Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 15, 2022

An All Too Familiar Story

It was a small story, about a trauma far from the field of play involving an all but anonymous team that plays a sport not many fans follow for a small institution few have ever heard of.  That made it easy to miss, or to ignore.  So very simple to click the mouse or turn the page, passing by or quickly forgetting the ugliness.  No doubt that is what most fans did, in the unlikely event they happened upon the story at all. 

On May 15, 1891, the Delaware General Assembly passed the founding legislation that established what was originally called Delaware College for Colored Students.  The name has changed three times over the decades since, most recently in 1993 to Delaware State University.  As a public land-grant institution, Delaware State’s enrollment is more diverse than many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), with more than one-third of the student body identifying as non-African American.  But in a state in which only about one resident in five is Black, Delaware State’s demographics continue to reflect its status as one of the country’s 101 remaining HBCU’s.  Similar to the student body, the women’s lacrosse team is about 70% African American.  The team’s head coach, Pamella Jenkins is Black, and on April 20th, as the team was headed home from a spring trip to a tournament in Florida, the driver of the bus the players and coaches were on was also Black.

On I-95 in Georgia, the bus was pulled over by officers of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department.  The deputies were conducting a commercial interdiction detail on the interstate, focusing on trucks and buses violating the rules of the road.  In the case of the lacrosse team’s bus, the driver was in the left lane, which is reserved for automobiles.  That’s what the sheriff’s deputy who first boarded the bus told the driver, and had the encounter ended with that explanation, and perhaps a citation, there would be no story.

But it did not end there.  Within minutes of the white sheriff’s deputy boarding the bus and seeing the faces of the driver and passengers, other units of his department arrived, including one with a drug-sniffing dog.  Officers came back on the bus and announced a drug search, with one saying to the young women that if anything was present, “we’re probably going to find it, okay?”  He then encouraged the players to admit it if they were carrying drugs, since he would not be able to “help them” if they did not and contraband was later discovered.  With that the officers began a detailed search of the bus’s luggage compartment, opening and going through suitcases, backpacks, and duffel bags.  Bodycam photos and cell phone video shows them handling personal items such as underwear and cosmetics, directly contradicting a later claim by the county sheriff.  A wrapped package was brought on board, which the student who identified it was forced to open despite explaining that it was a birthday present from her family.  Inside the package was not a pound of marijuana or kilo of cocaine, but a jewelry box.

In the end, of course, there were no drugs or any other contraband, just a bus full of scared young Black women and a driver who should not have been in the left lane.  Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team was allowed to resume its journey north, without so much as a ticket being issued to the errant operator.

The Liberty County sheriff, who is himself Black, has insisted that the traffic stop was not a case of racial profiling, and in the narrowest sense of his words, that seems likely to be true.  The bus was in the wrong place, and while a lane violation is at best a minor offense, it is also unlikely that the two deputies who made the initial stop could have identified the race of either driver or passengers through a modern motorcoach’s tinted windows. 

But the denial falters with the subsequent actions of the white deputies.  It does so not only because of the stereotypical, and false, assumption that a group of mostly African American young adults are likely carrying drugs, but also because impact is every bit as important as intent.  And as multiple team members and coach Jenkins have made clear, everyone on the bus felt the lane violation escalated into something far more serious once the color of their skin was known.

The good news, of course, is that the escalation did not include anything more serious.  But such events do occur because the story of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team is the opposite of unique.  It is common.  Kurt Streeter writes the “Sports of the Times” column for the New York Times.  Before joining the paper in 2017 and ultimately being given one of sportswriting’s most coveted assignments, Streeter wrote for the L.A. Times, the Baltimore Sun, and ESPN.  And before he did all that, he was the first Black player to captain the men’s tennis team at Cal-Berkeley.  After college, Streeter spent a couple of years on the minor league tennis circuit, before wisely deciding to pursue a different career path.  But during that period, he and another African American player were stopped for no apparent reason while driving from a tournament in Alabama to one in Georgia.  Another time, he was detained for eight hours, with no explanation, at London’s Heathrow Airport, although the fact that he shared his detention room with a dozen other travelers, all of whom were Black, was all the explanation Streeter needed.

Like the women of Delaware State, Streeter would be considered one of the lucky ones, for none of his racial profiling experiences escalated into tragedy.  But why should a confrontation, or an arrest, or even a life, turn on the knife edge of luck, when it is based entirely on the color of one’s skin?  As old as the question is, it remains unanswered.  Then again, answering it is difficult, and it is always so much simpler to click the mouse or turn the page.  Yet even as they are tempted to do so, fans should keep in mind that for the members of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team, moving on will not be so easy.


  1. Good piece Michael Duane


    • Thanks Duane

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