Gender Equity Forum Yields Questions, But Few Answers

USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford addresses forum attendees. Photo: Alex Fraser --
USA Ultimate CEO Tom Crawford addresses forum attendees. Photo: Alex Fraser —

The full video of the Gender Equity Forum is available on Ultiworld.

The ultimate community (or at least, the elite divisions) continued to discuss gender equity in the sport over the 4th of July weekend at the U.S. Open. USA Ultimate hosted a “Gender Equity Forum” on Friday night of the four-day tournament, where staff and board members from the governing body opened themselves to questions from players, coaches, and various ultimate stakeholders in town for the kickoff event for this season’s Triple Crown Tour.

The forum arrived on the heels of a proposal for a Gender Equity Ombudsgroup that was removed from the USA Ultimate Board of Directors meeting agenda this past January amidst some confusion. Tiina Booth chronicled the proposal from inception to disappearance in her column. The proposed Ombudsgroup, which was never formed, was the brainchild of a number of notable figures in ultimate and would have looked to both hold USA Ultimate accountable to its existing Gender Equity policy and provide a formal channel through which all members of the community could submit suggestions, concerns, and grievances.

Mike Payne, the Board President for USA Ultimate, responded to Booth’s piece on Ultiworld a few days later and the topic of gender equity dodged national headlines until the forum at the US Open was announced. The meeting was held directly after a presentation from the Girls Ultimate Movement (GUM), led by Zara Cadoux, co-chair of the GUM Working Group, and Heather Ann Brauer, National Outreach Director for the program.

Billed as “an open discussion of ideas and any suggestions you may have on enhancing gender equity in the sport of ultimate,” the forum vacillated between discussion of development and visibility for the women’s division and what amounted to an airing of grievances from some mixed division attendees.

Over the course of the hour-plus long discussion, USAU CEO Tom Crawford, Managing Director of Competition & Athlete Programs Will Deaver, Board President Mike Payne, and other staff and board members engaged on their efforts to grow and promote women in ultimate. There was also considerable time allocated to the discussion of the mixed club division, the lack of sanctioned coed competition for college players, and where mixed gender play as a whole falls as a priority for the governing body of the sport in the United States.

Crawford and Deaver manned the microphone for the majority of USA Ultimate’s responses. Crawford opened by telling the packed room that while ultimate continues to grow at healthy rates here in the United States, the repeated requests for and questions about new and differentiated live video coverage of each division is still limited by wider public interest in ultimate. Though the attendees, regardless of division, were concerned with more airtime, USA Ultimate sought to explain much-discussed choices in coverage early on in the meeting.

“We can’t tell ESPN what to do,” Crawford explained a few minutes into the forum. “Any more than if the Cincinnati Enquirer wanted to come out and cover the sport tomorrow, we couldn’t say to them, ‘Here’s what you have to cover,’ because media hates that. They don’t want anyone telling them what to do.”

Though forging a new and unique path for the sport (one that bucked the traditional growth and development trends in other sports) was later touched on by attendees—perhaps most poignantly by Rohre Titcomb (Seattle Riot, Five Ultimate)—the early portion of the forum had the odor of an attempt by USAU to preempt the loud and eager minorities that have typically dominated requests for more coverage of the women’s and mixed division. Crawford’s comments tacked towards a position where USA Ultimate has worked hard to convince ESPN to cover the Women’s and Mixed division at all, an accomplishment which the staff is particularly proud of.

“…[ESPN] would just like to cover the men’s division for these reasons…ESPN is a business, it’s a big business that’s part of Disney which is a huge business. Everything that they do is a business decision and the way that the broadcast media works is all about viewership. What they care about is getting the most eyeballs they can on whatever they put out of their network, so they can sell advertising, because that’s how they make money…they’re taking a chance on us, they’re really taking a chance on ultimate. It was a difficult step to get on that network and it’s been great for the sport,” Crawford told the room.

In spite of ESPN’s full creative control, Crawford explained, USA Ultimate has continued to try and encourage the self-styled “Worldwide Leader in Sports” to cover divisions other than men’s. Viewership has been a driving factor for ESPN’s decision making, and Crawford said that the Men’s Division continues to lead the ratings, followed by Mixed, and then Women’s.

These comments, and others, were at times delivered in punctuated simplicity. While USA Ultimate’s willingness to open themselves to comment and discussion was admirable and seemed appreciated by the room, these answers on broadcasting challenges seemed to allow the governing body a chance to address the loud voices that have spoken up for both the women’s and mixed divisions, warning them not to bite the hand of the streaming entities that have been filming them.

The forum veered off course from there, largely giving way to a discussion of the role of the Mixed Division until later on in the hour-long session. Calls for a greater emphasis on Mixed were made, including the request for a Mixed College Division.

Henry Thorne, a USAU board member, took a moment to provide historical context for the creation of the mixed club division, explaining that USA Ultimate (then the Ultimate Players Association) sanctioned mixed knowing full well that the demand for coed play had the potential to hurt the women’s division. This sanctioning came at the request of members and Thorne said that the same interest has yet to materialize in college. “Masters, Grandmasters, [they were] all driven by the players…[Division] III college, they were making it happen…there hasn’t been the same thing in mixed,” he said.

Talk turned to USA Ultimate’s position on mixed in the international arena and continued to reveal various attendees concerns about increased support and growth of coed play. Deaver and board member Josh Seamon provided context similar to Thorne’s, cautioning that mixed play has historically stunted Women’s growth.

Though there are approximately equal numbers of women playing in both divisions, the panel of USAU staff and board members stuck to a cautious optimism around growth. Data cited by Deaver supports the claim that sanctioning of club mixed may have created more playing opportunities for both women and men in ultimate. However, he balanced that show of increased opportunity with a separate example.

“I’ve also seen it work the other way,” Deaver explained. “When you have mixed as a focus, it doesn’t give as many opportunities [compared to] having two separate teams.”

Without prepared statistics on hand, much of the discussion was painted in broad philosophical strokes, and as the forum approached its end, little back and forth had occurred between panel and crowd when it came to discussing allotment of time and resources to provide gender equity for ultimate within USAU’s purview. Given the open format of the forum, the direction of the conversation was steered largely by those who were called on, and the panel spent much of its time answering questions.

Board member Deanna Ball (coach of Ohio State Fever) offered perhaps the most topical piece of information for the eager and sometimes frustrated forum participants. In response a question about the short-lived proposal for the Gender Equity Ombudsgroup, Crawford passed the microphone to Ball, who stepped toward the podium in the middle of the room. “There is an equity task force that has been formed within the board that I am the head of,” she detailed. “One of the things that we’ll be discussing at our board meeting this weekend are some of the key points and goals that we’ll have for the rest of this year and moving forward. Many of the things that came out of [the discussion around the ombudsgroup] are included in our items for this weekend.”

Other members on the board task force identified by Ball were forum panel members Seamon and Ness Fajardo, as well as absent members Val Belmonte and Mary-Clare Brennan.

Though the task force is a bright spot in the discussion around the governing body’s commitment to gender equity, a structure for bringing questions, grievances, and requests had not (as of the time of the forum) been put together. Handling such communications from the growing communities of players, coaches, and other volunteers encouraging and developing women’s ultimate at all ages will be critical if the USA Ultimate board and staff plan to continue discussion with dues-paying members around gender equity.

Murmurs amongst the crowd bubbled as Crawford drew the forum to a close. He expressed again USA Ultimate’s full support of GUM, and said that the organization continues to look for great ideas like that one to get behind. A “How?” came up loudly from the crowd as background conversations grew louder. “Come talk to us or go through the new task force,” said Crawford over the noise. Deaver also pointed out that all board and staff member emails are available on the USAU website.

Though grassroots efforts supported by GUM have continued to spur growth in female participation numbers across the organization, the forum did not yield any new clear-cut goals or commitments to supporting gender equity. In the weeks since the forum, the agenda of the new task force has not been published or discussed in an open forum, though the GUM website was launched on July 15.

  1. Simon Pollock
    Simon Pollock

    Simon Pollock is a former Contributing Editor at Ultiworld. He lives in Seattle and started writing for the site in 2014 while living in Baltimore, MD. Email him: [email protected] or tweet at him: @_simonpollock_ .

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