Choice vs Agency

by | July 25, 2017, 7:00am 5

In a previous article, I covered my own gender specific privilege to help other men in ultimate understand the present inequality we benefit from. I’m writing to my fellow male athletes again, to explore how we got to where we are now in our sport and how easy it was to end up here with so much privilege and power.

First, I want to give us two words to get accustomed to: choice and agency.

Having a choice means that there are multiple external options available, whether you are aware of them or not.

Agency is a little tricky and I’ll do my best to give us a working definition. In social science, agency is a person’s independent capacity to make choices, which is often limited by social structures (gender, race, age, sexuality, religion, ability, social class, etc.). This is internalized. A person with a lower sense of agency may not feel an option is viable for them or that they are not worthy enough for said option. A person with a high sense of agency may be aware of all their options and feel worthy enough to act on or chose any option.

Choice is all the options on the menu. Your feeling of agency about what you eat is influenced by how much money you have in your wallet, how you feel about your body, how society has told you you should look, and the foods you grew up eating.

See where I’m going with this? Have you already related this to ultimate? Maybe you have you determined that you have a higher sense of agency in the sports world than your female counterpart.

Too often I hear men make the mistake in assuming women are making a “choice” not to play professional ultimate, or create their own media content (go back to UltiVillage arguments from the mid to late 2000s), or run for executive positions in USAU when the problem actually lies in agency. If you are keeping up with what I’m saying, you now understand the basic reality of gender-based agency! I wish that understanding alone was enough to make change, but it’s not.

Mr. Male player, I challenge you to think about your upbringing and try to identify moments that contributed to your agency in sports. Below, is my own personal list (with probably a ton missing) from the age of 5 to High School.

Why I as a male-identified athlete have a high sense of agency in sports:

  • All through my childhood, male athletes were and continue to be in the forefront of media. In movies, magazines, video games, games televised, on cereal boxes, and collectible cards many young boys subscribe to following male athletes personal lives on and off season.
  • By the age of 5, my parents had already signed me up for 3 different sports.
  • My PE teachers were partial to giving me and my male friends more attention in classes.
  • My dad and I played catch with a baseball outside in our yard at least twice a week from ages 4-10.
  • My parents, family friends, extended family members constantly gave me attention about the sports I was playing by showing up to games, asking about seasons, and affirming my athleticism.
  • The competition for being a more dominant athlete among peers was encouraged by my coaches, parents, and peers.
  • I never experienced a shortage of boys my age playing the same sports, giving me a constant sense that playing sports was something I was supposed to be doing.
  • I was able to leave school early without punishment in middle and high school to attend games and events.
  • On occasions where gifts were exchanged, such as birthdays and holidays, I often received sports equipment.
  • Almost always at my baseball, basketball, and frisbee games, there were crowds of family and peers watching.
  • My parents were willing to pay for me to attend and travel to tournaments and games near and far.
  • I had conversations with family and peers asking if I would continue to play sports after high school.
  • I felt pressure that my body should look muscular and athletic to feel attractive.

Not all of the experiences on my list were positive contributions to my well-being, and in fact a few put me in a position of losing value in other areas of my life.

There are many ways our high agency in sports limits the way we value ourselves and limits our agency in other spaces. If we can identify some of the more positive experiences, maybe we can help provide opportunities where young women are experiencing the same empowerment in sports as their male counterparts.

Photo by Tino Tran

The narrative of women having less than men in presumably equal spaces is common and sometimes unhelpful. As a man, it’s unfair to constantly paint the picture of what deficiencies women have (power, privilege, and agency) and how they suffer without holding other men accountable to confront the harm the system does to us.

I believe we can support women in developing a higher sense of agency by understanding our history of agency in sports and realize the crazy head start we were given, not earned, over them. Facing up to this can help us reshape the environment to support, empower, and invest in current and potential female athletes.

Here’s a few ideas on how we can approach this:

  • Ask graduating middle school and high school female athletes if they plan to continue to pursue sports. If they don’t plan to, I don’t think it’s necessary to try to convince them otherwise, but rather much more helpful to trust that they are doing what’s best for them. Nevertheless, asking alone, will help increase that young person’s agency in sports.
  • Talk about and show knowledge in women’s ultimate and other women’s sports. Know who your top local women’s players are as a resource to refer young women to.
  • If you coach or captain a coed team, use the women in your demos.
  • Don’t assume a gender based stereotypical sports background. Approach everyone with their own individual athletic history and ask about it.
  • Show up to your local state high school girls championships. Bring your whole team with you!
  • Have current knowledge of local opportunities for young women to play more. At Seattle Cascades games, middle school and high school girls come to get autographs, and instead of silently signing a disc, you can ask “Are you going to make it to the Riot women’s clinic in June?” And you can add “Did you also notice Rohre Titcomb is standing right over there?”
  • Listen actively without the intent to respond to female teammates, peers, and leaders.
  • Financially invest in programs focused on women empowerment and leadership like GUM and AGE UP!

So, the next time someone says something like: “There aren’t as many women playing ultimate because fewer women are interested in playing sports in general”, inevitably adding something like “You’ll see that pattern in almost all sports,” maybe you’ll be able to say “Well, gee, maybe not everyone was told that they were put in this world to play sports their whole lives.”

My hope is the young men who have read this will consider:

  1. Exploring where their agency comes from.
  2. Identify the ways their own agency has impacted the positive and negative ways they value themselves.
  3. Listen to other female players about how to support the development of higher agency for young women. If you skip step 2, and don’t face up to your own existence in the patriarchy, both positive and negative, then please continue to have more conversations with women and men in our sport about your agency and your privilege. Men need to be accountable for dealing with their own biases before trying to support others.

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  • Maddy Frey

    YES. Thank you Sam.

  • Olga Barsoukova

    Thanks Sam!
    That will definitely work. And hope, it will someday start working across the ocean due to there is still much work to do to trend flying disc in, for example, my country.
    BTW recently there was a heated discussion in a Russian social media over the topic “Is that OK letting women play in the Open Division”…

  • Gwen Ambler

    Great article, Sam. Thank you.

    Just wanted to add that the same choice and agency principles can be applied in the coaching and officiating realm.

  • xADROCKx

    Thanks Sam! From my standpoint as another guy trying to turn the tide toward gender equity, this looks like a great piece to me. I’m hoping to see more of what the ladies have to say on this topic.

    Example of application (ladies’ feedback requested): As a frequent mixed rec league captain, I went out of my way to encourage an environment (in the huddle, individually, in-person, and in emails) where all teammates supported our female players in taking a super active role on the field and in the huddles, including volunteering to handle, taking that deep shot, quarterbacking their section of the zone, being the deep threat, calling plays for themselves, telling us what they’re seeing on the field, and of course captaining (officially and not). We once threatened to kick a guy off the team because his actions weren’t onboard with this and solicited feedback from our female players for details and advice. I’m interested in what the ladies here think of this example as far as promoting agency amongst female players. Other things that male players can do? Thanks!

  • Excellent post, Sam!