Boys’ volleyball is growing exponentially — without the support of the Minnesota State High School League.
To understand the recent populist surge, you have to meet teenagers like Moua Tia Xiong, who begged his high school’s athletic director to start a team when he was a freshman.
“The conversation was like a little kid nagging his own parents,” recalled Moua, who is now a senior at Como Park Senior High, with a laugh. “I think he was mad at me.”
Moua recruited players over lunch, pasted posters on the walls, and repeatedly came to Koua Yang’s office, the sporting director, to give him progress reports. Soon, Yang championed the effort and paved the way for a new high school club team.
Today, 1,400 boys play on 55 teams across Minnesota, many of them freshmen in high school athletics. According to the Minnesota Boys High School Volleyball League, about 78% of players had not played any sport before playing volleyball. More than half of the players identify as children of color, mostly from Hmong, Karen, and other Asian-American communities.
The High School League Council of Representatives had an opportunity this month to sanction the fast-rising sport and move closer to realizing its stated beliefs, which encompass diversity and inclusion. The measure failed by a single vote.
The decision to sanction a high school sport can be a difficult one, and no doubt the athletic directors and administrators who voted no have had to grapple with issues of money, gym space and gender equality under Title IX. Assuming the proposal resurfaces next spring, representatives have another year to consider whether giving these boys a seat at the table makes sense.
Maybe they will learn something from Yang, the sports director of Como Park, a Hmong-American who immigrated here when he was 4 years old. His father was a soldier who helped the CIA and rescued US pilots shot down in Laos during the Secret War. After his father’s death, Yang was raised in St. Paul by his mother, who, like many traditional Asian-American immigrants, valued academics over athletics. But he dabbled in a variety of sports, eventually earning a spot as an all-state wrestler and all-conference tennis player while he was a student at Como Park.
Through sport, Yang learned the values he lives by: Discipline. Loyalty. A sense of balance. community.
As the new athletic director at an old high school where the vast majority of students are black kids, he wondered why so many of them didn’t join a team. Some said they started too late, others said they just had no connection to traditional sports. But volleyball?
“Volleyball was the only place we felt we belonged,” Moua, 17, told me. “We saw our parents play, our idols play.”
Moua and his family attended the annual Hmong International Freedom Festival, known as J4, and recall the thrill of seeing players from around the world who lacked the height dominating the courts with their scuffle and hop. His uncles played competitive volleyball. Moua was a member of the swim team but has always felt drawn to the sport, which is associated with his culture and community.
“I find peace, I feel at home, I feel like myself when I play volleyball,” said Moua, who is now his team’s co-captain. “It’s engraved in my blood.”
Organization leaders in college sports and beyond have been wringing their hands on how to make their institutions more inclusive so their commitment to diversity and equity actually means something.
Sometimes the answer is right in front of us. When young people speak, we must listen.
Volleyball, like soccer and badminton, is easy to learn because it is relatively easy to learn and relatively inexpensive. In Como, boys’ volleyball players raise a lot of money and pay their own fees and uniforms.
“They want it so badly, and these are kids with free and discounted lunches,” Yang said. “If you give children the opportunity, they thrive.”
But one thing the kids often don’t have is a voice at the table. Think of the super-committed, competitive soccer mom or dad who not only cheers for their kids from their lawn chair at every game, but also does the back-breaking advocacy work and fights for resources that drive the sport’s success determine.
In some communities, parents show their support the only way they know how—by simply letting their children participate in an activity. Because of this, Yang says it’s up to coaches and educators like him to keep pushing for change.
“We are responsible for these children, we then have to vouch for these children, we then have to support these children, we then have to deliver results for these children,” he said, “because parents trust us with their child. “
In Minnesota, boys’ volleyball as a club sport is fueled by the sweat of volunteers. Twenty-seven other states have already sanctioned it. If it becomes an official sport, no district would need to add it, but they might feel the pressure to offer the program and would then need to find a way to fund buses, coaches, and officials.
But it’s worth noting that boys’ volleyball has the potential to generate revenue. Home games in Como are often full of enthusiastic fans. With Moua graduating this spring, it’s too late to make the game that’s in his blood an official high school sport for Moua, but he’s trying to make volleyball feel like home for his younger teammates .
“I tell them: ‘Family of three,'” said Moua. “I feel like we’re all we have.”