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When Kimora Williams steps onto the lacrosse field at Howard University, the divisions are clear: home vs. away, Black vs. White. And when the sticks clash for the first draw of the match, she’s competing for more than a win. She’s competing for inclusion, she’s competing for equity, and she’s competing to belong.
The 19-year-old attacker takes the field with both power and skills so seemingly natural to her, it’s hard to imagine the obstacles that Williams and many Black girls across America face when playing lacrosse.
Instances of racial diversity on lacrosse fields are scarce. Demographic data from the 2022 National Collegiate Athletic Association shows that only 3 percent of women lacrosse players in Division I are Black. By removing historically Black colleges and universities such as Howard from the count, that percentage drops to 2 percent. In Division I, the highest, most competitive level of collegiate athletics, only 2 percent of head lacrosse coaches are Black women.
Growing up in Marlton, New Jersey, Williams first learned to play lacrosse from her next-door neighbor. Attending a predominantly White high school, Williams understood the sport’s injustices all too well. “I didn’t feel like I belonged in lacrosse,” she says. “I wanted to give up.”
Being one of only two girls of color on her high school lacrosse team, Williams struggled to make connections, which are crucial in sports teams. “I didn’t really have a lot of teammates that I could talk to about my feelings in any type of way,” she recalls.
Reflecting on her high school lacrosse experience brings up memories of exclusion. Williams recalls her coach restricting certain genres of music in locker rooms and at practice and neglecting to have important conversations about minorities, teammates asking to touch her hair, and repeated calls against her by the referees for being an “aggressive player.”
“I feel like I definitely was targeted a little bit just due to my skin color being so prominent on the field of a predominantly white sport,” Williams says now.
For young girls playing sports, seeing other players who look like them can be game-changing. Having a coach who has been in the same shoes is incomparable. For Williams, who knew she wanted to play college lacrosse early in her high school career, joining the Howard University team was a chance to be the player she knew she could be.
The majority of the women athletes on the Howard lacrosse team are also Black and Williams has made deeper connections with her teammates both on and off field. Elements of camaraderie, trust, and teamwork unattainable to her in high school are present on her college team.
“Coming to Howard, that big jump of confidence of just knowing that I belong, that I’m meant to be here, I’m not an aggressive player, really changed just my play overall,” she says.
Equally as important, Williams is now able to see herself in her coach. As a decorated collegiate athlete at Syracuse University with an impressive coaching career of more than two decades, head coach Karen Healy-Silcott represents success and possibility for Black women lacrosse players. Healy-Silcott also played and coached for the Jamaican national women’s lacrosse team.
Healy-Silcott has watched Williams grow into a leader during her two years on the Howard team. “She’s only a sophomore but I think the way that she uses her voice on the field is like that of an upperclassman,” Healy-Silcott says.
Williams’ experience is a common one. Over the summers, she works for Icon Sports in Philadelphia, teaching young Black girls how to play lacrosse. The organization provides lacrosse sticks, cleats, and other equipment to kids who can’t afford it. Understanding how much representation means to her, Williams wants to show young girls who look like her that a career in lacrosse is possible.
“Just being there to help them and really teach them like this sport is meant for you,” Williams says of her role during these programs.
Her drive to change the sporting landscape for all women isn’t just a summer job. As an honors sports management major and strategic legal and management communications minor, she has big plans for her future. Inspired by Nicole Lynn, the first Black woman to represent a National Football League draft pick, Williams dreams of working at Klutch Sports Group and being another successful Black woman high in the ranks of the White male-dominated sport industry.
Her voice is already being heard. In February 2023, Williams was selected to speak on a panel at the U.S. Capitol with professional and Olympic athletes for National Girls and Women in Sports Day. The panel celebrated the achievements of women in sports but stressed the many disparities that still exist.
During the panel, Vice President of Advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation Sarah Axelson made a passionate plea: “We have been taught to potentially accept the crumbs and be thankful for what we have … but we really wanna make sure that people understand that … it’s about equality, it’s about making sure girls and women have those opportunities that are afforded to them by the law.”
Sitting next to elite women athletes while they recounted their experiences of being disregarded because of their gender, race or disability, invigorated Williams to continue the fight.
At Howard, Williams and her teammates say the culture that favors male athletes is ever-present. Whether it’s unequal promotion, attention from trainers, or Name, Image, Likeness deal opportunities, the prejudice does not go unnoticed.
“[Howard] definitely promotes basketball and football a lot more. So for example, when the school wants to get a lot of fans to come to the [men’s] basketball game, they’ll literally buy Krispy Kreme doughnuts or Insomnia Cookies, and say, ‘The first 300 people to come get a free cookie’ and that so that brings more attention and more fans to their game,” Williams says. She notes that this same level of promotion does not happen for women’s teams.
Kendall Barker, a freshman on the team, looks up to Williams as an inspiration to never settle. When noticing inequities on campus such as field access, Barker says Williams will not hesitate to speak up.
“When Kimora’s like ‘I’m really frustrated’ … I know that she’s gonna see through and get that done for us and advocate for us,” Barker says.
Women in sports encounter barriers at the youngest levels. Having dealt with the inequalities herself, Williams is doing her part to make it easier for the little Black girl she once was. However, it is not up to student athletes like Williams to do it alone. Williams encourages the NCAA and her own university to do better in promoting and uplifting women athletes.
Williams stresses that equal promotion and showing up for women will open doors for all athletes. “We’re having championships too, we’re doing the exact same thing as men,” she exclaims.
Williams says that her male counterparts can do better too: “If they start to support us, then people will follow the lead.”
Stepping off the field surrounded by her teammates after a game against Merrimack College in March, it’s clear Williams played both a game and a role she’s meant to play. The leader walked, with her stick in hand, to the after-game tailgate, an athlete like any other at Howard, a lacrosse player like at any other university.