The discussion of privilege is a very tough one to have, so much so that we often avoid the topic altogether. Part of the problem is that the more privilege you have, the less likely you are to join in a discussion about it. That means that the people who could best be using their privilege to make a positive difference are also the people least aware of the extent to which they have it in the first place.
I’m asking top male players to please read and pay close attention to this idea, since they are the population least likely to understand their privilege. When I say “top male players” I’m specifically targeting male ultimate players who have the option of playing in USA Ultimate’s triple crown as well as the AUDL and/or MLU.
Some perspective: Sarah “Surge” Griffith has completely dominated her division since around 2010. She may never have the option to play pro ultimate in her career. How many men’s division players within the top 16 teams in USAU can say we dominated our division for 4 years straight? How many of those players have the option to play pro? Almost 100%.
As a male ultimate player, here’s why I think I’m privileged:
- I have the option to play in three different leagues, all of which showcase male teams and athletes.
- I can play in the USAU mixed division without having to worry about whether my teammates will throw to me or not.
- I know that my men’s team, Sockeye, has both male and female youth fans.
- I can choose to play in a league where all my costs are paid for.
- I am automatically assumed to be fit to coach both genders.
- I don’t have to worry about whether or not my division is getting the attention and resources it deserves.
- My team has lots of film available to us due to the attention our division gets, making it easier to scout opponents.
- I have the space to negotiate contracts and have my wants and needs met in order to play in pro leagues.
- In major events where I play (like the finals of Nationals or Worlds) I’m certain there will be a crowd.
- Partners and vendors for all three leagues want to market and promote my division.
- I’m assumed to be athletic unless proven otherwise.
- I’m often looked to for leadership on whatever team I play for, and I am confident people will listen to me, whereas I wonder if a woman with the same credentials can be so sure.
- I can be loud, angry, and aggressive on the field without losing credibility.
- I can be confident that my experiences (and division) will be deemed the most important part of any strategic decisions regarding the sport of ultimate.
- I can be confident that the group making said decisions will consist mostly of men.
I’m sure there are more that I’m missing, things that from my own perspective are hard to detect, but from someone else’s are easy to pick up on.
Why do I think it’s important to understand your own gender-specific privilege in ultimate? It’s my belief that because of the things on the list above, there is an unbalanced power dynamic which many male players seem to be unaware of. Where does that shift mostly come from? The professional leagues now allow the men’s division to negotiate, because of our newly acquired ability to say “no” to any one league and still be able to play nationally competitive ultimate.
Our negotiation power has shot through the roof, giving the top 16 USAU men’s teams (which are a tiny percentage of the organization’s dues payers) the most leverage in making decisions that affect the sport and how it’s played. Currently we are reaping the benefits of how this power dynamic plays out in our favor, getting more respect and attention than ever while every other division watches to see how our decisions affect their place in the sport.
I do want to say that the men’s division has devoted decades of hard work to get where it is now. The strength of our division didn’t just fall into our laps. There is a strong history of self-promotion, strategic marketing, and intelligent branding, both within the small communities of each team and all the way to the national and international level. Privilege alone didn’t get us to where we are, it just made the hurdles a little more manageable for us. Be proud of your division’s heritage, but be aware of your privilege. Dominique Fontenette once said that “ultimate is like a video game: everyone is playing the same game, but for some people the difficulty is set to a harder mode.” I believe she was speaking to economic status when she said that, but I think it’s very relevant to this topic as well.
I’m not asking you to change your morals or values. I am, however, telling elite-level men who value gender equity that we no longer have an excuse not to make a difference. No more throwing our hands up and saying “well, what can I do?” As it turns out, for a few years now (if not longer), we’ve had more say in the matter than any other subgroup USAU player. We don’t need to “save” the women’s division, and I’m not talking about being a white knight–just acknowledging our privilege and holding ourselves accountable to supporting gender equity.
Being aware of and owning your privilege is important. Making a difference out of guilt or shame is not what I’m asking, and that could in fact be damaging to both male and female divisions. I’m asking that you use your privilege to make a difference out of responsibility to your own values. The last thing I want is some sort of masculine movement believing that “only men can bring gender equity to the sport.” But would we rather the elite men know that they hold more privilege and power than other ultimate players in the US and do nothing about it? If they would like that power to be balanced, it may come down to the choices they make.
Let’s say the elite male is still reading, and has been able to process and understand their privilege (which, no joke, is a lot to take on within 5 minutes). My second list, actions in order from most to least visibile, is for the “what should I be doing?” folks:
- Step up in ultimate media. This may include writing an article personally, or having your team take a stance on gender equity and holding USAU and pro leagues accountable to it.
- Negotiate your pro contract to include that the league make a real investment into women’s teams, whether they’re local or not.
- Vote for USAU candidates who have experience in playing or coaching the women’s division and have proven to be advocates for gender equity.
- Donate to women’s leadership programs like AGE UP and Without Limits.
- Wear women’s team gear in public spaces where other ultimate players will see it, like at youth camps, city leagues, or on the sidelines of showcase games.
- Buy women’s games when they are streamed or released.
- Share and retweet women’s games and accomplishments on Facebook and twitter.
- Play mixed the right way. (Side note: why hasn’t mixed made the field 2-3 yards longer on each side and played 8v8 with 4 males and 4 females, or even just kept it the same size and dropped down to 3/3?)
I’ll leave you with probably the most important thing you should be doing: have a conversation with someone on your local women’s team and ask them “what would be most helpful for me or my team to do?”
If we don’t have a balanced power dynamic between males and females in our sport, I believe we are damaging the growth of our sport and lowering its ceiling. I do not want to be part of a culture where “the rich get richer” because It goes against many of my core values; if you are reading thing, I’m willing to bet it goes against yours too.
What do we want the first generation of pro players to be remembered for? For being the guys who couldn’t decide which league to play for, or for being the guys who really tried to make a difference in the ultimate community?