This story appears in the April 22–29, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
By this point in his life, attackman Lyle Thompson, 26 years old and already one of the greatest lacrosse players ever, figured himself all but impervious to insult. The game itself was a kind of protection. In high school hallways Thompson would get into fights over any taunt of his Native American heritage, any hostility to his long hair. But on the field? None of it touched him. A few college opponents tried in vain to rattle Thompson with snarled clichés about alcoholism or sending him "back to the rez," but as his records and wins and awards piled up, that just seemed to die.
Fans were more persistent. According to University of Albany coach Scott Marr, Lyle, his brother Miles and other Native teammates heard hecklers at Hartford, Syracuse and Drexel label them "wagon burners" and threaten to cut off their ponytails. Lyle, who graduated in 2015 as one of the few two-time winners of the Tewaaraton Award, college lacrosse's highest honor, recalled one particularly indelible old man in the stands at Yale.
"He followed me and Miles, called us 'girls,' called us 'long-haired freaks,' things that never got into my head," Thompson said. "I can honestly say not one thing has ever bothered me."
This was in November, in a restaurant near the Onondaga reservation in central New York, where he'd come of age. Thompson was about to leave for his fourth season of indoor lacrosse with the Georgia Swarm; he had already won a National Lacrosse League championship, been named the 2017 NLL and playoff MVP, and won its Sportsmanship Award. He had never heard one slur as a pro, on field or off. Such nastiness felt so far away, in fact, that he could actually smile about it.
But not for long. In this ever-accelerating age of sports activism, a time in which athletes, owners, leagues and franchises rightly engage in debates over immigration, racial profiling, the #MeToo movement, equal pay, gender and presidential politics, it was only matter of time before America's original culture war joined the mix. How did Richard Henry Pratt, founder of Pennsylvania's legendary Carlisle School, infamously put it? "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
Six weeks later, on Jan. 12, near the end of a 13–11 road win over the Philadelphia Wings, Thompson was cradling the ball near midfield when Wells Fargo Center public address announcer Shawny Hill boomed, "Let's snip the ponytail right here!" Thompson didn't hear it in the moment, and he might've let that alone slide. But earlier, when he was heading to the locker room at halftime, he says, a man had yelled, "Cut your hair!" And during the third quarter, another male voice barked, "So are you going to cut your hair? Or do we have to scalp you?"
"That really was what set me off," Thompson says. "In grade school I got into a lot of fights, but this incident was the first time I felt that anger again—especially in a game."
For a sport still perceived—despite its invention 1,000 years ago by Native Americans, despite the fact that its longtime best was African-American Jim Brown, despite its recent growth powered mostly by women—as white, male and obliviously privileged, the effect was demoralizing. This wasn't the usual mascot dustup, with Native realities obscured by abstract jawing about caricature and symbolism. Indigenous players make up 20% of NLL rosters. Indoor (aka "box") lacrosse is the version most closely associated with modern Native culture. That, perhaps, explains why the reaction was both swift and notably constructive.
That night, Thompson's teammates, Native and not, hugged him in solidarity. He tapped out two quick tweets betraying as much puzzlement as anger; Hill's words pinballed around the Web. Within 12 hours the league, both teams and lacrosse notables issued condemnations. Hill issued an apology, saying his words reflect less his beliefs than "a lack of knowledge on heritage and history." He was fired the next day.
It was the only decision to make, morally and practically. But Hill could well have been speaking for much of America: vaguely aware that the nation grew in the midst of broken treaties and genocidal policy toward Natives, but less versed in the assimilation tactics that followed. Well into the 1970s, tens of thousands of Native children were forcibly enrolled in off-reservation day and boarding schools dedicated to the eradication of their culture. Tribal dress, religion, food and clothing were forbidden. Boys' braids were unceremoniously hacked off.
"Since they couldn't kill us, they said, 'Let's quietly erase them,'" says Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Onondaga and a founder of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse program. "They didn't mince words: 'Kill the Indian and save the man.' That's cultural genocide. They took children away from their parents. Can you imagine?"
Thompson spent a few weeks after Philadelphia burrowing deep into its implications, the traditions few know: Why cut the hair only on a full moon? Why burn the clippings, or let them go gently to earth, instead of throwing them away? He shared more detailed posts over social media.
In Philadelphia the Wings unveiled in-game videos featuring Native defenseman Frank Brown's thoughts on the incident, Native lacrosse history and players of all ethnicities declaring, "We fly together." All Wings employees underwent expanded diversity training. An overdue Iroquois flag decal got slapped on every helmet, to match the American, Canadian and Finnish flags already there.
"I learned a lot through the incident," Thompson says. "It's tough for me to say this was a bad thing that happened, because so much good came of it. It's brought together so many, and it's educating so many people."
On April 20 the first-place Swarm and last-place Wings will meet again. The result won't matter. What will: During warmups, both teams will wear Lyle Thompson-designed BACK THE BRAID T-shirts, and exchange gifts. The NLL has bought more shirts to give away to fans, and a video on unity and Native culture will play.
"I think this has brought the lacrosse community together in awareness, on another level, outside of just Native Americans," he says. "It's making sure those things don't happen inside the game, outside the game, around sports. It's really created a movement."
Or at least a new motto: Save the Native, Make the Man.