BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Michael Kennedy stood on the stage of the Stifel Theatre in St. Louis last November among some pretty elite company, including Wayne Gretzky.
It was during the 2021 Musial Awards ceremony, named in honor of baseball legend Stan Musial, which recognizes sports figures who showcase incredible sportsmanship. The 2020 ceremony was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic where Kennedy, the CEO of Ireland Lacrosse, was supposed to receive his award for his act of compassion that heavily involved the World Games 2022 coming to Birmingham this summer.
Lacrosse was tabbed to be part of the global sporting event being held in Birmingham July 7-17. It was the second competition in a row featuring the “fastest game on two feet” and the first for the men’s division. Eight teams would be invited to partake in both the men’s and women’s distinctions.
In order to make the event as competitive as possible, the top eight teams from the 2018 World Lacrosse Championship were invited, including Kennedy’s Ireland, the United States, Canada and Australia. But one team was noticeably missing.
The Haudenosaunee Nationals, previously known as the Iroquois Nationals, are credited with being the inventors of the game, referring to it as the “medicine game” as the sport had an ability to “heal” an individual, family or community. They are also a regular fixture in the top of the world rankings, currently rated No. 3. The team even won bronze at the 2018 championships. Yet, they did not receive an invite to the World Games.
Under International Olympic Committee rules, the Haudenosaunee were not viewed as an independent nation and therefore initially barred from competing in Birmingham. But this wasn’t the first time the team had been shunned from international competition.
In 2010, the World Lacrosse Championships were held in England and the Haudenosaunee were looking to improve on their fourth-place finish four years prior. But once again, their sovereignty was questioned.
As early as the 1920s, the Haudenosaunee have used their own passports for travel, rather than ones issued by the United States as many members of the Haudenosaunee do not want to claim citizenship of another nation.
That proved to be an issue for the United Kingdom in 2010 as they decided not to recognize the Haudenosaunee’s passports due to the increase in passport security requirements for the event. The solution presented by British officials was for players to obtain either Canadian or US passports if they wanted to compete. The Haudenosaunee refused and thus had to forfeit all three of their matches and they finished in last place in the World Lacrosse Championships.
Then in 2015, the Haudenosaunee women’s team was barred from entering Scotland for the Under-19 World Championship and the teams were told to get new passports to compete in the 2018 World Championship in Israel. This issue was later resolved thanks to the help of the Federation of International Lacrosse and other local organizing committees.
“Our passports are a critical element of our sovereignty,” Leo Nolan said.
Nolan serves as the executive director and member of the Haudenosaunee Nationals Lacrosse Board of Directors. He said when the news came down that the Haudenosaunee were not selected for the World Games 2022, his initial reaction was one of shock. And many in the lacrosse community shared the same sentiment, including Kennedy.
“Nobody would be playing the sport of lacrosse at the World Championship level, at the World Games, at the Olympics if it wasn’t for the Iroquois,” Kennedy said. “The sport wouldn’t exist in the first place if it wasn’t for them.”
The uproar over the decision to keep the Haudenosaunee from competing in the World Games went viral on social media. Over 50,000 people signed a petition to give the creators of lacrosse the chance to play. The World Games then decided to reverse its decision to abide by IOC rules and permit the Haudenosaunee to take part in the event, but another problem surfaced.
The eight nations that were originally selected to compete had already made plans to go to Birmingham for the World Games and allowing the Haudenosaunee a chance to play would create an odd number of teams. That’s when Kennedy and the Irish earned their Musial Award.
Ireland voluntarily vacated its spot, giving the Haudenosaunee the chance to showcase their talent on the world stage. Kennedy said he was prepared to do so, knowing it was the right thing to do.
“It was a pretty easy decision,” he said. “They earned their spot just on the field of play alone.”
The World Games subsequently accepted Ireland’s relinquished spot and welcomed the Haudenosaunee men into the competition. Shortly thereafter, the women’s team would also qualify to participate.
“Ireland’s national lacrosse team showcased the best of sportsmanship and the best of humanity,” World Games CEO Nick Sellers said. “Birmingham has long been an epicenter of America’s struggle for equality, and we are enormously proud that The World Games 2022 can remind us that our strength comes from mutual respect and a commitment to inclusion.”
But while many saw this as a major victory for inclusion and the Haudenosaunee, Nolan knew this was just the beginning of a much bigger mission.
In 2028, the Summer Olympics will be held in the United States for the first time in over three decades when they come to Los Angeles. It has been a dream for lacrosse teams to have the sport included in the Olympics.
“Just like any other sport in the world, the pinnacle is Olympics,” Kennedy said.
Inclusion in the World Games this year had become a stepping stone for major international play for lacrosse. The sport got one step closer once it was granted provisional status by the IOC, meaning it is now being considered for the Olympics.
But would the Olympics welcome the Haudenosaunee into the 2028 games? After all, their sovereignty rules were what prohibited the team from playing in the World Games in the first place.
“I know there’s a lot of political machinations, I understand that. But at the same time, it’s important to give recognition where it’s due,” Noland said.
CBS 42 reached out to the IOC for comment on the possibility of allowing the Haudenosaunee into the Olympics as a sovereign nation.
“Considering that Lacrosse is not part of the Olympic program, this is a hypothetical situation at this point in time,” a statement from the IOC read.
But there has been a precedent for allowing a Native American nation to participate in past Olympics, as Kennedy found out while in St. Louis for the Musial Awards.
“The first time lacrosse appeared in the Olympics was back in 1904 in St. Louis,” he said. “and in those Olympics, there was a team of Mohawk Indians that competed.”
The 1904 Olympics marked the first for so many feats. It was the first Olympic Games held outside of Europe and the current gold, silver and bronze medal format was introduced. But the games also marked the last time Native Americans were able to participate as their own nation. Nolan, Kennedy and the rest of World Lacrosse hope to change that in the next six years.
“I’m optimistic. I think having the World Games and having hopefully Olympic Committee members there to see the World Games in Birmingham and see us play the other seven countries. I think once they see how much enjoyment comes from it, that would be a real big step towards that kind of recognition,” Nolan said.