On a cool Sunday in March, about 150 girls fill the courts at the Heart of America volleyball facility in Kansas City, Kan. One of those athletes is 13-year-old Santana Lewis. As the teenager from Lee’s Summit, Mo., walks into the arena, her thoughts focus on the matches ahead and ways she can help her teammates.
What this down-to-earth setter doesn’t focus on is the trait that sets her apart from the majority of other players in the gym. Lewis is one of only a handful of African Americans in this regional tournament.
“I don’t really notice that,” said Lewis, who is also a hitter for the Attack Volleyball Club in Independence, Mo. “And no one treats me differently.”
Former and current African American volleyball players across the country echo Lewis’ sentiments. However, they understand they’re an anomaly in this sport that has historically attracted few—often less than 30 percent—women and men of color.
The players and coaches Volleyball interviewed for this story said the sport’s lack of diversity isn’t caused by racial tensions or prejudice toward African American players. Rather, other factors are at play, they said. Issues like money, role models, and access to the sport.
“This has nothing to do with race,” said former UCLA middle blocker Nana Meriwether, a two-time All-American and the reigning Miss USA. “I was often the only—or one of a few—African American players on my teams and I never felt any prejudice toward me. It was all positive.”
Movement to Recruit Black Players
Volleyball has taken positive steps to become a more inclusive and culturally diverse sport, players and coaches said. Legendary coach Ruth Nelson championed that movement when she started to aggressively recruit black players such as Flo Hyman, Rita Buck-Crockett, and Rose Magers-Powell in the 1970s.
“Between 1973 and 1984 I was definitely the leader in recruiting black athletes,” said Nelson, whose 40-year career includes head coaching positions at the University of Iowa, Louisiana State University, the University of Houston, and George Williams College.
“I made a concerted effort to help all black athletes,” she added. “It’s been my mission for the past 40-plus years.”
Former college standouts Nona Richardson and Nadia Edwards reaped the benefits of Nelson’s effort. And they’ve seen the face of volleyball slowly change and become more diversified since their competitive days on the court.
“When I came up in the sport, I was an anomaly,” said Richardson, a middle blocker at Michigan State from 1978-1981. “But I’ve seen an upswing in the number of African American players. And now, at the higher level of volleyball, there are more African American players.”
Nadia Edwards agrees.
“In the era that I played in, and maybe even earlier, it was the norm that you were maybe the only African American represented on a team,” said Edwards, a middle hitter for Penn State from 1997-2000.
But African American players today are more likely to compete on culturally diverse teams, she said.
“Over the last 10-15 years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of African Americans playing this sport,” said Edwards, now the head volleyball coach at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill.
A Look at the Numbers
Just how diverse is volleyball today? How many African Americans and other minorities play this sport that a white gym teacher named William Morgan invented in 1895?
A report by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) revealed 20.1 percent of the women who played collegiate volleyball in 2008-09 were minorities. The AVCA’s report—based on research conducted by the NCAA—also found that 28.1 percent of the men who played volleyball were minorities.
Those numbers, however, don’t reflect the more recent uptick in volleyball’s popularity and the corresponding spike in African American players.
“USA Volleyball membership amongst African American players has grown considerably in recent years, showing an almost 35 percent increase since 2010,” said Denise Sheldon, diversity officer and manager of the Indoor High Performance Program for USA Volleyball.
The 2012 U.S. Women’s National Team illustrates this ever-changing and more diversified look of volleyball, she said. Nine African Americans trained on that team.
“[That] is approximately 24 percent of the total athletes,” Sheldon said of the team that included Destinee Hooker, Megan Hodge, and Danielle Scott-Arruda.
The 2012 U.S. Olympic Women’s Volleyball Team included an even higher percentage of African American players. Six black athletes played on that team, which captured the silver medal in the London Games. That represents 50 percent of the team’s 12-player roster.
Doug Beal, CEO of USA Volleyball, applauds the growing numbers of African American players on these championship teams. But he said volleyball still needs to increase the “small percentage of minorities” in its membership.
“It would be hugely beneficial if we broadened the demographic profile of our membership,” Beal told Volleyball magazine.
Here is the challenge: How can volleyball—a game many consider a suburban, country-club sport—become more diversified? What obstacles continue to keep African Americans and other minorities off the court and out of the game?
Former and current players and coaches cite three key roadblocks: exposure, accessibility, and money.
“A sport of the unknown”
“I think this issue is about exposure,” said Nona Richardson, who is now the senior associate athletic director at UC Davis. “This was a sport of the unknown to me until my high school teacher asked me to try out for the team.”
But why wait until high school? Richardson wonders why more schools don’t expose students to volleyball at a younger age.
“I would have thought that [schools] had poles, nets, balls,” she said. “They’ve got gyms. As long as you’ve got the equipment, why not expose students to the game?
“If kids aren’t pulled into the game and exposed to volleyball, they don’t know anything about it,” Richardson added.
Former Florida State University head volleyball coach Cecile Reynaud goes one step further, beyond the school walls, to introduce young athletes to the sport.
“We’ve got to start [exposing] kids to volleyball through parks and recreation departments,” said Reynaud, who coached at FSU for 26 years. “We have programs here in Tallahassee where nine and ten-year-olds can learn to play volleyball for free. That’s where we’re going to get kids hooked on this sport.”
Former beach volleyball sensation Dain Blanton said the media plays a role in this issue, too.
African Americans and other minorities grow up watching professional football, baseball, and basketball on television.
“Kids want to be like the players they see on TV,” said Blanton, the first black volleyball player to win a major tournament on the beach. “They want to go out and emulate those guys.”
But volleyball is rarely shown on national television, except every four years during the Olympics.
“The exposure just isn’t there,” Blanton said.
Interviews with more than a dozen players and coaches uncovered a second obstacle that blocks African American participation in volleyball. Is there access to the sport? Is it offered in schools or local recreation centers? And are there qualified people willing to coach?
“[Accessibility] can be an uphill battle,” Blanton said.
African Americans who live in parts of the country where volleyball isn’t popular or widely available can have a difficult time gaining access to the sport.
On the other hand, players like Blanton who live in “volleyball hotbeds” have easy access to the game. Blanton grew up in the beach volleyball mecca of Laguna Beach, Calif.
“When I was a kid I went to the Laguna Beach Open and saw players like Tim Hovland,” he said. “They were out in the sun, playing on the beach. I was hooked. And I was fortunate to have a beach where I could play.”
But what if Blanton had grown up somewhere away from the beach? He’s pretty sure his life would have taken a different path.
“If I had lived in the inner city or was born in New York, would I have gotten into volleyball?” he asked. “I doubt it.”
Geography isn’t the only factor that impacts African Americans’ access to the sport. Public schools are key players, too. Many aspiring players are introduced to volleyball in gym class. But financially-strapped schools across the country have slashed their physical education budgets. And those cutbacks have reduced or eliminated students’ access to volleyball and other sports.
“We’re very concerned about the funding cuts in schools,” said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the AVCA.
African Americans who don’t have access to volleyball at school must join private clubs to receive the training, coaching, and experience needed to become competitive players. But those “pay-to-play” clubs are expensive. Fees often start around $1,000 and can soar thousands of dollars higher.
“The average club player in Dallas pays $5,000 [per year],” Ruth Nelson said.
Players and coaches told Volleyball magazine those high costs are the third, and arguably biggest, reason why the sport isn’t more diversified. Many minorities simply can’t afford to play. The price not only blocks initial access to the sport, but also entrance into higher levels of play.
“It’s so expensive,” said Meriwether. “But it’s a prerequisite today to be on a club team if you want to get looked at [by a college].”
College coaches today primarily recruit players from club teams. Logistically, it’s almost impossible for these coaches to watch high school players during their seasons. There are too many scheduling conflicts.
“We’re still in our [college] season when students are playing for their high school team,” Edwards said.
College coaches often attend national club tournaments to scout players. Volleyball players who don’t compete in those tournaments are likely to get overlooked in the recruiting process, Coach Edwards said.
What about players who can’t afford club volleyball? Is there still a way for them to stay in the game? Many clubs offer scholarships or work-study programs for low-income families. Others discount fees or provide travel assistance to families who are struggling financially.
“I received an unofficial scholarship when I played club volleyball,” Nona Richardson said. “That’s how I came through the club system and was able to compete at a high level. My family couldn’t afford club fees.”
Former U.S. Men’s National Team player Byron Shewman started the Starlings Volleyball Clubs in 1996 to give girls from low socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to play volleyball. The Starlings charge players minimal—if any—fees. And the club doesn’t turn anyone away for financial reasons.
Shewman launched the Starlings with one inner-city team in San Diego, Calif. Today, the Starlings are the largest junior volleyball club in the country.
“We’ve had some 3,000 girls play for us,” Shewman said, adding that the Starlings started a boys program in 2012. “We’ve helped more than 300 girls receive college scholarships.”
One of those scholarship recipients is 17-year-old Samara West of Omaha, Neb. The 6'4" middle blocker joined the Omaha Starlings in ninth grade, and received a scholarship to play at Iowa State next year.
“If it wasn’t for the Starlings, I wouldn’t have this scholarship and the chance to go to college,” said West, an honor student who wants to become a veterinarian. “I’m so grateful to the Starlings. They took me to Iowa State.”
During her junior year in high school, a coach from another Division I school encouraged West to leave the Starlings and join a high performance team. She ignored the advice.
“I love my team,” said West, who graduated from Omaha North High School. “We’re like family. And my coach [Shannon Walker] basically taught me everything about this game.”
Coach Edwards encourages her colleagues to reach out to young, African American players. One positive comment or helpful tip could inspire an athlete to take up the game, she said.
“In my case, it just took one person to say ‘I see something in you,’” Edwards said. “So it’s important for us as coaches and mentors to take time with these athletes and invest in them.
“There are some very talented African American athletes,” she added. “If we get teachers and coaches to train them, they’re going to just blossom.”
Back in Kansas City, 13-year-old Santana Lewis shares her hopes for the future of African American volleyball players. Her dream is simple – and one that resonates with players and coaches across the country.
“I’d like to see volleyball continue to grow,” she said. “And I’d like to see more African Americans playing this sport.”
PRESSURE TO PLAY
Olympic champion Destinee Hooker represents one of the fresh, new, and more culturally diverse faces of volleyball. But a coach once told this 6'4" All-American at the University of Texas that she should find another sport to play. Volleyball, he said, wasn’t her game. Hooker received that painful advice when she was 13 years old.
“[My coach] didn’t believe I could be a six rotation player and recommended that I play basketball or stick to track,” she said.
The words stung. And Hooker stepped away from volleyball for a few years.
“It took me a while to return to volleyball after my coach told me I should quit,” said Hooker, who was also an NCAA high jump champion for the Longhorns. “[But] I knew what I was capable of and picked the sport back up in high school.
“And look where I am.”
Is the popularity of basketball and track and field among African Americans another reason more players of color aren’t involved with volleyball? Black athletes say they often have some pressure to play those sports. But volleyball is rarely encouraged.
“It’s a cultural thing,” said former UCLA middle blocker Nana Meriwether. “It’s so cliché, but it is part of the African American culture to play sports like basketball.”
Meriwether said her dad, Dr. Wilhelm Delano Meriwether, pushed her to do track and field. Sports Illustrated featured Dr. Meriwether on the cover of its February 1971 issue as the best American runner in the 100 yard dash.
But perhaps players don’t always have to choose between one sport or another. Nana Meriwether, like Hooker, became a multi-sports athlete in high school and college. She lettered in track and field, volleyball, and basketball at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. At UCLA, she became an All-American volleyball player and competed in the high jump.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
How can African American volleyball players who don’t play club ball attract the attention of a college coach? Make a video and put it on YouTube, said DePaul University Head Coach Nadia Edwards.
“If a video pops up on YouTube, along with information about a player, we’ll take a look at it,” she said. “I encourage all athletes to be assertive and reach out to coaches.”
Nana Meriwether asked her mom to videotape her high school games and workouts and then sent those tapes to prospective coaches.
“I was late in the game and all the scholarships had been given away,” said Meriwether, who played for Duke one year before transferring to UCLA. “But I scored official visits from each one of those tapes.
“I think players need to be proactive and promote themselves,” she added. “Coaches can’t see every player.”
LVC PROVIDES ACCESS
Legendary coach and former national team member Ruth Nelson founded the non-profit Louisiana Volleyball Club (LVC) to fill a void. Since 1985 LVC has funded inner-city volleyball clubs for girls. The program’s goal is to teach young athletes the skills needed to excel at volleyball and secure scholarships for college, as well as develop life skills such as leadership, teamwork, and confidence.
The club reflects Nelson’s 40-year commitment to give African Americans more opportunities to play volleyball. Nelson championed that cause in the early 1970s when she started to recruit black players such as Flo Hyman, Rita Crockett, and Rose Magers-Powell. In recent years, she’s worked with five-time Olympian Danielle Scott-Arruda.
> More information about the LVC is available at lvclub.org
Originally published in June 2013