IT'S NOT ABOUT ME
by Kelsey Harper
Professional lacrosse player Mark Ellis has defied the odds at virtually every turn of his life. Now, he’s standing up for diverse representation in his sport and using his platform to advocate for broader change in society.
The 2020 Major League Lacrosse season was played, in its entirety, the week of July 23rd in a controlled environment at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
Forced into this format by the COVID-19 pandemic, the season featured only four Black players out of the 180 who were on the rosters of the league’s six teams, including reserves.
Together, Ellis, Isaiah Davis-Allen, Chad Toliver, and Kris Alleyne have since become known as the ‘MLL Four.’
“It’s about standing together with one another,” says Ellis.
And that’s exactly what they decided to do.
In a statement of both protest and solidarity, the MLL Four, with their teammates and coaches behind them, stood alone at midfield as the National Anthem played before their respective games.
They carefully considered their actions.
"We went back and forth for a couple of hours and decided, no matter what we do, we have to stay the same. Then it’s about us, not any individual,” explains Ellis. “We weren’t going to go about it the wrong way, but we were going to stand up for something.”
Mindful of the setting, and not wanting their message to be misunderstood, their decision to stand was an important one for them. Ellis put his personal opinion aside for the greater good.
“For me, I wanted to take a knee at first but was like, hey, I can still bring light to this without taking a knee. I can still do that.” he shares.
They anticipated the inevitable questions that would come their way from the media and lacrosse community and refused to be divided.
“Why did I do this? Because it’s about us all four of us,” says Ellis.
It was an intelligent strategy that would ensure the players would be able to have the opportunity to speak on the issues they face.
“You knew people [were going to] ask 'why did you stand up?' Because I knew you were going to ask the question, and now I can talk about it," Ellis explains.
"We [also] tried to make the league feel more comfortable because we didn't take a knee."
Their consideration was not reciprocated.
“They tried to suppress us," says Ellis.
While the powerful images of their stand were captured on social media and national television, the players were conspicuously absent from the league’s official website or Instagram account.
"I started to realize that they hadn't posted anything about any of the Black players. We all scored goals, we all played well, but there was nothing, not even a peep,” Ellis explains.
He knew something was up.
“One of the other players had a takeover on Instagram, and I had on all social movement shirts.”
According to Ellis, an influential league official saw them together and called the Commissioner, saying, ‘I don’t want that posted on the MLL social media, that’s not what we’re here for.’
“We got wind of that and got to the point of, ok, let’s have a conversation,” he says. “There was a league meeting and we just walked in and said; we need to talk about this, in front of everybody.”
After hours of tense dialog, one of the owners drew a line in the sand in support of the players.
“It got to a point in the meeting when [one of the owners] was like, ‘they’re asking us if we are suppressing something,’ shares Ellis. “[The owner] asked the Commissioner directly, ‘are you suppressing something?’”
“[The Commissioner] said, ‘we don’t want to be political.’”
That response didn’t sit well with Ellis.
“From the outside looking in, you don’t support your Black players. Regardless of your political view, you could just say ‘we support our players’ - post pictures of us with our teams - but you didn’t even want to do that,” he said in the meeting.
Social media, it should go without saying, is an important platform.
“From a social media standpoint, it matters. Social media is what brings in a lot of money and how you perceive things,” Ellis asserts. “Are you anti-racist, are you against racism? Stand by your players at the end of the day.”
“Our teammates were supporting us, our coaches were supporting us, but the league wasn’t, or at least it seemed like they weren’t.”
"So, we took it into our own hands and spoke to people; made it known [that] we’re not about this.”
After the meeting, the Commissioner put out a statement supporting the MLL Four and committing to ‘critical outcomes.’ While the players had every right to question the authenticity of a message that came only after holding the league to account, they are committed to progress over ego.
“You can’t hold that against them as much because we want the game to move forward,” says Ellis. “Slowly but surely we’re trying to make some moves happen in terms of having a seat at the table, or having a diversity committee because that’s what we need.”
"In any big organization, you need to come up with something for people that don’t look like you,” he continues. “You have got to make progress and be open to suggestions and opportunities for other people.”
“I think the league just lacks that right now and we’re going to keep the pressure on until they change something.”
Ellis’ journey to professional athlete and advocate is, to put it mildly, an unlikely one.
He’s one of seven children in a family that was made larger by marriage, but Ellis, whose biological father left when he was six, says it’s all the same.
“I don’t have step-brothers, this is my family.”
Ellis still lives in his hometown on Long Island, New York, where township lines played a defining role in his life.
“I grew up in Hempstead, which is a predominately black area, but my backyard was in Garden City, which is predominately white,” he explains. "So, I went to school in Garden City but lived in Hempstead. It was a social battle back and forth.”
For Ellis, this duality inadvertently created alter-egos. While his family and friends knew him by his middle name Tashwan, or ‘Te,’ at school he went by Mark.
“I [played] football with all my friends who were Black. I didn’t live in Garden City so I didn’t play with my friends at school,” Ellis says. “I’ll never forget playing Pee Wee football for a predominately Black team, and I played against my friends from elementary school who were predominately white.”
“My [Garden City] friends called me Mark, and my other friends are like, ‘who the fuck is Mark?’ I played it off, like, ‘I don’t know who they’re calling’ even though I know they’re calling me.”
The opposing gravitational pulls had a formative impact on Ellis in a way that helped him see possibilities that were invisible to others while gaining an invaluable perspective.
“I grew up [seeing] people in Hempstead [who] went to school, played sports, sold drugs, drank, were on welfare and that’s the cycle,” he shares.
“Then I come to a place like Garden City where I can walk around and see trees, no one’s outside unless they’re playing in the park; you see doctors, you see lawyers, you see people going to college.”
“If you have that around you 24-7 you have no choice. The only thing different about me is I got picked out of [Hempstead] early and came to Garden city.”
While Ellis’ world-view was being re-framed, he couldn’t help but understand the alternative.
“I get it and it sucks. I get why people do things; because they feel like they have no other option,” he says. “I know from experience.”
“When I was first growing up, I saw people older than me making money. And my mom was working double jobs, two shifts, so she wasn’t home a lot. She was a great mom - she did everything for me - but she couldn’t control me 24-7.”
“I’m a kid that’s surrounded by people who aren’t the best role models, I just picked football and sports,” he explains. “I could have easily been sucked into that - and sometimes I was - but told myself I need get back to doing what I was doing.”
A footballer at heart, Ellis was introduced to lacrosse in middle school by his friend Dan Marino, who would go on to play at the University of Virginia.
“I didn’t know what lacrosse was, I had no idea. But it was in the spring and I didn’t have a sport, so I signed up,” says Ellis.
“On that first day I walked home from [practice] and a cop came up and pulled me over and asked; ‘where did you get that stick from? You don’t look like you play lacrosse.’”
“I didn’t think it was a racial issue then, but looking back I’m like, wow, why’d he ask me?”
Undeterred, Ellis took to the sport, but not immediately.
“I played long pole at first and I sucked. I played it like football, hit people, and got a lot of penalties,” he explains. “But being around a lot of guys that were really good helped out, and I just worked at it non-stop.”
In high school, Ellis excelled at both football and lacrosse, and ultimately, it was a coach that he would later play for at Hofstra University who offered critical counsel.
"He said to me, you can be one of many or one of few," Ellis recalls. “I never thought lacrosse would be my way out, and it ended up being it.”
Ellis' athletic prowess would allow him to play at the highest level, but not before getting other aspects of his life in order.
“Growing up, sports were my thing but grades weren’t. I was like, I’m a great athlete they’re going to pull me no matter what,” he shares.
A scouting visit from an Ivy League university would put Ellis’ realities in check.
“[They] came in asking; ‘what are your grades like?’ I’m like, ‘grades, what do you mean, grades?’” he recalls. “I felt embarrassed.”
“That flipped the switch [to] 'let me get this shit together.' I have to become good at school, I need to do more than just pass, I need to be excellent at what I do.”
“My mom always said, ‘you need to work twice as hard,’ and I did,” he shares. “I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I worked really hard. I made sure I outworked people.”
The new mindset and work ethic put Ellis on an entirely new trajectory and helped prepare him for a challenging road through prep school and college.
“[Prep school] was a big learning curve for me; being away from home, school six days a week, suit and tie every day,” he explains. “I had structure before, but having that kind of structure was different.”
“And the money was different; kids got Bentleys. It was like Hogwarts, it was like shit you see on TV; helicopter pad on campus, it was just crazy.”
It was all in stark contrast to what Ellis knew growing up, but only in comparison.
“I didn’t feel poor until I was older. I got my first [own] bed at 17, but it wasn’t a concern for me because you didn’t think about it back then,” he says. “It wasn’t an issue because I didn’t see it as an issue.”
“Then you realize there’s much more out there.”
Needless to say, prep school-life in Connecticut was a culture shock, but the lessons he learned were life-long.
“I [met] some of my best friends from there, and it was a learning experience for how to grow and deal with people,” says Ellis. “Understanding that if you don’t like somebody, you can’t just walk away. You have to talk your way through it, you have to figure it out.”
Around the time that he was preparing to attend Stony Brook University in New York, a 45-minute drive from home, Ellis’ older brother was arrested and incarcerated for four years.
There are four brothers in Ellis’ family, and with the youngest already on the right path, Ellis now saw it as his responsibility to look after his other younger brother.
“I had friends that were doing other activities, but I was always the sports guy. I could hang out with these guys and not feel like I needed to do something I [shouldn’t] do, and they got that,” he explains. “My little brother seemed like he got pulled in to it and was accustom to it.”
“I was dealing with; how do I separate the two? How do I be a good brother and good family member while still being a full-time Division I athlete and going to school?”
Ellis did everything he could to be a role model and protect his younger brother from the temptations and trappings in Hempstead.
“I told him, you get to pick your path among two older brothers,” he recalls.
It was to no avail.
"He got into trouble and now he's doing life," says Ellis. "My older brother came home and then my younger brother went into jail.”
As if that weren’t enough for a young man to cope with, Ellis’ beloved grandmother passed away during this time.
“It destroyed me,” he shares. “She was my rock.”
“At that point, I was like, it’s bigger than me. I can’t help everybody, and I have to do more for myself and lead by example.”
“She always said to me, ‘you’re going to be special.’”
After graduating from Stony Brook with a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies, Ellis went on to Hofstra to complete an additional two years of playing eligibility and earn his master’s degree in sports science.
Now, as a defensive midfielder for the New York Lizards, and Performance Coach at Stony Brook, Ellis wants to move lacrosse forward and improve diversity in a way that grows the game.
"We cannot be going backward, we have to be on top of this," he says. “Imagine you’re in my shoes. How can I tell a kid who wants to be a lacrosse player when they grow up; the league respects you, the league looks out for you. It’s hard to say that right now.”
“It’s time for lacrosse to open up. We’ve been in situations that have been uncomfortable to us, but there was never an openness to talk about these things,” he asserts. “Now, it feels necessary to open up and have people feel comfortable.”
Ellis' resilient leadership can be summed up in one mantra that he's become accustomed to repeating.
“It’s not about me.”
“It’s bigger than us; you have to keep telling yourself that.”
He’s inspired by icons of the civil rights movement who fought for the opportunity for Ellis to have a voice and be heard.
“The people that came before us in life - Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X - those guys paved the way and went through that pain for us to have a better life.”
“I’m not saying I could have that effect on somebody, but you never know,” Ellis says. “I’d be a fool not to [take] the opportunity to open it up for somebody else. So, we’re going through this bullshit so the next generation of Black or diverse people coming into the game don't have [the same] issues.”
Not surprisingly, particularly in today’s cancel culture, Ellis has his detractors.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to do what I need to do for people that come after me and that look like me - and [those] who don’t believe that I’m here for that - honestly screw ‘em,” he says refreshingly.
For what he’s been through, and what he’s learned along the way, Ellis prefers to keep the conversation upfront and honest.
“I’m an open book. You can’t fool me. I’ve been through sleeping on the floor, I’ve been in million-dollar houses, I’ve been through my dad not wanting me, I’ve been through a lot of shit to the point that like, hey, nothing will fool me.”
“I’d rather you be truthful. Say your stance, and now we can talk about it,” he says. “Let’s have a conversation - it might be a tough conversation - but I’m going to respect it and our lives will both be affected by it.”
Ellis is particularly motivated to advocate for young kids who are exactly where he once was.
“Sometimes, I felt like I was dealt the wrong hand,” he shares. “But always believe it’s going to be a bigger and better day. Do what you want to do, and do it to the fullest. I don’t care if you want to be the best computer analyst or the next President. Do it.”
“People won’t believe in you. People are going to mock you. People are going to think you’re crazy at first, and eventually, they’re going to idolize you.”
For his part, Ellis just wants to know one thing.
“How can I do more.”
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