This column continues the “Only One” series in which this reporter shares his experiences as the only African American on the scene.
The “Only One” roamed during the last week and a half throughout a maze-like layout inside the Minneapolis Convention Center, where each of the 70 courts was always occupied by young female volleyball players ranging in ages from 10 through 18.
“Officially 1,235 teams [and] about 14,000 players” participated at the 2014 USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships June 22 —July 3, reported Site Manager Kristy Cox. But when asked how many were Black, Cox was hard pressed to speculate, yet alone account for her staff: “I don’t know — maybe 20 [staff of color]” out of 100, she responded.
A June 2013 Volleyball Magazine article estimated that around 30 percent of the sport’s players are of color. They quoted current and former Black players who say that, more than anything else, exposure, accessibility and money are the “three key roadblocks” to more Blacks playing volleyball.
However, such a percentage was hard to verify during nearly two weeks at the girls’ nationals in downtown Minneapolis.
“If you really want to talk about getting Blacks in volleyball, I don’t think you’ve got enough time in the day,” admitted Dallas Premier 18 Black VB Head Coach Robert Brown.
Club ball “is a predominately White league. No, we don’t see a lot of diversity,” said Keena Miller of Dallas, Texas. Her and husband Kenneth Miller’s two daughters, 13-year-old Kennedy and Kourtney, age 10, both play volleyball.
Still, the cost factor remains the number-one prohibitive hurdle to overcome. “It’s a financially exclusionary sport,” said Arleen Hughes of the Atlanta Boom Volleyball Institute.
Keena Miller disclosed that their monthly club fees are $500 for each child and figured that the cost alone for their Minneapolis trip was “a good couple of thousands of dollars [for] airfare, hotel, food.”
“They [the club] do a good job of allowing us to work tournaments and do extracurricular [things] to go against our dues and help save some money,” continued Kenneth Miller.
“It’s an investment in their future,” added Keena.
“I like it,” said Kourtney Miller after her team won the national title in her age group in her first season playing club ball. “It was exciting and kind of nervous.”
“I think it is worth it if you get a scholarship,” admitted Margaret Squier of San Antonio. Her daughter Faith plays on the Alamo 18 Premier volleyball team and is now being looked at by several colleges.
“The earlier the girls start, the better they are at it,” said Emory University Assistant Coach Joseph Goodson, who has been coaching volleyball since 1996. He was named to his present position in April after three years as Jacksonville State head coach.
“I think a lot of it is about exposure and opportunity,” believes Darrell Thompson, whose daughter Dominque is a senior middle blocker at the University of Wisconsin.
“African Americans primarily live in the inner city, and most inner-city kids aren’t exposed to [volleyball],” noted Goodson.
Despite the real and perceived roadblocks, Blacks are playing volleyball, but it doesn’t seem as noticeable. “People in the city don’t know it’s a great game,” said Northern Illinois Head Coach Ray Gooden.
“I always felt that if women of color get in volleyball, there is going to be a major changeover in how it’s played and how it is perceived in the Black community,” said former Minnesota coach and Hall-of-Famer Mike Hebert. He and Gooden were among the USA National Team coaches and evaluators of 36 players who were divided into three squads and competed against each other in a round-robin format during the junior national tourney.
“I think your article is going to help a lot. I really think if more people were exposed to the sport, it would be more popular,” concluded Goodson. “Even at different levels of the game, it’s exciting [to watch a volleyball match] as opposed to watching a bad basketball game or bad football game.”