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Hailey and Myla Barnett, daughters of ex-Eagles star Fred, aren’t the athletes you might first think they are | Mike Sielski

The twins are thriving in sports where Black females are rare: Myla in lacrosse, Hailey in rowing. Their story shows how silly stereotyping and presumptuousness are.

Myla Barnett is a senior defender for the University of Virginia women's lacrosse team.
Myla Barnett is a senior defender for the University of Virginia women's lacrosse team.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

From time to time, a stranger will meet Myla and Hailey Barnett and, not knowing who they are, ask them if they are athletes. It is a natural question. The twins are 21, born on Aug. 4, 2000 — Hailey beat Myla to the finish line by a minute — and they have that look, each of their frames a wiry V, though Hailey, at 5-foot-9, is 4 inches taller than her younger sister.

Yes, they’ll say, they are athletes. Division I athletes, in fact, seniors living in the same suite at the University of Virginia after spending 13 years together at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. The stranger might even have heard of the twins’ parents. Their father is Fred Barnett, who had two 1,000-yard seasons during his six years as a wide receiver with the Eagles. Their mother is Jacqueline Jeffries Barnett, who served as the secretary of education for the City of Philadelphia, who studied ballet for nearly two decades and yoga for three, and who is a personal trainer and wellness coach who has worked with a handful of professional athletes, among them Charles Barkley and another former Eagles receiver, Jordan Matthews.

Then the stranger, intrigued but still quick to leap to easy conclusions, will ask the sisters the next natural question: What sport do they play? Basketball? Volleyball? Do they run track? And it is then that the twins explain how they’ve long been throwing haymakers at expectations and kicking stereotypes in the teeth.

Sure, they played those sports when they were younger, as most kids do. But not now. Not anymore. Myla is a starting defender for Virginia’s women’s lacrosse team, still ranked 13th in the country, despite back-to-back losses, ahead of a big game Wednesday against Boston College. Hailey, as a junior last year, was on the second varsity eight of UVa’s ACC-championship women’s rowing team; its first scrimmage of the spring semester will be Saturday at Lake Michie, a reservoir in Durham, N.C., near Duke’s campus.

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“They’re better athletes,” said Fred, who starred at Division I-AA Arkansas State before the Eagles picked him in the third round of the 1990 draft, “than I was at their age.”

‘I don’t feel like I don’t belong’

So what are the odds? What are the odds that two women separated by little more than 60 seconds and a few double-helix discrepancies would come to excel in such disparate sports, buck so many trends and traditions, and upend so many preconceptions about race and privilege and the influence and effect that parents have on their children? In 2020, the most recent year of research in the NCAA’s Demographic Database, just 3.4% of women’s lacrosse players and 2.3% of female rowers, across all divisions of collegiate athletics, were Black. Virginia’s women’s lacrosse team has 29 players. Myla is the only one who is Black. Of the rowing team’s 41 members, Hailey is one of just two who are Black.

The statistics are stark. Yet the sisters are careful to keep the color of their skin — and its rarity in their respective sports — in its proper measure relative to everything they have in common with their coaches and teammates … and everything they don’t. It matters, but it’s not everything. It makes them stand out, but it doesn’t define them.

Hailey: “I love the sport so much that I don’t feel like I don’t belong. When you get in the boat, it doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Everybody in the boat has the same goal: to win. No matter what you look like, you’re fast or you’re not. It’s been really empowering to be the voice for other girls who look like me: ‘Oh, I can do that.’”

Myla: “It’s about exposure, and it’s about seeing those models. What does a lacrosse player look like? What does a rower look like? What does a basketball player look like? … It’s definitely part of my ‘why’ as far as playing lacrosse. To be able to inspire other girls to see me and say, ‘Yeah, I can definitely play,’ it definitely drives me, and I think that’s something that’s probably different from my teammates. Other girls can see me and look on the roster and think that it’s possible. We’re out there. There’s not none of us.”

Fred had been retired from football for three years when the twins were born. They were 5 when then-Mayor John Street named Jacqueline the city’s education secretary, and they were 9 when Fred and Jacqueline divorced. But the groundwork for them, whether through Fred’s NFL career or Jacqueline’s ballet career — she auditioned for the Dance Theater of Harlem — was already laid. As teenagers, they had a peculiar nighttime ritual; they’d run the hills of Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park in the dark, toting flashlights, to test their endurance.

Myla: “I know I have it in me and that it’s possible. From our dad coming from Gunnison, Miss., to the Philadelphia Eagles, being in such a small percentage, to know his blood is within us, is inspiring.”

Hailey: “Our parents are our role models. We are in high-competing sports, and we know what they’ve been through, their sacrifices, how hard it is. When we think of the times we want to give up or not play this sport anymore, we know they’ve had those thoughts, too. They kept carrying on.”

Gymnastics and diving came first for Myla; she began immersing herself in lacrosse in seventh and eighth grade. Hailey dabbled in cross-country, swimming, and tennis until ninth grade, when she could finally join Baldwin’s rowing team. Myla was a Division I recruit by the end of her sophomore year, spent three days at a camp at UVa, loved it, picked it. The same week, Hailey spent three days at a rowing camp at UVa, loved it, wanted to pick it. She couldn’t, not until she lowered her time in college rowing’s recruiting test: pulling 2,000 meters on an ergometer. “She had incredible power and speed,” Virginia coach Kevin Sauer said, “but her endurance base was not great.”

Over the two weeks before the final erg test of her recruiting season, she cut 12 seconds off her time, qualifying for a top-tier college program by one-tenth of a second – her eyes shut tight for the closing 30 seconds, her arms and hands numb when she finished, her vision blurry when she at last opened her eyes.

Hailey: “If you’re going to go through this pain, the worst pain you can endure, I might as well just leave it all out.”

Myla: “We discovered that we are pretty different. We have our own strengths, and our strengths are really strong and different.”

A re-narration of what we’ve known

Their mother and father … there are some strengths and differences between them, too. Jacqueline grew up in the South — Florence, S.C., and Richmond, Va. — before her family moved north. Her father was in the Air Force. Her mother was an opera singer. That’s a powerful parenting cocktail, and if there’s a dollop of stage mom in her, too, so be it. She’ll accept that label if it means standing up for her daughters. Did they have economic advantages that other young Black athletes don’t? Of course. But discipline and focus don’t have a zip code, and wealth didn’t necessarily insulate the twins from the kind of behavior, both subtle and overt, that could start their mother seething.

When Myla, throughout middle-school lacrosse, kept getting hit with one yellow card after another, always pleading her case — I didn’t do anything! — to a veteran referee’s deaf ears, Jacqueline finally confronted one of those refs, who countered that he’d been coaching and officiating lacrosse since 1964. “And that’s the issue,” Jacqueline shot back. When Hailey, after her first rowing practice at Baldwin, overheard some of her older teammates huddling in the locker room and whispering, Is she on steroids? We should tell the coach … well, you can be damn sure that Jacqueline was going to speak up about that.

“How do we re-narrate what might look like aggressiveness to someone,” she said, “but is really just Black excellence? There’s this sort of collective consciousness of wanting to see things the way they’ve always been.”

Fred tilted his lens on the twins’ career at another angle. Were there times when they felt they should have gotten more Division I offers, should have won more awards? Yeah. And that’s life, so what were they going to do about it? Would they remain persistent and positive and solve their own problems? Or did they want Dad to fight their battles for them? Because oh, no, that wasn’t happening. It would be, in his mind, the worst thing for them and their development.

“It’s their responsibility,” he said. “That’s something that I, as a father, will always do. I will never ever answer their questions. I would only ask them questions and let them answer their own questions. I really think today parents don’t have the ability or the desire to do that sometimes. When a kid has a problem, it’s really not about what you think as a parent. It’s putting them in a position to put everything on the scale and weigh it out and come to the conclusion themselves.”

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So Myla has spent her summers coaching for Eyekonz, a club whose mission is to introduce inner-city children in and around Philadelphia to lacrosse and field hockey. And Hailey keeps in contact with Arshay Cooper, the author of A Most Beautiful Thing, a chronicle of the United States’ first all-Black rowing team, brainstorming for ways to open the sport to a broader set of potential participants. They are insiders who are outsiders — of their world and, at the same time, apart from it. It is the best position from which to change sports and society for the better. It is the kind of story that demands more than a glance at what’s only skin deep, that stops a stranger, or any one of us, from settling for what we presume to be true.