I’m writing to you because the sport you love, ultimate, is also the sport I love. It’s more than my favorite sport–I consider it my spiritual practice. Ultimate has helped me in times of grief, sadness and depression, and in times of anger.
I play ultimate because it’s a game one can’t win alone. I play because I get lost in the moment. I play ultimate because I get fired up watching a teammate’s huge layout D. And I play ultimate because, at most levels, it’s up to the players to hold themselves, and each other, accountable.
I believe that the sport we love, while growing overall, harbors troubling sexism—and men, I think we are responsible. I see sexist behavior coming from some of us, both on the field and off. I contend too many of us don’t take female players seriously, and we don’t respect women’s ultimate more generally. We can, and must, do better.
I am a good, but not great, ultimate player. I have played in lots of sectional tournaments. I will never play at nationals. Despite my limitations, I have, like many players–including many men—often been told I’m a natural leader. For too long I thought that meant I needed the disc all the time, and that my voice needed to be heard for my team to win, whether “my team” meant a competitive team I practiced with regularly, or the random group of people at a pick-up game.
As men, we have been conditioned to believe that we matter. We’ve been told that we are great. We think we can make the huge throw or the big defensive stop. It is our job to make the big play.
So we show up to ultimate, and many of us play the hero. Some of us give unsolicited advice, shout about how open we are, throw contested hucks, and, all too often, we ignore the women on the field–especially at pick-up games. Maybe we throw to them once. Twice if we think they’re really good. Too often we never even find out whether they’re skilled, because we never give them a chance–as though the chance was ours to give in the first place.
Men: ultimate does not belong to us. The disc is not ours. The game is not ours. Being male does not give us a right to ignore our teammates. When it comes to sports, we are privileged. Women must prove themselves worthy, while men must prove themselves unworthy.
Some of us believe the disc belongs to us because, in general, we are taller and run faster than women do. I contend that those of us who believe that are wrong.
Of course, there are exceptions to the above statements. Some games and teams are more inclusive than others. Some women play gladly at pick-up games, get the disc whenever they want it, and captain competitive mixed teams with few issues. Yet the presence of gender equity in some spaces does not mean all is well across the board.
I’ve brought this up with men before and heard variations of the following counter-arguments:
-I would throw to women if they got open.
-I throw to women if they’re good.
-Sports are meritocracies, and guys are faster and taller than women.
-It’s about winning, not social equality.
-Why are you lumping all men together? I throw to girls all the time.
I have gone to pickup games and watched talented female players get ignored on the field so guys can repeatedly huck it deep to one another. I’ve played in mixed-gender leagues with women who get the disc only a few times a game—and not because they’re never open.
If you don’t want to throw to women, play for a men’s team. If you want to play mixed, then play mixed. And if you play pick-up, throw to open people. Period. Every time we neglect a player on the field, I argue we hurt the game we love. Self-officiated at most levels, it’s up to us to create the culture we want. I seek an ultimate culture in which open players get the disc—and new players, regardless of gender identity, are warmly welcomed and nurtured–for even the best players were once novices.
I didn’t write this “on behalf” of female players, as though they need a man’s protection. I wrote this because I, and several players I know, both women and men, believe there’s a widespread problem about gender relations in ultimate. And I believe that sexism in sports comes from men. It is not due to women’s “genetic inferiority”—it is due to our learned overconfidence and prejudice.
True leadership is about lifting others up as we climb. It means stepping up at times and stepping back at others. I see specific things we can do to build towards a better ultimate.
We can refrain from calling people off the disc at pick-up games. We can huck to our guy friends less and throw to open people more. We can remember that we’re probably not as great a player as we think. We can yell less and encourage more. We can talk about women players and women’s teams with respect. And, if we’re on a competitive mixed team, we can learn from the best teams, who say that people who feel valued and valuable create a team of winners.
I invite you to observe the games and leagues in which you play. Who gets the disc, where, and how often? Also observe your own behavior. Am I dominating the game, cutting off other players when I make cuts, or ignoring open players? Do I assume female players need advice and male players don’t?
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially: If I’m not one of those guys, am I calling out those who routinely exclude or trample on others?
I ask myself these questions, and others, every time I cleat up—for fun and in competitive games. I repeatedly fall short. It’s a lot to unlearn. I identify as a feminist athlete, and I believe in ultimate, so I think it’s worth it to keep working.
USA Ultimate describes Spirit of the Game, or the ethos of ultimate, this way:
“Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors…or the basic joy of play.”
Not ‘mutual respect among only male competitors, but “mutual respect among competitors.” That means every person who steps on that field deserves respect, and every player deserves to feel the joy of this beautiful game. May we work together to ensure ultimate’s bright future–for everyone.
*A/N: This letter has now been published at Skyd Magazine: http://skydmagazine.com/2014/04/open-letter-male-ultimate-players-guy/
Around 4,000 reads thus far as of 9:04 AM Mountain Time 4/29. Please feel free to comment below, and share your own experiences with your ultimate communities!
*Thanks to former teammates and terrific players Amory Hillengas, Joe Baz and Meg Gatza for their edits, suggestions and counsel.