Gendrification: Women’s Diminishing Role in Ultimate
In light of the increasing conversation about the role of women in ultimate, Skyd presents this opinion piece from Taylor Kanemori:
First things first, I am a woman. The reasons for this article are threefold:
1. I feel as though someone in the ultimate community needs to speak up on behalf of women, and this is my effort towards that end.
2. Women need to assert themselves and their place in the ultimate community as important and equal, and to settle for nothing less, whether in large new leagues or in causal jokes and comments. Although this burden is not just on us, we can be the start.
3. We, including anyone and everyone in our ultimate community, must remember what brought us and keeps us here.
Now that I established what my hope is, I want to make a few things clear: I write this coming not from a place of anger and frustration, but hope. I understand that the current pro leagues were created not to purposefully prevent women from being included, but that that is simply a non-malicious byproduct of “the market.” I understand that women’s ultimate doesn’t seem to carry the marketability of men’s ultimate based on NexGen and Ultivillage viewership and DVD sales. But I must call attention to some of the inequalities that currently exist. The current direction of Ultimate threatens our community’s inclusive nature which is a core value of our sport.
My brothers started playing ultimate when I was 2, and I began playing as soon as I could join a team in the sixth grade. I have been able to throw a frisbee ever since I can remember, have been on a team (or multiple) for going on eleven years now. I am a high school mixed B league champion, have been to college nationals with Colorado College, have been a part of 3 gold medal girls YCC teams and two USA junior women’s teams – I have played at many levels, and have experienced a great deal of what our community has to offer. I have been fortunate enough to play with all of these teams and have met hundreds of players all over the world. I say these things not to brag, although I do have a strong sense of pride from these experiences, but to establish that I know at least some of what I’m talking about. I have experience.
Although many people still have not heard of ultimate – and many more still do not consider it a real sport (see the recent tweets about college nationals on ESPNU), those of us in the frisbee community understand that this is a competitive sport with great potential. More importantly though, we understand each other. Even with ultimate communities throughout much of the world, each major frisbee city is different; my city, the ultimate community I know as “home,” is the Seattle frisbee community.
Seattle ultimate is special. There are a number of elementary schools with teams that play in city-wide tournaments. Almost every middle school has a team, and even more high schools have teams. Spring Reign, the largest youth tournament in the world, is hosted in Seattle and for good reason. And, the club scene is thriving. To grow up in the Seattle ultimate community feels as if I’ve grown up in the epicenter of the entire ultimate world, with my finger directly on the pulse of everything that is this wonderful sport.
The community that makes up the sport is what drew me to it in the first place. I have continued to play ultimate in part because I love the game itself, but also because of the amazing people I am able to meet, play with, and add to my life and my group of friends. However, one aspect of ultimate I feel is an essential foundation to all of the above is that there was no incentive to play other than the love of the game. Until recently there were no professional leagues, and given that it is not yet an Olympic sport, the main group of people I played for were my fellow players, creating a mutual respect, camaraderie and unity. This respect I think is demonstrated through our belief in spirit of the game, and even without spirit being a focal point as it was in the earlier years of ultimate, it is so deeply ingrained into the community that it continues on and helps to create this community that is so attractive, accepting and growing.
However, this growth has allowed frisbee to be taken to a whole new level in the new professional leagues – the AUDL and MLU – including receiving more recognition and respect outside of our tight-knit frisbee community. Some view this as a step forward toward an exciting new future, but I take issue with this expansion. Both the MLU and AUDL are men’s leagues. Not “open” as exists in the USAU, but For Men Only. There is no professional space for women, and for a community that prides itself on fairness, equality and inclusivity, we have taken a huge step backward. The professional leagues have also added an incentive that did not exist before, as the players are not only paid per game (sources say around twenty-five dollars a game in the MLU), but all of their travel, uniforms and other equipment are paid for — not to mention they all are now officially professional athletes. My community, which I have always seen as this pinnacle of honesty, trust, inclusiveness, fairness, and equality, now has unequal opportunities for women, referees making calls (which has taken part of the honesty out of the game) and the grittiness and passion for winning simply for the sake of winning possibly altered and/or fueled by the incentive of prize money.
I know I am not the only one who is frustrated with the changes being made. We all remember Ben Van Heuvelen’s article a little over a month before the MLU kicked off their first season game, calling on us to stick up for our sport, to take it into our own hands not let it get taken into the pro leagues. His article had an overwhelming number of responses. Some were in full support, while others saw things differently, but whether we were agreeing or not everyone was listening because it was a change that is affecting the sport as a whole; BUT very few of us were talking about the women. Women’s voices were deemed “unimportant” because this change could not affect us; because the pro leagues were Men’s Only, and did not have women playing, then they were not part of the discussion. I was left incredibly frustrated because this has always been my community too, and any massive shift to our community as a whole absolutely affects me and women as a whole. Club ultimate is comprised of three leagues — all of which can include women — yet the MLU and AUDL only promote men’s ultimate, believing that the general public will only be interested in watching men play the sport. This tracking of men as more athletic and entertaining to watch is leaving us women out of this conversation completely and out of a new kind of Ultimate community.
The MLU and the AUDL are still nascent organizations, and so we have yet to find out the full effects of this new direction, but even now it is clear that Seattle can fill a stadium with 1200 people to watch a men’s team play, yet does not believe in the possibility of a successful women’s or mixed-gendered team. My fear is that if either league becomes popular in the ways that they are intended to, women’s frisbee will become a footnote in the ultimate community, relegated to the shabby fields and without any substantial coverage or exposure.
This is not the first time I have made these arguments, nor will it be the last. The most common rebuttal is that people do not watch women’s ultimate and, often, women’s sports in general, with few exceptions like beach volleyball. This is an opinion that seems to justify the profitability opportunities. My belief is that people, including women, do not watch women’s sports because they are told athletic women are not worthy of attention. As this toxic notion is perpetuated, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: women are told continually that they are not as athletic as men unworthy of the spotlight or monetary outlay to create such a spotlight. Women have come to accept this. It may be that at this moment, people do not watch women’s ultimate as much as men’s, but what I find most upsetting is the idea that our sport, that markets itself as a safe and friendly community (at times being used as a tool to resolve major conflicts), was willing to leave behind a huge part of its.
When I read Ben’s article I was inspired to say something, and I agreed with a lot of what he was saying, yet the “we” he talked about did not include me. His “we” was asking men to not join the league. He was not addressing me in the slightest (a fact that Ben has addressed to me in conversations about this article). These pro leagues are for the first time in much of ultimate’s history Non-Inclusive, Men’s Only Leagues, and so the female ultimate community was not being asked “what do ‘we’ stand for.” We weren’t being addressed at all – we had been pushed out of the conversation, pushed out of the “we” of the community, and left to watch the debate from the audience. We who had once been as involved as anyone in the debate were not relegated to watch as our sport was re-shaped, its course altered drastically without any say whatsoever.
What we need is a conversation. I am not arguing we need a women’s professional league, I am simply asking, what about us? I know many people playing professional ultimate this season, and I support and respect them as fellow ultimate players and as part of my community. I will be at Rainmakers games, and I know I will enjoy watching and rooting for my friends. But as an ultimate player, a girls coach and former captain, it is hard to watch my sport push me to the side to promote itself as a “real” sport especially having just graduated college and looking for a bright women’s club future someday. I want to ask the same question Ben asked of “us” before, only in a new, more inclusive context. What do we, all people of the ultimate community including women, stand for? And, what do we want for the future of our sport? Do we want to stand behind a league that would like to boost our sport into the mainstream and leave a large percentage of its players behind in hopes for a “brighter” future, or do we want to stick together as the community who really love this thing as a game whose true incentive is the game and the community itself?