The North Carolina women's field hockey team is often seen as a national leader in the sport, earning nine national championships in its 52-year-long history.
However, the Tar Heels' roster is no exception to the lack of diversity seen sport-wide — especially on the collegiate scale. Among all NCAA Division I field hockey players in 2021, 75 percent are white, 24 percent identify as 'other' and only one percent are Black.
The data raises questions about how field hockey teams at UNC and across the country came to look this way. The answer might lie in recruiting.
On the current UNC roster, 16 of the players call the Northeastern United States home. On top of that, 12 of the players hail from private schools. Six share an alma mater with one of their teammates.
In fact, over the past 20 years, excluding international players, about 38 percent of UNC field hockey players have been recruited from Pennsylvania alone. These disproportionate recruitment trends stem from a lack of high school field hockey programs in more diverse areas throughout the country.
“The structural problem is that it’s like development without much intention,” said Victoria Jackson, a former UNC athlete and sports historian at Arizona State University. “(High) schools have sports and so colleges can't do much about the pipeline issue because the college can't control what schools offer field hockey and which don’t.”
However, Jackson said that fact doesn't completely exonerate college field hockey programs.
"If we think of our universities as community-serving institutions, and public universities as state systems serving the people of the state, (they have) a responsibility to serve the people locally,” Jackson said.
Jackson believes that to fix diversity issues at the collegiate level, they must first be addressed in the K-12 space. This is a tall order, which Jackson acknowledged, since sports will almost always come second to larger issues that need to be solved within the public school system like education inequality.
However, colleges like UNC could play a part in encouraging the development of youth teams. Jackson pointed to clinics and camps as potential mechanisms for driving this movement forward.
This is something that is already beginning to happen at UNC.
'Advocate for others'
On Saturday, the inaugural Evenin’ Out The Playing Field event took place at Karen Shelton Stadium. The clinic was for local girls and women of color in the 4th through 12th grades that are interested in learning how to play field hockey. The event was hosted alongside Beyond Our Game, an organization co-founded by former UNC field hockey captain Courtnie Williamson.
“I was the only Black member of the team for four years and then in my fifth year I had the honor of becoming the first Black captain in the history of the program, and it meant the world to me,” Williamson said. “I knew that with that platform that I was given that it was really important for me to capitalize on it and to give back and to advocate for others that maybe didn't have a voice that was quite as loud and as strong.”
The event was spearheaded by current UNC students Valery Orellana and Nora Elsayed. The two former high school players started 'Evenin’ Out The Playing Field' to increase accessibility to the sport.
As the attendees gathered on the field, it was evident how much the event meant to Orellana, Elsayed and Williamson.
“I’m holding back tears. This is incredible and it just means the world to me to be able to diversify a sport,” Williamson said. “You never see a field hockey field that looks like this.”
As the attendees — many of whom had never before played field hockey — were walked through basic drills and exercises, they let their enthusiasm show. Shouts of encouragement and laughter could be heard from the sideline as parents watched their children learn the sport.
“I saw myself in them, truly," Elsayed said. "The first girl who came in, I looked at her and she was all timid and shy and had never held a stick before, and that was me in ninth grade. Seeing her at the end of the clinic, whacking that ball into the end of the field was insane. It was really heartwarming.”
At the end of the event, Williamson gathered up all of the girls to take them on a tour of the UNC field hockey facilities and give them a first look at the 2022 ACC Championship trophy that the team had won just the day before.
“There's so many opportunities within field hockey," Elsayed said. "Creating this clinic was showing these girls the opportunities that can come from playing this sport, showing them the facilities that UNC has, the scholarships that they could achieve, and just getting them out here and hitting the ball, and creating a bridge of putting the sticks in their hands."
Elsayed and Orellana plan to make these clinics a bi-weekly event.
“It makes me have hope for the future, truly, and I cannot wait for the future years for Carolina because I know their field hockey team is going to have more color on that field,” Elsayed said.
Hunter Nelson contributed reporting to this story.
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