Five things I wish were more talked about in ultimate’s gender equity movement

by | December 15, 2017, 11:03am 2

I’m a guy who identifies as a proponent of gender equity in the world, with ultimate as part of that. That’s not to say that I’m confident I never make mistakes in my thoughts or actions on this front, but that I believe my intentions are good and consistent with the ideals of gender equity.

On the other hand, I’m not interested in taking a position categorically opposed to any one ‘side’ of our community’s current debate on the topic; the precise trouble with hot-button issues is that conversation about them tends to grind to a reductive halt (“if you’re not with us, you’re against us”). I believe the key to most effectively furthering discussion like the one at hand is in finding common ground without requiring that everyone agree on everything. I write to propose a few possible areas in which our community might find (more) agreement on matters of gender equity.

Who am I? Just someone who cares about our sport and values inclusion – incidentally, two qualities that I’d bet are shared by most people on both sides of our community’s present debate – and who believes that most disputes can be solved by starting with the premise that people generally agree on more than they recognize they do, working backwards from there. If any of what follows strikes the reader as having missed the mark in some way, I ask that you consider the possibility that I simply overlooked or misunderstood something, rather than questioning the sincerity of my intent.

With that, I present in earnest: five things I wish were more talked about in ultimate’s gender-equity movement.

1. Having a refereed men’s version of our game in the spotlight puts us on the path to evolving in the same vein as most mainstream sports.

This observation is intended as deliberately neutral in judgement. I just think it’s helpful to begin by acknowledging that – for better or worse – the 10- and 20-year eventuality of having the current pro model drive the marketing and growth of our sport is that we, as a sport, end up looking like so many other: men in the spotlight, few (if any) opportunities for women to share in that spotlight, few female role models resulting in lower female participation rates at almost all ages, etc. Soccer, basketball, football, baseball, hockey, golf (and many more) all follow this pattern to varying degree.

I suspect that there are plenty of people who don’t think of themselves as being opposed to gender equity but who feel that growth in overall participation in our sport is an equally (or more) important goal in the name of progress. I’m aware of how loaded an issue this is. My point is simply that before debating the all-growth-is-good-growth ideology, we ought to make the simple observation that a vote in favour of such growth is tantamount to aspiring to have ultimate end up like all of the aforementioned sports, insofar as the imbalance of opportunity awaiting boys and girls entering the playing ranks.

2. In addition to being more equitable in gender representation, it’s possible that a spotlight showcasing all genders will prove itself to be more marketable (perhaps explosively so).

For a second, let’s pick on the stubborn man who is presumably out there, unwilling to entertain the notion of investing himself (as a spectator or otherwise) in a sport that places a mixed-gender game at its pinnacle. While he may be beyond convincing that the mixed game is as viable a product as an all-men’s affair, I suspect he’ll feel differently when his infant daughter grows into a budding athletic phenom, scanning the horizon for the sport that offers the most exciting opportunities for her emerging physical talents…

Having all grown up in a world where the most celebrated athletes in almost all sports are male, we – culturally – can be numb to the fact that an alternative lies within the realm of possibility. And if a team* sport came along that managed to have its spotlight shared equally by women, that would give undeniable pause to anyone who’s ever known or admired a female athlete, or been one themselves. Such a model could light every element of the sport’s marketability on fire, from viewership to merchandising to sponsorship and beyond.

(*Crossfit: primarily an individual sport. I want to say absolutely nothing about it or its culture, other than that I believe it to be the sport whose star power shines most equally on its top men and women, and it’s seen exponential growth in all aspects of the aforementioned marketability over the last five years. Coincidence?)

It’s worth noting that this can be one of the main points of impasse in the debate about the path to inclusion, where some (who may indeed value inclusion in principle) are unable to shake the belief that a men’s game is inherently more marketable to a wide audience. Are there members of the consuming public who will never consider watching a mixed-gender sport? Definitely. We don’t need to pretend there aren’t. But I wonder if some of us are too fixated on that segment of the population, overlooking the fact that the marketability of a mixed-gender showcase may be helped – not hindered – by the fact that no team sport has ever taken this approach.

3. We would be better off treating as moot or – better still – redefining the question of what is the ‘best’ format for our sport.

This is another one of those really hot-button areas of gender-equity discussion, where discourse sometimes breaks down over what combination of genders constitutes ultimate’s qualitatively ‘best’ product. On the one side, you have the person who may argue that the best seven men will beat any other combination of top players, therein defining the men’s game to be ‘best’. On the other, you have may have someone arguing the finer points of technical ability or style of play, or providing some other reasoning for which a different combination of genders – women’s or mixed, as the case may be – constitutes the ‘best’ version of our game. (I am offering no opinion here; only attempting to provide a representative sample of the arguments you might hear in such a conversation.)

I have yet to see a single person on either side of this debate concede to the other. Nothing productive will ever come of debating what gender format is ‘best’ from the perspective of the mechanics of the game itself. But I’d like to suggest something that I think comes as good news at this impasse: it doesn’t matter what you think constitutes the best style of play, in the conventional sense.

I believe the success of the gender-equity movement relies on rising above discussions of game mechanics and instead redefining the matter of ‘best’ altogether. So what if you think that the best seven men in the world are unbeatable together? So what if you find the esthetics of the women’s or mixed game to be more enjoyable? What if we specifically defined the ‘best’ version of our game to be the one that showcases the ideals of gender equity?

This ties back to the marketability of our sport and its place in the landscape at large: consciously placing a priority on these differentiating ideals – that is, redefining what makes up the ‘best’ version of our game – would make us like no other sport out there. In a free market potentially offering multiple gender formats to choose from, the consuming public will of course make its decision. I think it’s a misstep on the part of the gender-equity movement, though, to spend any energy debating the mechanics of the game. We ought to focus instead on higher-order values as the basis for what makes a more equitable game qualitatively better, an approach which I think has exciting potential for mass appeal as newcomers to our sport recognize its significance.

4. The open division can happily exist in an equitable world.

Sometimes, the tone of gender-equity discussion can (or is taken to) imply that the men’s game is inherently antithetical to the ideals of inclusion. I’ve found it helpful to realize that this need not be the case: what if we viewed the men’s game as simply a style/format of play like, for instance, beach ultimate or various indoor variants (4v4, 5v5)? From this vantage, the existence of a men’s division need not be an affront to the goals of gender equity. The key distinction, then, lies in what version of our sport occupies the highest echelons of visibility.

Full disclosure: I have almost exclusively played in the open division throughout my competitive playing career, for reasons that are partly circumstantial, partly out of stylistic preference and entirely irrelevant. It’s my educated guess that many open players have difficulty reconciling their inclination toward that style of play with their desire to be on the pro-equity side of the present conversation.

A more equitable future for our sport isn’t one in which the open division doesn’t exist; it’s one in which the spotlight at the very pinnacle of our game shines on players of all genders, thereby celebrating women athletes equally, creating more female role models and filtering down into more playing opportunities and participation on the part of young female players. When such a spotlight prevails, the best athletes of any gender will gravitate toward it and the open division will assume its innocuous place as a peacefully coexisting style of play, slotted in alongside other versions of our game.

How to create such an equitable spotlight? I see two key ingredients: one being the deliberate showcasing of the mixed division at the highest levels of our sport; the other being the willful choice on the part of top men and women players to prioritize participation in same. To an important extent, we have some of both already: the World Games is, of course, in mixed format and it would seem whatever chance our sport has at inclusion in the Olympic Games would follow suit. The former has no trouble attracting top talent of all genders; the latter certainly wouldn’t either.

To expand upon this very solid foundation would be to have our most marketed and visible competition platforms focus on the mixed game. (I hesitate in being so absolute because I’m sure there are those who would sooner advocate for men’s and women’s – single gender – sharing the spotlight in separate-but-equal measure, but I would be inclined to err on the side of a model that would be unique in the broad sports landscape, for reasons I’ve covered above.) This already-happening shift could be accelerated with greater voluntary commitment on the part of top players to prioritize their participation in the mixed game.

Speaking of which… a word about the AUDL. With absolute respect for the ideals underlying the sentiment, I’m surprised by the emergence of the view (however prevalent) that the current pro league has a duty to consider converting to mixed format. While you may, by this point, rightly suspect that I believe a mixed-gender pro league could be as marketable as a men’s league (or more), by no means do I see the AUDL as having a duty to pursue this. In fact, it strikes me as misguided to treat the AUDL in adversarial fashion at all. On the surface, it’s simply a private enterprise whose owners’ actions imply a belief in the men’s game as the most viable path to profitability (which, in itself, doesn’t constitute opposition to the values of inclusion). At best, it’s a group of people that sincerely want to find ways to promote women in sport and who believe they’re doing the best they can in light of the need to prioritize viability of their business. I’m not sure which characterization is correct; either way, it seems somewhere between unproductive and unfair to cast the AUDL as the villain.

(To be clear: what’s ‘unproductive’, specifically, is that casting the AUDL as an enemy has the effect of turning some away from the gender-equity movement who would otherwise be on board. Those ‘opposed’ to the movement may not be opposed to its values, but to its methods… Antagonizing the AUDL would be one such method, frustrating to those who don’t see the organization’s existence or actions as malicious.)

The other path to a mixed pro model is, of course, to have a new league start up. I would guess that this is the ground on which the battle for gender equity will be won. It seems to me that – in the wake of a successful fundraising campaign for ‘The Sky Is Red’ documentary – it’s only a matter of time before someone leads a group of like-minded donors/investors in attempting to get a mixed pro league off the ground. And while that may seem like a tall mountain to climb, its climbers would have a pretty formidable tool at their disposal: we now have a portion of men’s professional players having already decided that they will no longer participate in a single-gender pro league. It seems, at this point, a foregone conclusion that if a mixed pro league were to get off the ground, it would have the luxury of immediate participation on the part of many top-tier male players – and most/all top female players, presumably.

5. The gender-equity movement needs – maybe above all else – unity to succeed.

I’m sensitive to the likelihood that my offering a suggestion about behaviour/approach will scan as the privileged man offering advice to the marginalized whose plight he knows nothing of. Do keep in mind, though, that I count myself as a participant in the movement, and I’m hopeful that the reader is capable of viewing this word of caution as having only the best of intentions. It’s true that I’ve never experienced the frustration that women athletes/Ultimate players(/women in general) have understandably felt, but I do share the desire to lend my efforts to correcting its causes.

An example, to make the point: suppose a person suggests that an open-division game solely occupying the spotlight at some fictional event ought to feature a women’s game at halftime, for the sake of exposing the crowd – even in small measure – to high-level women’s ultimate. A justifiably opposing viewpoint might take issue with the fact that such a format would cast the women’s game as something of a spectacle: at best, a sidebar to the men’s event; at worst, an embarrassing sideshow.

Here’s where the challenge/opportunity lie, though: to recruit allies to the gender-equity movement, we really (really (really)) need to refrain from assuming that the original suggestion was born out of malice and reacting as such. Mistaking for malice what is more appropriately explained by oversight/ignorance will invariably turn away the person who made the mistake. That person may have genuinely thought the suggestion to be helpful and – if assisted in recognizing the oversight – may be perfectly willing to retract it. If, on the other hand, chastised for the oversight, personal offense will very quickly outweigh the desire to stand up for higher-order values.

As frustrating/outrageous as ignorance may be, and for all of the emotional weight that these issues carry, it’s imperative that people be given the benefit of the doubt when they may have good intentions and the willingness to learn. Until we know for certain that a person’s intent is opposed to the ideals that we hold so dear, we have to assume that it’s not, if we are to present a growing and unified front in pushing forward. Better yet, we would do well to actively seek out each other’s intent, starting there in getting to know one another, rather than evaluating words/actions on the basis of our own fallible interpretation.

My suspicion is that, way more often than not in our community, we will find our intentions to be aligned. Even on the hot-button issues, patience is key: does the fan of the current pro model truly believe that women shouldn’t have equal playing opportunities, or is he simply placing a higher priority on the idea that “all exposure is good exposure”? Has he considered the eventuality of the pro model, re: ending up like other sports? Has he considered the marketability of a more equitable model, in which we define our ‘best’ product to be something not intuitively obvious to him? And so on. In this case, we at least end up with a better understanding of where our viewpoints actually differ, rather than assuming that our underlying values aren’t aligned. This sort of patience is really difficult to practise, but it’s the only space in which healthy, meaningful, productive discourse can take place. We absolutely cannot shame, divide and exclude our way to a unified front.


These are, of course, just one person’s thoughts. Either way, I think our entire community is to be commended for being disproportionately inclined toward healthy discussion in pursuit of inclusive ideals. It’s my strong belief that most of what seem to ‘disagree’ on are just questions about methods, not objectives. Overwhelmingly, ultimate players want for our sport to thrive and to have equal opportunity for its female athletes… and while none of us knows exactly how things will play out, I’m confident that these are the makings of a good-news work in progress.

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