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Sports exec. shares love for lacrosse with city youth

Jones’ Journey

Frank Holland
Sports exec. shares love for lacrosse with city youth
Metro Lacrosse places an equal emphasis on sports and academics. (Photo: Photo Courtesy of Metro Lacrosse)

Author: Photo Courtesy of Metro LacrosseMetro Lacrosse CEO Aaron Jones.

Bringing lacrosse to the urban areas of Metro Boston may seem like a daunting task, but Aaron Jones, the CEO of Metro Lacrosse, says he’s really selling himself and what he’s been able to achieve with the help of the sport.

“I consider myself as the personification of what Metro Lacrosse is about,” Jones said.

Metro Lacrosse is the biggest urban lacrosse program in the country. More than 700 young people from 4th to 12th grade from the city and surrounding areas take part each year. Since the programs began in 1994, Jones says about 75 percent of the participants have graduated from college. Many also play collegiate lacrosse. The majority of the participants are children of color, recruited from Boston Public Schools.

Lacrosse is in the nonprofit’s name, but Jones says Metro is just as focused on academics.

“We are a sports-based youth development program.”

Jones shares his story at school assemblies and Parent Teacher Association meetings, hoping kids and parents understand that Metro Lacrosse is much more than an after school activity. He would like kids to not only use the Jamaica Plain-based program to play lacrosse, but also to use lacrosse to pay for college through athletic scholarships. Ivy League Schools like Harvard and Princeton along with other top tier universities like Duke and Johns Hopkins are regularly in the NCAA Top 25.

“This is a great opportunity to be exposed to a game that can be transformative in your life”

17-year-old Deyscha Smith is one of many Dorchester kids who stepped out of their comfort zone to get involved with Metro Lacrosse.

“When I first picked up a lacrosse stick I was very confused. I kept thinking it was tennis!”

Smith first started playing the sport in 5th grade after seeing a video at her school. Now, she’s a high school senior at Academy of the Pacific Rim in Hyde Park and will play at Mount Holyoke College next year. Deyscha says the sport has helped her make new friends, and opened her up to new experiences.

“Lacrosse is definitely transformative, I went from being a really shy lazy kid. It’s definitely a part of me for sure.”

Jones experienced a similar journey. Like most kids growing up in Hempstead, NY a predominantly Black suburb of New York City, Jones enjoyed football and basketball. When he was 9 years old a coach from a predominantly white neighboring community started a youth lacrosse program in Jones’ backyard. At first he was skeptical.

Long Legacy

The sport is thought to have been developed by Native Americans in the 12th century. White settlers in the Americas first observed the game in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until the 1850s that whites began playing in lacrosse leagues. The game now is popular in suburban schools, prep schools, colleges and universities. But not in inner city neighborhoods.

“Lacrosse is a very homogeneous sport, usually with a white affluent country club prep school demographic,” he said.

But once Jones got a lacrosse stick in his hand and learned the rules of the 10-versus-10 contact sport it was a natural fit. He wasn’t the only one. An all-black youth team quickly formed.

“It’s fast, it’s physical. In a neighborhood where football and basketball reign supreme, the speed, the agility, the contact of the game was attractive to all of us,” Jones said.

Lacrosse and good grades opened doors the son of West Indian Immigrant could never have imagined.

Jones went to Cornell University on a full scholarship. He played defense on the Lacrosse team from 1984 to 1987 and earned All-America honors his senior year.

“Since I was a stand-out, I wanted to make sure I dominated and represented because I was so visible.”

It seems like a fairy tale ending. But Jones says there were many bumps in the road.

“Racial slurs were common,” Jones said. “Unnecessary roughness. I think I would inflict most of the unnecessary roughness especially after the racial slurs came. I never walked away from it. In fact it just made me more motivated to win.”

During a late night of studying at Cornell, Jones realized what he wanted to do with his life. He was hitting the books and watching Nightline, when the now infamous interview between Ted Koppel and Al Campanis aired on April 6, 1987. Jones was outraged by the sentiment expressed by the then-Los Angeles Dodgers owner that Blacks don’t have the mental ability to be executives in baseball. “I truly believe they may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager” Campanis said.

“I watched that on television and at that point it crystalized.” Jones said, “What do I want to do for a living? I want to be in the front office of a sports team. That’s where I can combine my passion and acumen and my intelligence to show Al Campanis and people like him they are wrong.”

The lacrosse star would go on to earn his Masters from UMass, then begin his career as a sports executive. Jones served as president of the National Lacrosse League’s New York Titans and the NBA Development League’s Greenville Groove. He would also work with the NFL and an internet entertainment company. That experience in the high-stakes and fast paced corporate world is something Jones is confident will benefit Metro Lacrosse.

“My goal is to bring those skill sets to this nonprofit environment,” Jones said, “We see tremendous growth.”

Lacrosse is a fast-paced game. It’s also growing in popularity at rapid pace. According to a study by the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in boys and girls lacrosse has basically doubled over the past 11 years. In Massachusetts the sport grew by 18 percent from 2009 to 2013 according to the NFSHSA.

Corporate America is banking on lacrosse, and Metro Lacrosse continuing the growing trend. Boston-based New Balance provides all the equipment needed with the exception of shoes through its subsidiary companies Brine and Warrior. Cascade, another leading lacrosse manufacturer, also provides gear and support.

This intersection between sport and business is where Jones’ expertise comes into play. His goal is bring even more sponsors and dollars to urban lacrosse and eventually leverage those relationships to the urban community as a whole.

The growth of lacrosse is also increasing the opportunities and odds for young players to turn their passion into a profession. Major League Lacrosse and The National Lacrosse League are far from major sports, but still provide an opportunity to get paid to play.

Lacrosse becoming a big business will likely take some time. Jones says in the meantime, he’s committed to the day-to-day goals of Metro Lacrosse.

‘We’re trying to build good athletes and better athletes and better people,” he said. “That’s a priority.”