Breaking the Gender Barrier in the MLU

by | November 30, 2016, 12:14pm 6

Note: Because the divisions of our sport run along a gender binary, including within the Mixed division when fielding a line, I follow the gender binary in my terminology. I want to acknowledge that the experiences of trans* athletes exist in our sport. Those experiences are complex and intersect with the content of this piece.

My decision to try out for the Seattle Rainmakers as a female handler was on a bit of an impulse, but it developed out of multiple years of building frustration with the gender bias of the pro leagues. A month later, my decision to join the Rainmakers coaching staff was well thought out and discussed with people I trust, but still motivated by the same feelings of frustration with the status quo. The Rainmakers season was exhausting both physically and emotionally for me. I am taking this opportunity to process my feelings about it. Hopefully this article will give you an understanding of my unique perspective on professional ultimate and gender.

Round One

I was the only female at the tryout that drizzly March morning. But I was by no means the only female on the grounds. The Rainmakers head coaches, Kate Kingery and Fiona McKibben, were turning in place in the center of the fields for much of the day, absorbing what they could of the 100 or so players that showed up to the open tryout. Ren Caldwell was running players through her special recipe of athletic tests on the side. Double X chromosomes dotted the Rainmakers staff and the athletic trainers who were there to support the operation.

As I laced up my size 7 cleats, however, it felt no different  from any other day at practice. I’ve played Mixed ultimate for the majority of my career. Seattle has had two pro teams for the past three years now, so many Mixed players have the opportunity to play professional ultimate. In fact, all but one of my male teammates on Seattle Mixtape has played professional ultimate. By and large, the men around me at that first combine I had played with or against in club, league, pickup tournaments, goaltimate, and marathon best-of-37 mini series. Many of them knew me as a captain of Seattle Mixtape. As Mixed players and community members, they understood my worth as a player and a leader when I stepped on the field.

It was hard to navigate the environment showing I was serious about playing for the Rainmakers. There’s too much risk in opening up oneself like that. As warm-up ended and drills started, fear and doubt set it. What if I was too slow? What if I got hand-blocked every time I picked up the disc? Would anyone cut deep for me? My concerns slowly subsided as I worked into the rotation of drills. I’m left-handed, so I knew my backhand hucks would slice through the wind and stand out. I gained confidence again that yes, the lefty around forehand is the most unguardable throw in ultimate. I got blocks in mini. I bodied up in the zig zag defense drill. My throw and go game was on fire. I felt like I was facilitating the offense, and at least I wasn’t a liability on defense. The rain and wind came in a little harder and hampered my game, but at the end of the day I was pleased with myself. I felt like I had made my mark as one of the better handlers; I also had inside information  that that’s exactly what the Rainmakers needed.

I drove home, waving goodbye to my two roommates and Mixed teammates as they headed to their selection meeting with the coaches and other willing returners. I felt confident and let the warmth from inside bring life back into my cold, numb fingers.

Are You Serious?

When my teammates got home, I asked casually and guardedly who made it to the next round of tryouts.  Rattling off a list of usual suspects, they included some surprising younger players, while talking up their favorites. I asked what had been said about me, trying to play it off like it was no big deal. Inside all the self-doubt came flooding back. “Well…to be honest, when we got to your picture we just skipped over you. Wait, do you seriously want to play?” There it was, the moment when I had to express my intent loud and clear, and vulnerably leap in head-first.

I felt like my effort and play all day had demonstrated I was serious. I had a couple conversations on the sideline with returners saying, “yeah, I’d totally play with the Rainmakers,” but as a female, I had to say it loud. Had I been male, every person there would have assumed from moment one that I attended tryouts with the purpose of trying out, because that’s the norm. Because of my gender, however, I had to declare in fully explicit terms that yes, by showing up and pinning a number to my leg, running in drills and scrimmaging for 5 hours in the wind and rain, I was in fact trying out just like the rest of the players.

The next 24 hours was a flurry of text messages with returners and coaches pinging back and forth. There were some tears on my part, because I never put my heart into something and don’t have it involve some tears shed. There was a heartfelt meeting with the coaches after we played goaltimate league on those same fields the next night. Three days passed until I heard they’d take me on to the next round. I got my reps with the Innova.

Round Two

The intensity of play stepped up significantly during the second round of tryouts, as did the intensity of the weather.

The match-ups were harder to win, the drills aptly designed to push the limits of our skill and physicality. I spent a lot of the day feeling frustrated and slow. The disc was slippery in scrimmages, the defense intensely physical. I got two foot blocks. My lefty around forehand was still unguardable.

The wind gusted. My offensive potency as a precision thrower and possession handler disappeared. Everyone’s catching windows got smaller, but mine had started out disproportionately small. I made incredible grabs, ones I wouldn’t have made had I not come out of the off-season with hundreds of hours of goaltimate under my belt. I did everything in my power to keep my window as wide as possible, but in that wind, I was a tough target. I hoped the weather would clear and throwing conditions would improve. The hail came, and we ended a half hour early.

Making a Statement

Let’s say the weather conditions had been perfect for me to showcase my skills – lesser throwers could hit me when I was open, and I could showcase my ability to break the mark and send hucks deep to men from power position. My style of throwing perfectly suited to the wide field, my cross-gender hucks dialed in from years of Mixed ultimate experience. Let’s say I was good enough at all those things that my smaller frame and relative level of raw athleticism seemed less important.

Could two female head coaches, a first for any professional sport, could they in all honesty take a female O-line handler on their team as one of their first decisions as a coaching staff and not have the choice be ridiculed? Moreover, could any head coach in the current structure of the professional leagues put a female player on their team and not have the decision be called a publicity stunt?

Clearly I had field vision and technical skills. I fit in socially with the team. Even if I had the ups of Jorgenson, the explosiveness of Payne, and the speed of Griffith all in one insane package, I had the curse of the double X. Could that coaching staff have chosen me for the team and not had their motives questioned? I’d like to think that freak athlete with bonus left-handedness would be “allowed” by the community to play, even for KK and Fiona.

If we dial it back and say I was an equal of one of those lower-roster men, then I feel even more confident that someone would call it a publicity stunt. Every moment I spent in practice and on the playing field would be scrutinized, criticized, and derided.

Some players called for me to make the team as a statement. Others said I’d be exploited instantly on turnovers and it would be the wrong kind of showing for gender equity to have me out there. I’d unwittingly forced a conversation I didn’t expect to bring on — I just wanted to spend my spring playing ultimate with my friends.

Another heartfelt conversation with KK and Fiona, and my hopes of playing and traveling with current and former teammates and long-time friends were gone. I agree with the decision to this day on all levels. If I wasn’t going to be an asset to the team, I would have been a detriment to more than just the Rainmakers when the organization was already making history this season.

Coaching

About two weeks after the team was set, I was asked to join on as an assistant coach. I did not take the decision lightly. I was concerned about what it would mean to be a non-player in a model of ultimate that has been to date exclusionary of female players, outside of halftime showcase games and one-game contracts. By becoming a coach, I felt like I was signing on to say, “This is okay that there is a public stage for men in our sport that isn’t available to women.” I also wanted to hold true to my original motivation for trying out; I wanted to spend the spring with my teammates and friends, and if not on the field, then maybe adjacent to the field would be a good consolation prize.

What it came down to was the differences. Without me as a coach, there would be a bunch of dudes playing with referees and two incredible female coaches running strategy. With me as a coach, there would be a bunch of dudes playing with refs, and maybe my perspective could help the team navigate how they would play as role models for the young fans in the stands. I’d also gain perspective on what it means to be a part of professional ultimate. I could push for changes within the current structure, and maybe even push for changes to the professional system itself.

Injury Plague

My next several weeks were spent at late night and weekend practices in the typical varied weather of Seattle in the spring. Over the course of the first half of the season, players fell one by one to injuries big and small – some knee surgeries were scheduled, physical therapists consulted, and foam rollers heavily used. The most strongly impacted group in a knife-twisting bit of vicissitude was, of course, the offensive handlers. As we looked around at our options for who we could add to the roster late in the season that would integrate quickly and have a positive impact, we came up dry. We needed a big, powerful (and mostly importantly healthy) handler who could draw the matchups more in our favor. The pool of this specific type of male athlete had already been tapped deeply by both the Cascades and the Rainmakers, and it seemed like anyone that fit the bill was either rehabbing injuries or already involved in a contract. We found a mostly healthy addition, and signed him just under the wire.

The injury situation did not improve, and we brought a roster of 18 out of 29 to our games. Players joked about having the coaches suit up and play, much like the Nighthawks coach did in the second week. We would have gotten close, if we’d had the uniforms ready.

We finished out the season with a winning record, and the most deserving team from our division went to the MLU Championship. I left the season with an expanded mind and heart. I was excited to cleat up again with my club teammates and lead on the field, not just from the sideline.

The Gift

At Northwest Mixed Regionals, right before playing with and against many of the Rainmakers in a hard-fought game to go, a group of Rainmakers players came over to me and presented me with one of the best gifts I have ever received – a Seattle Rainmakers jersey with my name and number on the back. My heart melted as I embraced player after player. They told me how much I deserved it and how much they valued me. (And yes, there were tears involved this time, too.)

All three Rainmakers coaches in the end got a players’ jersey. This simple item that every one of the 29 Rainmakers received when they made the team means so much. It represents that we, as women, are deserving of the jersey and what it stands for. That we deserve to be live streamed every week of our season. That we deserve having highlight reels cut of our big plays and our celebrations. That we deserve to have fans young and old in the stands cheering for us every other week, lined up after the game clutching sharpies and discs asking for our autographs.

The ultimate community has seen glimpses of this at the All Star Tour, an all too brief and beautiful couple of weeks in the summer. You know that the stands will not be left empty when there’s a chance to see Rohre Titcomb throw an inside out flick by squatting in place and releasing faster than you can say, “broken!”. People will flock to see Claire Desmond or Sarah Meckstroth streak away from her defender or just outright sky a pile. Sports enthusiasts will wonder at the quick footwork of handler defenders like Erica Baken and Lauren Sadler, and the relentless grind of Raha Mozaffari. Fans will follow the outbreak of young stars like Clea Poklemba in rapt attention.

These moments, these gestures, are so meaningful in the small doses we’ve gotten so far. They show women, men, girls, boys, and everyone in between that we are worthy competitors who deserve recognition for our athletic accomplishments. How meaningful would it be if we changed the paradigm of professional team sports and held women as equal to men in all aspects of ultimate? What if that call, that statement, that women are worthy came from all levels and angles of the professional game; from fans, players, owners, and general managers?

The draw of the professional teams is that it’s a regular opportunity to see the best athletes from your hometown play against the best athletes other cities have to offer. Imagine if the pro teams truly followed through on this promise, and put female athletes on that stage as well. Right now, all that professional teams deliver on is displaying the best male ultimate players from each city. This misses out on a wealth of experience, talent, grit, and athleticism that would make for a great spectacle. One that is certainly worthy of our attention.

What if we, as a community, demanded that the structure of professional ultimate change?

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  • another seattle

    Wow, McKibben and Kingery are going to be PISSED that you just said that they wouldn’t take you on the team even if were a super-combination of Jorgensen/Payne/Griffith. For the record, they absolutely would have…and so would any smart men’s team in the country.

    • Bertle

      Considering the fact that both KK and Fiona read this article and gave their support before I submitted it, I don’t think they will be. :)

  • pyramidofdestiny

    It should just be “MLU,” not “the MLU.”

  • Thanks for this, Bert. Inspiring.

    MEN/BOYS: We need to hear these personal accounts from real people. We need to listen more, instead of hypothesizing how we think things will go or should be based on our own (often male-privileged) standpoint. It’s ok to have an opinion, and we need to keep discussing/sharing, and I mostly don’t doubt our intentions. But rather than assume+talk we need to have the humility to ask+listen+reflect first. We need to ask women how we can support them and how they want to be supported.