My name is Alexis Joseph, I graduated from Duke University in May of 2022 with a B.A in Visual Arts and played lacrosse all 4 years. I began coaching women’s lacrosse at Howard University in August of 2022.
As a Black woman in lacrosse, racism was a constant battle; therefore, I focused my time and energy on proving everyone wrong. Young Black children in mostly white spaces are told by their parents that they have to work twice as hard to get half as much. Historically, Black people in America had to be beyond exceptional to receive opportunities that their white counterparts were given. I learned this lesson from my parents, who have advanced degrees and own their own businesses. I have always seen my parents work very hard for everything we have and it instilled a level of discipline and drive that continued into my lacrosse career.
Throughout highschool, over and over again I was constantly told, whether through microaggressions or just blatant racism, that I wasn't welcomed in this sport. Constantly, I was reminded that “girls like me” don’t play lacrosse. I had to always be the best on the field to prove that I deserved the playing time some parents said I “took” from their daughter. I had to compete twice as hard without being perceived as “too” aggressive. I wasn’t allowed to make the same mistakes as my counterparts because I was often punished harder. Luckily I had coaches along the way, especially my high school coach, that supported me and gave me the confidence to persevere. However, the pressure to be academically-excellent, well-behaved, well-spoken, mild-mannered, and nearly-perfect on the field all to prove that I deserved to play lacrosse created another problem. My mental and physical health would soon start to be challenged.
"My love for the sport was so great that I would do anything to be on the field. My fear of being not good enough led me to push through anything, including injuries."
My love for the sport was so great that I would do anything to be on the field. My fear of being not good enough led me to push through anything, including injuries. Throughout high school, I sustained two concussions and a hamstring strain. Although I was advised against returning for the next few weeks, I decided to push through the pain. Oftentimes, I was unable to walk after games because the pain was so unbearable. However, if I played well, it never mattered. The adrenaline from the game overshadowed the discomfort I felt. I always wanted to be “tough” and prove that I could play through anything. I was praised for being an amazingly tough athlete that could endure anything and leave everything I had on the field.
In highschool, what nearly broke me is what made me a great lacrosse player. The pressure to be exceptional. The pressure to play through injury. It made me one of the best athletes on the field but at a cost. Even when in pain, I was having fun and loving the sport. However, once I began college lacrosse, everything changed.
"I knew I was going to have to be my biggest supporter, but I often found myself being my biggest critic."
While the racism became less blatant, the microaggressions increased and my health began to suffer. After my freshman year of college, I was the only Black girl out of 35 players for three years. I believe that the overwhelming majority of my teammates and coaching staff loved having me on the team. However, that pressure to be twice as good only grew larger. I knew I was going to have to be my biggest supporter, but I often found myself being my biggest critic. As a Black woman in a mainly white sport, I was fearful of not being good enough and not being welcomed due to my race. My anxiety began to grow and so did the injuries I sustained.
My freshman year, I had constant knee pain which was diagnosed as patella tendonitis. My junior year, I began to develop hip and hamstring pain. At first it was something I could play through, but it got worse every day. I finally got an MRI, and it showed that I had hip dysplasia and an impingement. As an athlete that always played through injury, I attempted to do the same in college. I received cortisone shots to stay in the game. The anxiety I had around sitting out and “losing” my spot was overwhelming, so I avoided it at all cost. Many times my teammates and coaches expressed their surprise in how strong I was. Yet again, I was praised for how tough I was and how I never let anything stop me from being on the field. The praise made me feel validated. The sacrifices I was willing to make, I thought, were paying off because people respected my ability to play through it. The “strong Black woman” trope began to come to life more than ever. Out of love for the sport and fear of not being good enough, I returned over and over again.
My senior year, I felt like I had my hip under control and that I was finally ready to have an amazing season free of injury. During the last scrimmage of our preseason, I was hit by two people while running with the ball and sustained a major concussion. I was immediately removed and began concussion protocol. I tried desperately to come back at first. Every time I stepped on the field, something felt very off. I was slow, foggy, light headed, even “blacking out” sometimes. After three months of attempting to return with no success, our trainer sent me to see a specialist. Within minutes of the appointment the doctor told me I should not return to play. My heart dropped and I began to question his decision. I asked, “What if I wear a helmet?”, and said, “the coaches bought us those fancy Q-collars, can I wear that?”. I searched for any solution to make the doctor change his mind. After he gave his final no, I left the office devastated. I called my mom in tears. My senior season was over. My lacrosse career was over. Every year I played collegiate lacrosse, I sustained an injury. And every year, I fought and came back from it. But this year was different.
A week later I told my team that after discussions with the coaches, my family, and doctor, it was decided to medically retire. I assured them I would finish out my senior year supporting them from the sidelines. Little did I know, the hardest part was just beginning.
"Each day, over and over again I watched my teammates play the sport I love, knowing I could never compete again at this level."
Every day I would show up to practice to sit on the sideline and watch. I’d occasionally help out with filming and picking up balls, but I often felt completely useless. Unlike other injuries with return to play protocols, I was just done. No exercises to work on. No milestones to hit. I would leave practice, go to my apartment and sit in a completely dark room with no technology per the doctor's orders. Each day, over and over again I watched my teammates play the sport I love, knowing I could never compete again at this level. I began dreading going to practice. Every minute I sat there felt like a reminder that I was a failure. I wasn’t able to prove that I belonged on the field. It felt like everyone was right, that I wasn’t good enough, that I was weak. I felt like I let my team down. My anxiety, sadness, and frustration were at an all time high. Having my therapist during these times saved me from a very dark place. Furthermore, I am very grateful to have such supportive family and friends. My brother, mom, and father came to visit me consistently and spoke with me every day.
I also turned to United Black Athletes for support. While there were racial issues that I encountered while on the team, my coaching staff, Heather Ryan, and Leslie Barnes often made it their priority to support me. During my junior year at Duke, I became the President of United Black Athletes, and I made it my mission to create larger discussions around race and create change within the athletic department to help the experience of Black student athletes at Duke. Furthermore, this became a safe space for me on campus to find community and connect with athletes who understood my experience. With UBA, I began sharing my frustrations from over the years. Many of the other Black female athletes began to share their stories and we started to see similarities in how we were perceived and treated. We were often met with “you are always so strong, I can never tell when you are actually hurt!” or, “why are you always mad?” and our favorite, “you are so aggressive and unapproachable!”. One may be shocked to see those responses when someone is dealing with injury, but so often that is the experience of Black female athletes. Historically, Black women's pain has been questioned or not taken as seriously. The notion that Black women are stronger and feel less pain has been documented in the medical field throughout history, and the false notion remains true today.
"Being a strong Black woman is a double edged sword: we prevail as these leaders in our community by showing resilience and power, while simultaneously struggling with our mental and physical health in silence. "
While I found comfort in my fellow Black female athletes validating my pain and experience, I also became very unsettled. At least six of my fellow Black female athletes at Duke sustained serious injuries and felt as though they were not handled with proper care. None of us blamed our trainers or felt like any of it was intentional. However, it calls into question how unconscious biases affect Black female athletes. Being a strong Black woman is a double edged sword: we prevail as these leaders in our community by showing resilience and power, while simultaneously struggling with our mental and physical health in silence.
I was very grateful that Morgan's Message was created and heavily supported by my team at Duke. I believe it opened up a welcoming space to have hard discussions about the mental health struggles all athletes endure. Those conversations equipped me with the tools I needed to begin the conversation surrounding Black female athletes’ mental health.
That spring I decided to make a documentary for my film class and interviewed Black female athletes at Duke about their experiences in athletics. Story after story, these young women explained their feelings of isolation and mistreatment of their injuries. Although I have never published this documentary, I believe it was a healing experience for everyone involved, including myself, to feel seen, heard, and valued. To have our emotions and stories validated was a freeing experience.
Now, two years later, I am unfortunately still dealing with injuries I sustained during my collegiate career. My concussion symptoms finally began to fade after 2 years, but I am still unable to play lacrosse due to the damage it caused. Still in pain daily from my hip and knee, I decided to get another MRI. I was told that I have a torn hip labrum and that my knee pain actually stems from a structural issue that will need major corrective surgery. While getting the news that I would need hip and knee surgery at 24 years old was slightly overwhelming, I also felt this sense of peace. I was finally able to fix my pain. For 8 years, I pushed through the pain as so many athletes do. But now, I could heal my body and my mental health. I had nothing more to prove.
"I want to share my story because so many Black female athletes suffer in silence. "
I want to share my story because so many Black female athletes suffer in silence. Being a collegiate athlete is hard enough, and adding layers of different identities bring different challenges. I am proud to be a Black woman in lacrosse and I believe my experience at Duke helped show younger Black and Brown girls that they can succeed in traditionally white dominated spaces.
I remember the first time I sustained an injury in college. Frustrated, I called my mom and I asked her, “why is it always hard for me? Why can’t I just play lacrosse?”. She responded, “this is bigger than lacrosse. Your journey is more than lacrosse. It always has been. You have a purpose that is more than what you do on the field”. At the time, I only cared about playing time, as many freshmen do. Two years after graduation I finally understand. The work I was able to do with United Black Athletes and how I used my platform to advocate for Black Lives Matter and racial equity in lacrosse was far more important than the number of games I played in. Your identity as an athlete is far larger. Every athlete has the ability to use their platform and create change. Some players create change by breaking records and becoming the “first”. Some athletes use their resources and host free clinics for local kids like I did. Both are equally as important and powerful. I am now able to reflect back and feel happiness and peace about my lacrosse career at Duke because I changed my perspective on what it means to be a “great athlete”.
"Creating a space where young Black and Brown girls can play the sport they love while connecting and being supported by their community is imperative to growing the game and changing the narrative. "
When my parents told me I had to be “twice as good to get half as much”, I now understand that they never intended to put unreasonable pressure on me; rather, they only meant to prepare me for the hardships I would face as a Black female athlete in a majority white sport. Their love and hard work are the reason I was able to succeed at Duke. It is the reason I am able to write this article and encourage everyone to take a look inside and reflect on how their unconscious biases affect others. Now, coaching an all Black and Brown team at Howard University, I am one of many. During my recruiting process, playing with and being coached by people who look like me was never an option. Going to work everyday, I have found a sense of family and belonging. I can show up as my authentic self and truly connect to those around me while being a part of the sport I love. The girls I coach at Howard inspire me every day. Although lacrosse is a majority white sport, being at Howard has changed my experience with lacrosse completely. I believe it is important to create more diverse spaces in lacrosse and HBCUs are the perfect place to start. Creating a space where young Black and Brown girls can play the sport they love while connecting and being supported by their community is imperative to growing the game and changing the narrative.
I hope everyone can reflect on how we can create change around the treatment of Black female athletes in majority white sports, and consider how your team and you personally can be a positive force of social change.
- Alexis Joseph
Photo Credits: Alexis Joseph, Duke Athletics