where affluent African-Americans have congregated in the United States -- eastern Michigan, southern Maryland, and many parts of the deep South -- field hockey is not a varsity sport.

On the other hand, in many of the best American field hockey regions -- southwestern Connecticut, Long Island, southern New Jersey, the Main Line region west of Philadelphia -- the populations are overwhelmingly white.

So, is it easier now for an African American to pick up field hockey than it was in, say, when Title IX was passed in 1973?

"It's probably easier now -- not that many African American women were interested in playing back then because of the prospect of getting injured," Horsey says. "But there are so many opportunities today that there's no excuse not to play."

"I think it's about the same difficulty now than it was when I played," Nicholson says. "But when you think about what is available in the fall -- cross country, volleyball, soccer -- you don't see many African-Americans in field hockey. I don't know if they're preparing for basketball season in the winter, but I can still count on one hand the number of black athletes that I'll see in the course of a season playing field hockey."

And with that, there is a very small pool of potential minority role models in the sport.

"How many African-Americans are there on the national (field hockey) team? One," Nicholson said. "Whereas, in basketball, you have (Sheryl) Swoopes, and (Cynthia) Cooper. They say, 'Oh, I want to do that.' Maybe they think that's the only sport where they can make a name for themselves. But (field hockey) is so good, and so much fun."

For Melissa Pryor, captain of the 1998 Michigan State University team, it was easy to find a role model: her mother, who played Spartan field hockey in the days before Title IX.

"She got us into a program in Ann Arbor, where they start kids in third grade playing five a side on little fields," Pryor said.

Pryor's development in field hockey was a happy accident: the Ann Arbor program started her at a much younger age than many in even field hockey hotbeds like southern New Jersey, suburban Philadelphia, and the Tidewater region of Virginia. Despite the early start, the odds were stacked against her, since Michigan schedules scholastic girls' basketball as an autumn sport.

Too, there are only 10 or 11 scholastic field hockey teams in the state of Michigan, which does not allow Midwestern talent to get seen that often. However, when Pryor was chosen for the AAU Junior Olympics in 1994, it allowed scouts and coaches to see her play. She caught the eye of national-team selectors, who bestowed an "A"-camp berth on her as a high-school senior.