Did a 'Negro League' thwart girls' lacrosse team? Lawsuit exposes saga of success and strife at Strawberry Mansion High

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Strawberry Mansion’s lacrosse players, including Nadirah McRae, far right, when they were playing lacrosse their first season. Now, McRae is suing the school district.

Not that long ago, the girls on Strawberry Mansion High School’s new lacrosse team were budding stars.

It was an inspiring tale.

Their coach, Jazmine A. Smith, had grown up playing lacrosse and field hockey in Radnor. But Smith had roots in Strawberry Mansion’s gritty neighborhood, considered one of the most crime-ridden in the city, and she wanted to provide the girls there with better options in life. Starting in fall 2015, Smith formed a field hockey and lacrosse team.

The teams’ Cinderella story went like this: The mother of one of the girls had died of cancer. Another often took care of her chronically ill mother. Some, once known for fighting or truancy, were finding joy and success through their new sports. The principal at the time, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, herself featured on Nightline and World News Report for her work at the struggling high school, had said one girl didn’t “even seem like she’s the same child, she’s done such a complete turnaround.”

In May 2016, the girls were headed to Lehigh University to play during halftime at the inaugural games of the United Women’s Lacrosse League, and their first season — known for its impact if not for its 4-6 record — was featured on the front pages of the Inquirer and Daily News.

Now, a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court by one of the lacrosse players, Nadirah McRae, accusing the School District of Philadelphia of racial and gender discrimination has exposed a long-simmering rift between the district and Smith — a coach who many say pushed the boundaries to fight for opportunities for her players, sometimes to her teams’ detriment.

Speaking at a news conference this month announcing the lawsuit, Smith, whose contract was not renewed for this season, alleged obstacles the district put in her teams’ way: “Games canceled, buses canceled, playing the same teams over and over again in what I deemed to be the Negro League,” she said, citing the developmental league that included Strawberry Mansion, Delaware Valley Regional, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, and Frankford High — predominantly African American schools.

And this year, although a teacher is available to coach, the district said there are not enough girls interested to have a field hockey team at the high school on Ridge Avenue near 31st Street.

What happened to the up-and-coming teams and their ambitious coach is a story fraught with he said/she said: The district claims Smith didn’t always follow the rules and balked at being in a league for newer players. Smith believes her team’s ambition was thwarted by discrimination, and McRae, one of Smith’s star players, is owed more than $250,000 in damages from the district and the School Reform Commission.

Tensions reached a boiling point this summer when McRae, 18, a June graduate, was denied entrance into the University of Hartford because the district failed to provide the school “necessary paperwork” to the NCAA that would allow her to qualify for a waiver to receive a scholarship, the lawsuit says.

The incident is indicative of a district that didn’t offer resources and attention to its predominantly lower-income African American schools, the complaint says.

“The District funds, supports and encourages girls at schools like Northeast [High] to play Lacrosse while refusing to make those opportunities available to girls of color at schools like Strawberry Mansion.”

The district denies the allegations.

“One of our core values as a school district is increasing opportunity in the classroom and the playing field for all of our students regardless of race or gender.  We work every day to ensure equity across the school district and that every child is given the opportunity to succeed,” said Lee Whack, a school district spokesman, in a statement.

From stars to second class

Smith was hired by athletic director Robert Coleman and Cliatt-Wayman for the 2015-16 academic year to coach junior-varsity lacrosse and field hockey teams.

After a new athletic director, James Patrick Lynch, was hired just before the 2016-17 academic year, the teams were downgraded to a developmental league, a move Whack said was now standard practice for any new district teams. After two years, teams would be able to advance.

Under this arrangement, Smith said her teams would only play four other teams twice a season — reducing her girls’ chances of being seen by college scouts. Smith began to complain publicly about the changes.  But sources at Strawberry Mansion and the district familiar with the athletic department’s policies said Smith’s actions could have jeopardized the status of her teams.

In one instance, Smith scheduled in October 2016 to take her field hockey team to a game at Radnor High School with her principal’s approval, but the district athletic director canceled the bus because did not know about it.

In other instances, Smith didn’t always provide enough players to field a team under Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) rules.

If she bent the rules, it was because of her passion for helping her girls, said one district lacrosse coach: “I think in her excitement to get things done for her kids, she just wanted to get it done, get her kids seen by the colleges, for the sake of the kids,” he said.

Another lacrosse coach, who asked not to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, acknowledged the developmental teams didn’t have the same experience and skills as those playing at Girls High, Central, or Northeast High — “Their talent was a little raw,” he said. Lynch declined to comment for this article, citing the litigation.

The school district, meanwhile, said it was simply providing more structure in its athletic programs and wanted schools starting new sports to grasp the basics before playing stronger teams.

A scholarship lost

For McRae, the complaint is more personal. Division I University of Hartford is off the table this year.

The suit concedes that McRae’s low final grades and SAT scores meant the university accepted her “on a probationary basis.”

But she needed to get approval from the NCAA to qualify for the scholarship, and the final transcript the district submitted didn’t include a graduation date, the lawsuit says.

The school district maintains that officials at Strawberry Mansion submitted McRae’s final transcript to University of Hartford Aug. 9.

Ultimately, McRae’s attorney Aaron J. Freiwald said the scholarship was not granted.

A spokeswoman for Hartford would not comment about prospective or current students. “The University will cooperate fully as appropriate and respond to legal inquiries connected to the suit as required by law,” Molly Polk wrote in an email.

The day after announcing the lawsuit, Smith was helping McRae enroll at Cheyney University.

“My hope is that one day Nadirah can play Division I lacrosse and that she heals from this,” Smith said. “This has been a devastating blow for her and everyone who is part of her village.”