Boys' volleyball is growing exponentially — without the support of the Minnesota State High School League.
To understand its recent populist surge, you need to meet teens like Moua Tia Xiong, who started begging his high school's athletic director to start a team when he was just a freshman.
"The conversation was like a little kid nagging their own parent," recalled Moua, now a senior at Como Park Senior High, with a laugh. "I think he was annoyed with me."
Moua recruited players at lunch, taped posters to the walls and repeatedly dropped into the office of Koua Yang, the athletic director, to give him progress reports. Before long, Yang championed the effort and paved the way for a new high school club team.
Today, 1,400 boys in 55 teams across Minnesota play, many of them newcomers to high school athletics. About 78% of the players had not played a sport before volleyball, according to the Minnesota Boys High School Volleyball League. More than half of the players identify as kids of color, primarily from Hmong, Karen and other Asian American communities.
The high school league's Representative Assembly had a chance to sanction the fast-rising sport this month and come closer to making good on its stated beliefs embracing diversity and inclusion. The measure failed by a single vote.
The decision to sanction any high school sport can be fraught, and no doubt the athletic directors and administrators who voted no had to confront questions of money, gym space and Title IX gender equity. Assuming the proposal resurfaces next spring, the representatives will have another year to ponder the merits of giving these boys a seat at the table.
They might learn something from Yang, the Como Park athletic director, a Hmong American who emigrated here when he was 4. His father was a soldier who assisted the CIA, rescuing downed U.S. pilots in Laos during the Secret War. After his father's death, Yang was raised in St. Paul by his mom, who like many traditional Asian American immigrants prioritized academics over athletics. But he dabbled in a bunch of sports, eventually earning a place as an all-state wrestler and all-conference tennis player while a student at Como Park.
Through sports, Yang learned the values he lives by: Discipline. Loyalty. A sense of balance. Community.
As a new athletic director at an old high school, where the vast majority of students are kids of color, he wondered why many of them did not join a team. Some said they started too late, others said they just didn't connect with traditional sports. But volleyball?
"Volleyball was the only thing where we felt that we belonged," Moua, 17, told me. "We saw our parents play, our idols play."
Moua and his family frequented the annual Hmong International Freedom Festival, known as J4, and remembers the thrill of seeing players from all over the world who lacked in height dominate the courts with their scrappiness and hops. His uncles played competitive volleyball. Moua participated on the swim team but always gravitated back to the game that is connected to his culture and community.
"I find peace, I feel at home, I feel like myself when I play volleyball," said Moua, who now co-captains his team. "It's engraved into my blood."
Organizational leaders, in the realm of high school sports and beyond, have been wringing their hands about how to make their institutions more inclusive so that their commitments to diversity and equity actually mean something.
Sometimes the answer is right in front of us. When young people speak, we need to listen.
Volleyball, like soccer and badminton, is accessible to start because it's fairly easy to learn and relatively low-cost. At Como, the boys' volleyball players do a lot of fundraising and pay for their own fees and uniforms.
"They want it that badly, and these are kids on free and reduced lunch," Yang said. "When you give kids opportunity, they blossom."
But one thing the kids don't often have is a voice at the table. Think of the super-involved, competitive soccer mom or dad who is not only cheering on their children at every game from their lawn chair but doing the backbreaking work of advocacy, fighting for resources that will determine the success of the sport.
In some communities, parents are showing their support the only way they know how — by simply letting their children join an activity. That's why Yang says it's up to coaches and educators like him to keep pushing for change.
"We are in charge of these kids, we have to then vouch for these kids, we have to then support these kids, we have to then provide outcomes for these kids," he said, "because parents are entrusting their child with us."
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 be required to add it, but they might feel the pressure to offer the program and would then have to find a way to fund busing, coaches and officials.
But it's worth pointing out that boys volleyball has the potential to bring in revenue. Home games at Como are often packed with excited fans. Since Moua will be graduating this spring, it is too late to make the game that is engraved in his blood an official high school sport for Moua's benefit, but he tries to make volleyball feel like home for his younger teammates.
"I say to them, 'Family on three,' " Moua said. "I feel like we're all we've got."