Trigger Warning: Suicide, Sexual Assault
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the articles you wrote earlier this year on gender equity and your commitment to join a team that supports this work. You chose well going to New York, where you get to work with Eileen Murray, one of the best coaches ultimate has ever seen, and New York Bent, a team that has put out some of the limited information we have on the herstory of women in ultimate in addition to their incredible highlight reels. I also really appreciate you sharing your story. Finding your voice can be challenging, especially when your ideas feel delicate and unfinished due to the simple fact that the topic of equity is so complex. Or, at least, I feel this way.
You see Beau, we’re not all that different. I too spent my childhood staring at that same Michael Jordan poster above my bed believing that flying was possible and all I had to do was keep practicing. I too am extremely competitive and have spent my life with sports as a top-priority, and I too recently moved across the country from the Bay Area to work in the equity movement in ultimate. I am nervous about sharing this story, in fear of how people will respond, and I’m frequently paralyzed by confusion of what is the right thing to do right now. To be honest, I really have no clue what will work when it comes to equity. It is not an easy task, which is part of why it hasn’t been achieved.
Our bodies have similar privileges too. Our white skin means in America, we have a police system designed to protect us rather than profit off our bodies. Our college educations means we have access to significantly higher-paying jobs, and our cisgendered bodies mean we don’t have to worry about how we fit into the sports landscape.
And we’re also pretty different. Our bodies are political, whether we want to talk about it or not. My short hair makes people regularly question my identity, turning every day into a coming out experience. My gender means watching sports is acknowledging that less than 10% of sports media will reflect people whom with I identify, and when it does, it focuses on our private lives and not our athletic accomplishments. My body is too short and too muscular to be considered feminine, and my body, as much as she is strong, she has also survived a sexual assault from the man that was her first ultimate mentor, her training partner, and her best friend who would commit suicide eight months later.
That was four years ago. Although I’m in therapy, I still struggle to get through days, having attempted suicide multiple times, feeling the weight of this truth is too big of a burden to bear. I still struggle to connect with friends, family, and teammates, not knowing how to share with them the extent of the experience. I still think about him frequently in ultimate settings: trainings, watching films, and warming up before the first pull of tournaments, as recent as New York Warm Up a few weeks ago.
Times are changing. I am getting better, although I will never be able to go back in my life and take these experiences back. I can’t say this hasn’t impacted me and the work I do and the questions I ask: how can, my company, Upwind Ultimate LLC., create a positive sports experience for folks who have been sexually assaulted, marginalized, and abused by society, at both the local and structural level? How can a company be successful in capitalism while also acknowledging that capitalism is both patriarchal and racist by nature? How can professional sports be a place of healing and growth for players, rather than using them for their bodies until they are too beat up to contribute?
Recent stories from Sophie Taylor, Helen Thompson, and Danielle Byers, tell me I’m not alone in this journey. In fact, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, found that 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted, and 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. In some initial studies for Upwind’s #HUCKYES campaign, results confirmed these 1 in 5 numbers for college, and also found that 84 percent of the folks who responded knew someone who has been sexually assaulted. A survey from Fools Fest found that again 1 in 5 folks have been sexually assaulted, and that 88 percent of folks know someone who has been sexually assaulted. How can we have a professional league that hires women out of strong college programs that we know are statistically dangerous to women, and then not expect them to have lifelong issues with the repercussions? It’s one of the reasons we can’t copy-paste a men’s pro league format onto a women’s or mixed pro league; they’re different products with different ingredients that need different business models. (I’m not going to argue semantics here on what “different” means. The way you and I were born with more differences than just height.) It’s also one of the reasons our budgets for professional men’s leagues should include training on sharing emotions and supporting those who have sexually assaulted other folks. We only address part of the issue if we work solely with survivors and not perpetrators.
When we ask for gender equity in professional ultimate, we need to ask not for equity of opportunity, and instead for equity of industry. Furthermore, when we ask for gender equity, we need to ask it for all women, and not just for some women (as Samiya Ismail of Western Washington University reminded us at the Intersectionality and Race in College Ultimate discussion at College Nationals a few weeks ago), which means when we create support systems for our players, we have to create them with the most marginalized groups at the forefront, for that is true equity. At Upwind, we use equity instead of equality because equity acknowledges the historic and current conditions that have marginalized folks, and attempts to amend these past and current injustices and biases, whereas equality, however, assumes that everyone comes from the same playing field and deserves equal treatment. You can find out more on our website.
Some steps have been taken recently to improve the experiences of women in ultimate, particularly at the level of showcasing top talent. One-off games and “professional” seasons have been created for six teams in the US this year, with some other mixed teams on the West Coast, and a European Women’s All Star Tour, sponsored by the AUDL. These teams, although a step, are not equity, and barely close to equality for that matter. In fact, for the most part, they are inconsequential due to the lack of a long-term or structure to collect on the investment of these teams. They have the potential to fall down the same trap as the All Star Tour did from a couple years ago in 2015 and 2016, it happened, we came, we saw, we loved it, the organizers got tired, and the tour hasn’t happened again. Another possibility is that the AUDL has the opportunity to capitalize on the footage of well-branded teams that participate in the Americus Cup. If it’s not too late, those club teams should sign deals that give them percentages of cash for every clip the AUDL wants to use of them.
Building an actual gender equitable industry in ultimate means securing legitimate long-term funding and consistency in promotion and support for ALL players, especially including women, Trans, and gender-nonconforming folks. It means writing new policy to allow more folks to play, hiring trainers who understand all types of bodies and can respectfully treat all of our players, offering a multifaceted healthcare approach to deal with both the physical and emotional trauma they might bring to the table, and it means paying the folks out there on the front-line of the gender equity discussions. These conversations are emotionally exhausting and if we want continuity in progress, especially in a capitalist system, we need to put our money where our mouth is and pay to learn as we might when we see a physical trainer or a therapist.
Building a gender equitable industry also means not starting from scratch and ignoring the work that so many women, Trans, and gender non-conforming folks have done over the years for their women’s and mixed teams. This has happened time and time again in social justice movements, when we pretend that now, all of sudden, we have these great new ideas instead of building on the foundations of people who have already been working on these issues. It also means believing people, women in particular, when they come forward with stories of sexual assault, and being willing to address all of the issues they deal with in the healing process.
The sports industry is not just about what happens on the field, it’s how we consume it. The cost of a well-branded piece of clothing can be raised when the team does really well, whereas ticket prices might decrease if the team does poorly. The profit is in how we value the brands of those teams, and as a result, the individual athletes who play. Beau, I think you understand how expensive ultimate is at the club level and how much we need something like professional ultimate to increase access for those who can’t afford it. In your first article, you wrote briefly about the relationship between the Flamethrowers and Revolver, explaining, “My large paycheck didn’t feel right when so many struggle to pay their club dues, so when I went to the San Francisco FlameThrowers in 2017, I wanted to get everyone paid. I went back to negotiate for my favorite club team, Revolver. Revolver was still opposed to Pro, but eventually enough got on board thanks to some money and practice fields gained in exchange for signing with the FlameThrowers.” Did San Francisco Fury ever see any of those funds or even have the chance to access them?
It’s issues like this that highlight the difference in financial experience between women and men in sports. Abby Wambach brought this up in her recent baccalaureate speech discussing her experience receiving the ESPY Icon Award in 2016, an award she shared with Kobe Bryant, and Peyton Manning. She explains:
“Each of us, Kobe, Peyton and I—we made the same sacrifices, we shed the same amount of blood sweat and tears, we’d left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment—but our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts. Because of that they had something else I didn’t have: freedom. Their hustling days were over; mine were just beginning.”
Getting to play on the biggest stage is one thing; reaping the economic benefits is another. Feeling emotionally supported and valued is a new game altogether.
So where do I and Upwind go from here? Before working on Upwind, I had limited experience in business. I was a camp counselor for 12 years, a high school debate coach, and held a variety of educational project-based jobs, on top of spending the majority of my free time playing, training, and watching sports. When I started Upwind, I took on the roles of 10 different full-time positions, all the while pursuing a full-time MBA and writing a chapter for the updated History of Ultimate. I’m the worst customer service representative, I have multiple outstanding projects, so many unopened emails, an “About” page that is overdue for an update, and hundreds of photos that I have yet to edit and publish.
The funny thing is, Beau, failure is to entrepreneurs what throwing practice is to ultimate players: necessary. Every day I have to ask if I have the courage to go out of my comfort zone to reach new levels of success in both my personal and professional life. And you’re right, Beau, we have to change “I need to help” to “I am going to help.” We have to take this same mentality of growth we have in the gym and apply it to the work we do in the equity movement. Just because I’ve lifted once in my life doesn’t make me jacked. Just because I’ve read one article today doesn’t make me woke. It’s a process of unlearning and growing and reawakening consistently. Trust the process, right? Can you ever say you’ve done enough training?
Over this past year, Upwind has essentially been playdoh. A lot of people ask me, “what is Upwind? What does it do?” And it’s true that I haven’t been entirely clear. I’ve been honored to work with a large group of part-time folks. So far, projects have included Upwind Academy, online courses on the intersection of sports and society; The Current, our weekly (now bi-weekly) newsletter; The Upline Cut, our podcast centered on stories by and about womxn of the world; The Crosswind Tour, a 47-city, 106 day trip to play, discuss, and celebrate the current equity movement in ultimate; multiple coverage angles of games, players, and teams at both the elite and local level; unique merchandise to spread the brand; and a partnership with Colorado Kali focused on their promotion and accessibility, and also getting to enjoy their historic postseason run, finishing second at D-I college nationals.
As the only consistent and singular staff member at Upwind (still), I tried to plan events and activities that both promoted new storylines, shown light to those that existed, and experimented with various ways to engage the community in both fun social events and difficult conversations. There were a lot of wins and a lot of losses, both metaphorically and literally. It’s time now to pull all of those lessons together and make something out of it.
That is why, with this article, I am announcing the development of Upwind’s Policy Institute for Equity in Sports focused on creating policy change at the local, state, and international level, both in government and in our respective sports governing bodies. This Institute will begin with exploring policies on opening up sports to more genders while also providing ways to connect the politics of our bodies to the politics of the environments we live in. I’m hoping to open its doors in the next 2 to 3 years. If you want to get involved, you can sign up here.
I’m also announcing the official kickoff to seeking investors for a professional league focused on providing a platform for the women’s and mixed teams that already exist, with the option to expand into the men’s division. I have a pitch, I have a budget, I have a 10-year plan. At this point, I need help from folks who are interested in working in the league, current teams that want to be involved, and investors who are interested in building the sports league of the future: a league that is up-to-date with social norms and identity politics, and leads the way in innovation and player development and support, both on and off the field.
- Teams who want to participate can sign up here.
- Folks who want to be a part of the team moving forward can sign up here.
- Investors who want to invest anything from $100 to $100,000,000 can sign up here.
Thanks for reading, Beau. None of this was meant to attack, more to start a conversation between us, and attempt to be as honest as you were while sharing my own story. Plus, I can’t ignore that by writing to you, this article gets significantly more attention than if I just wrote it and signed it alone.
And for now, it’s back to the drawing board. Let me know if you want to join!
CEO, Upwind Ultimate LLC.