Sometimes I like to flip through my mental photo album, and think back on the old days. The days before the famous floppy disc, the revolutionary post-it note and the life-sucking cell-phone, back to that parking lot in New Jersey where the game of ultimate took its first steps. We’ve turned the page on many chapters in ultimate history, notably, parking lots (except in dire consequences), Wham-O frisbees and tie-dyed cotton longsleeves.
I think it’s safe to say that in both ultimate and file storage, we’ve come a long way.
Not without the occasional speedbump, however. In the vast and celebrated history of ultimate, the introduction of male professional leagues was a controversial snapshot in the timeline of ultimate history.
While some professional teams are turning the page on their fourth year, the controversy in the community is still being shaken like a polaroid picture. One of the hottest topics in the ultimate community now is gender equity and the current unequal growth of the sport at its highest level.
Despite arguments for increased visibility and financial investment benefitting everyone who plays, the question keeps cropping up:
Can these exclusively male professional leagues contribute to a better sport? Or just a bigger one?
Saying that male professional leagues are raising the level of visibility for all players, is about as easy as claiming that Seaworld is doing a service to the killer whale species. Half of the people weighing in on the matter are not actually okay with the situation.
Which teams are committed to bringing players of every gender and background into the spotlight with them?
The Flyers’ mission is to connect players of all backgrounds to the sport. The team even signed Jessi Jones, a player for Phoenix, an elite women’s club team, for a single game, as part of programming to recognize female players.
The Washington franchise has proven to be more vocal on the subject though, citing their belief in the equal value of male and female players in their mission statement, requiring a gender and officiation workshop for athletes and employees, and producing promotional content directly dealing with the subject of gender inequity.
Sam Harkness’ recent player spotlight video, discussing privilege, went viral. The clip begins with a provocative statement from Harkness, “It’s easy to be blind when you have all the privilege in the world.” Sam is taking this opportunity (along with many others in the past) to use his voice to acknowledge the issue and encourage his teammates and opponents to do the same.
In his player statement on the Cascade’s website, Harkness goes on to say, “I'm on the field to compete, win games, contribute to a positive team culture and play a financially stress free season as a respected athlete. Off the field, I want to help make the previous statement as an option that is accessible to everyone and anyone who plays ultimate.”
Harkness and other Cascades’ players are working to make their reality possible for all players by using their voices, and the medium of the Cascades, to contribute to the conversation about gender equity. Here is what they are saying:
“I hope to have the hard conversations to try to figure out how the Cascades can help change and support a sport so that it serves more than just the racial, financial and gender privileged.”
“I am hopeful that, in the future, the energy and visibility that pro programs like the Cascades have generated for our sport will shine instead on programs that promote opportunities for all great players. When I look around my city and see the work that programs like AGE UP, Girls Ultimate Movement, and Seven Hills Ultimate (Small Fryz and Moho before them) are doing to promote more access and opportunity for the next generation, it humbles and conflicts me that resources and visibility given to pro ultimate aren't directed towards them instead.”
“I believe that playing with the Cascades and being a part of their organization gives players opportunities to be ADVOCATES and not just athletes who play ultimate, but who help mold and reshape the way we look at professional sports and the game of ultimate.”
If professional male athletes, and the organizations they represent, can use these opportunities, instead of taking them for granted, perhaps that future really can be both bigger and better.
If the Cascades are really so concerned with gender equity, why invest in a men’s professional team, anyway? Xtehn, Cascade’s General Manager and co-owner shared his siblings’ reasons to put their sweat into the Seattle franchise,
“As I look at it, we have this conundrum. We siblings are invested many ways in promoting the future of our sport. Professional ultimate, however, currently limits us to the men’s side of the sport. We have chosen to have a seat at that table, to have the opportunity to have an effect on the overall sport by being involved with this entity. The AUDL is going to play a role in the future of ultimate, whether we five are involved or not. We want to be there when decisions are made, that’s all.”
Even if these professional men are speaking out, it doesn’t immediately change what is clearly an unfair situation. Many ultimate players, and notably the sport’s governing body, have a hard time accepting and/or stomaching the professional version of ultimate. As well as ignoring problems has gone for communities and individuals in the past, let’s not forget the ancient proverb: global warming doesn’t care if people don’t believe in it.
Excluding professional men’s ultimate from our treehouse doesn’t mean it won’t exist. Maybe letting it inside, so we can keep an eye on its shenanigans, isn’t such a bad idea. Working cooperatively from within this new avenue might allow the community to drive the direction of the sport, and give us control over the product.
After all, what do we want the youth of America to look up to? Athletes who are divos, or advocates?