One man's experience in learning how to recognize the gender inequities that surround female athletes in ultimate and beyond.
September 7, 2016 by Kyle Weisbrod in Opinion with 5 comments
I didn’t care about gender equity when I first started playing ultimate — my awareness and investment in that concept grew over several years. Before and during that time of growth, I unwittingly contributed to perpetuating the gender inequities that continue to plague our sport — and all sports.
In my role as Director of Youth Development at the Ultimate Players Association, I made recommendations and decisions on the development of the Youth division that weighted the needs of the more developed boys’ division over the different needs of the girls’ division. Growth of the division was my job, absolute growth was easier than equitable growth, and absolute growth was easier by focusing on the relatively “low-hanging fruit” of boys’ ultimate. I could have recommended rules that required mixed ultimate until a certain quantity of girls teams could be supported before single-gender play was allowed; such a plan would have required boys to invest in the difficult work of creating a culture that welcomes young female athletes. I failed to ensure that the girls’ division received equal coverage in the UPA newsletter as the boys’ division. I allowed an article to be published about girls’ ultimate development that focused on the players not just as athletes but also on their looks.
It wasn’t until I began coaching girls full time that I really began to experience what the lack of equity meant. I’m hoping that by sharing my experience and how I came to understand the issue I can help those who aren’t impacted by it first hand to accelerate their own awareness and growth.
When I moved back to Atlanta in 2007 and began coaching at my alma mater, Paideia, I wanted to coach boys’ ultimate. I’d been playing open1 and men’s ultimate for over ten years and men’s ultimate is what I knew and valued. The head coach — my former high school coach, Michael Baccarini — was (and still is) one of the best in the game and I wanted to learn from him. That year, the Paideia boys’ varsity team was deep with talent. The roster had many players that would go on to make a name for themselves in college and club ultimate including George Stubbs, Grant Lindsley, Chris Kocher, Ollie Honderd, and several other talented young players. That season, I was fortunate to be able to serve as the Paideia varsity boys’ assistant coach and JV boys’ head coach.
At our first event, a college tournament in Charleston, SC, the girls’ coach was unable to attend; she had spent the first month of the season out-of-town while the team practiced on their own and she had not returned yet. So, Baccarini asked me to help with the girls for the weekend. I did the bare minimum of coaching one game while the boys were on a bye. It was windy that weekend and I felt uninterested in helping the girls play what appeared to me to be sloppy ultimate. My heart was with the boys — I felt invested in what they did and valued my time coaching them.
Two months later, at the Amherst Invite, I helped with the boys in my role as assistant as they completed an undefeated season. And I watched the girls fall short of their own undefeated seasons as they lost to their rivals Amherst HS in the finals, faltering late to let a 13-12 lead end in a 15-13 loss. I felt a certain disappointment born of school pride, but little more.
That summer, I took an Atlanta team to compete in the mixed division of the Youth Club Championships. The team was made up mostly of Paideia players, along with a couple of boys from other area high schools. The girls on the team were all from Paideia — the same players that I had failed to invest in a few months earlier. In those games, in huddles, standing on the line, and in team meetings, I began to recognize that all of those players — boys and girls — had the same drive to compete, to better oneself through the sport, and to bring up those around themselves.
We went on to win the title at the tournament, including coming back in the finals from down 5-9 to win 13-11 over a talented Philadelphia squad who had won in the open division the prior year with many of the same players. While I had expected our boys to be the ones to carry us to a title, it was our girls who stepped up and took over match-ups. Looking back, that shouldn’t have been surprising: the girls on the squad included future Callahan winner Paula Seville, Callahan runner-up Sophie Darch, U23 National Team member Lane Siedor, and Club division national champion Alisha Kramer. But it took the experience of coaching, investing in, and striving toward a shared goal with these talented and hard-working players for me to recognize and value them as athletes.
The Paideia girls’ high school coach departed that fall and, when asked, I enthusiastically stepped in to head coach the team for the spring season of 2008. Everywhere I looked, I began to recognize how my own failure to value the Paideia girls as athletes in the same way I valued the boys was endemic to their experience as athletes. Our tournament schedule was set by which events were best for the boys team, meaning that the Paideia girls were often facing club teams like Ozone or Phoenix or brand new college women’s teams — rarely getting the opportunity to face a closely matched competitor. Parent support was far smaller — when we’d gone to Amherst in 2007, the boys’ team had an army of parents who had rented cars before our flights landed and had food waiting for us in those cars, whereas the girls’ team was fortunate to have any parents at all along for a tournament. Where the boys would almost always play on fields close to tournament headquarters and have well-thought out and fair formats, the girls would often encounter a far different tournament experience that made clear that their division was an afterthought.
In many ways, I believe that my experience as a male in the sport made this lack of equity even more obvious since I had direct experience being valued highly as a competitor and now was receiving direct experience being with a team that was far less valued.
In 2012, I moved to Seattle and a year later I began coaching the University of Washington women’s team, Element. In that role, I’ve continued to witness numerous expressions of devaluation of the experience of women’s ultimate players. At the 2013 Stanford Invite, we faced the University of Wisconsin in the semifinals. I had set up a video camera at the back of the endzone to record the game. The camera was near the tournament merchandise tent and some college men’s players who were in the area sat down to watch some of the game. Not realizing that the camera was on, the players talked for 30 minutes, mocking women’s ultimate — including the players on the field — and making misogynistic and homophobic comments. At some point, the players saw that the camera was on and turned it off. As an expression of valuing players’ experience, there’s nothing much more devaluing than actively making efforts to hamper a team from getting better.
While that incident was the most blatant, there have been numerous other times where I’ve experienced how different ultimate is for girls/women than it is than for boys/men. I’ve clicked on articles after tournaments to read about my team and our competition, only to find that the article recapped just the men’s side of the event. We’re more likely than men’s teams to be put on non-regulation sized fields and are less likely to receive observers when they are available. This year at the Stanford Invite, given limited field space, the TDs of the event chose to make the women’s division smaller while keeping the men’s field the same — reducing the number of games against top competition some women’s teams received.
These are all stories and experiences simply about the playing experience of girls and women I’ve been around and what I’ve seen and been aware of as a women’s coach. This doesn’t even address the way we value athletes as “spectatable” and how we choose as a community to promote each gender division’s visibility. Those stories of inequity in visibility — men’s games in the title card slots, more men’s games on ESPN and Ultiworld, male-only pro leagues, and articles that fail to use women as examples of model play — are frequently discussed and are real and important issues as well. But, the underlying issue is that we as individuals, as a community, and as a society fall short in valuing girls and women as athletes.
Until we value the experience of girls and women playing sports at the same level as we value the experience of boys and men, we will continue to have uneven participation numbers, higher dropout rates for women, and the false narrative that women’s sports are not spectatable at the same level as men’s sports.
And this inequity of how we value women in sport matters on a larger level as well. Studies indicate that participation in competitive sports helps women accelerate leadership and career potential. In our small way, by valuing the experience of women in our sport the same way we value the experience of men, we will improve retention and, with it, open the door to greater gender equity in our society at large.
Most of my awareness of this topic is directly attributed to experiencing it first hand by coaching girls’ and women’s teams. But if the only way for men and women both to understand the current discrepancy in how we value each gender’s ultimate and larger sporting experience is to actually live it, we’ll never be able to adequately address the issue.
I hope that sharing my experiences helps others become more aware and empathetic in a way that I wasn’t until I began coaching women.
In high school, we had an “open” team that fielded mostly boys but always had girls on the team. ↩