This Black fan is passionate about volleyball

Sam McCaa
Photo by Charles Hallman

Another View

And not just because his daughter plays

Second of two parts

I attended my first college volleyball game in the mid-1980s and have loved it ever since.  Despite the fact that the Minnesota Golden Gophers and other schools had Black players on its rosters over the years, seeing more than one or two Blacks sitting in the stands were a rare sight indeed.

Sam McCaa’s daughter Gabby played volleyball first at Minneapolis Southwest, then at St. Louis Park High School, a four-time Minnesota State High School All-League selection. This season she is playing her final college season at Wisconsin after transferring from Boston College. As her father, Sam dutifully followed Gabby through her travels in club, high school, and Division I college.

Like me, Sam often felt like a sore thumb at volleyball games. When I ran into him a couple of weeks ago at Maturi Pavilion where Minnesota hosted Wisconsin on a rare Sunday night match—usually games are staged on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday—McCaa was there along with other family members to watch Gabby. 

We spoke briefly afterwards and agreed to speak further in an extended interview, which we did over the phone. “I love this sport,” admitted McCaa, which instantly bonded us together. “I find it to be exciting. [It] showcases athleticism. That’s why I like watching it.”

Watching volleyball, especially women, there’s nothing else to compare—balls flying up and out in lightning-like fashion and athletes of all sizes leaping up in the air or diving without care to keep the ball alive. The game has become even faster since in 1999 it moved to rally scoring (a point on every play whether or not the team served the ball), then instituting a designated defensive player (libero in 2002). 

Being tall isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for playing volleyball, but height doesn’t hurt. Gabby is a 6-3 senior hitter/blocker. Her father said he believes seeing more volleyball games on television regularly rather than just during Olympic competition would help attract more Black fans, “and that may spark some interest.” 

Although conference-specific sports networks such as BTN and the Pac-12 Network have increased their coverage, and ESPN of late has added volleyball to its regular sports programming, more often than not the announcers are too chatty and rarely educate the viewer in the process.

But McCaa and I do heartily agree on this—volleyball at all levels needs to be more diverse. “I think there needs to be some efforts to get more girls of color, Black girls, playing,” he pointed out.

Furthermore, unless the volleyball player is playing club or considered a top-level recruit, as Gabby was once seen, getting seen by college coaches is hard since they use club or traveling volleyball as fertile recruiting sources. A few years ago, as he tracked his daughter’s progression, McCaa had a bright idea: Help other parents like himself get their playing daughters noticed. He then developed a mobile app called E-Z Volleyball.

“I designed this for parents who are like me,” explained McCaa. “I was recording everything…trying to generate some interest in my daughter. I ended up talking to a lot of African American dads.”

So, unless the player, especially a Black player, is top-level, playing on a top-level club team playing against top-level club teams, the player is outside the eyes of coaches. This is where his app, which can be downloaded from the Apple App Store, can help in this regard, McCaa stressed. “It does recording. It does live streaming, does highlight videos, uploads to YouTube.”

As for Gabby, “She’s happy,” said her father. “We’ve got two daughters here [at Wisconsin].” His other daughter Tayler is a UW freshman but not playing. “It’s a four-to-five-hour drive.”

McCaa is bullish on volleyball whether his daughter is playing or not. “I’m obviously passionate about the sport,” he said. “I have a daughter that plays, and that’s a big part of it. I still love the sport.”

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