An Ombudsperson’s Take On Ultiworld And Gender Equity

Kyle Weisbrod shares his suggestions for what Ultiworld -- and the entire ultimate community -- could do to push toward more equitable coverage of men's and women's ultimate.

Members of the HB Woodlawn girls team at the 2017 YULA Invite. Photo: Kevin Leclaire —

The ultimate community has been in an ongoing conversation about gender equity in the sport and, a few weeks ago, attention turned toward Ultiworld and their responsibility to provide gender equitable coverage in the sport.

What kicked off this most recent front in the gender equity conversation was Ultiworld’s editor, Charlie Eisenhood, asking staff writer Patrick Stegemoeller to cover the boys division at the YULA invitational youth tournament in Arlington, VA. Stegemoeller lives nearby and the boys field of the YULA Invite included six Ultiworld Top 25 teams, including two teams ranked in the top five. While the event was not initially on Ultiworld’s radar for planned coverage, Eisenhood realized a few days before the event that Stegemoeller could cover it and made the last-minute request.

The girls division of the YULA Invite was not covered at all.

As soon as the boys division recap was posted, the conversation started on social media.

YLee geauity Twitter post

After a series of similar tweets, the conversation spread to Ultiworld’s Slack app, an internal discussion tool for Ultiworld writers and editors. The conversation there had a variety of viewpoints on Ultiworld’s responsibility in this situation (though notably from mostly male participants). Parts of that conversation were then leaked to a Facebook group for Women in Club Ultimate, prompting further conversation (this time notably from all female participants).

This is a short snippet from the Ultiworld group chat. @Ultiworld We understand that limited resources were a factor in…

Posted by Rachel Hess on Friday, March 31, 2017

Players from one of the girls teams at YULA, HB Woodlawn, then made a video response to the lack of coverage as well as frequently heard defenses of disparate coverage:

HB Woodlawn Youtube Video

Finally, the conversation popped up on r/ultimate, a forum where the commenters’ identities are mostly masked by aliases but that seem to be overwhelmingly male.

This isn’t the first time Ultiworld has been the focal point of the gender equity discussion of the sport and it almost certainly won’t be the last. But, I hope that we can use this as an opportunity to advance the discussion forward. As such, this is my unofficial ombudsperson perspective on how I would propose we move forward.

1. Ultiworld Should Offer A Clear And Public Gender Equity Policy

Ultiworld has a duty to our readers to state clearly where we stand regarding gender equity and the efforts we are attempting to make to meet gender equity. What does gender equity look like for Ultiworld?

While the knee-jerk reaction of many to this concept is “Ultiworld is a private entity and doesn’t owe you or anyone else anything; their responsibility is to the bottom line,” this line of reasoning is flawed. Ultiworld, like any other private company or organization, does not exist in a moral vacuum. We are part and parcel of our community and society and have an inherent responsibility to work not only toward profit, but to a sustainable and just world. What that justice looks like might differ between people and organizations, but the simple matter is that brushing aside that responsibility IS making a decision on the impact that the organization is going to have on an issue like equity. The responsibility still exists, but by not stating it clearly, we can’t work cohesively toward that responsibility as a group of individuals that make up the organization. By not stating it publicly, we do not allow others to understand or hold us accountable for the decisions we are making.

Beyond that broad responsibility, as a news source, Ultiworld has a journalistic responsibility to cover news related to the world of ultimate, even when that news isn’t profitable. As news, we hold a position of trust in the community that we are looking out for the interests of the community as a whole. Part of that includes ensuring that values of the community are reflected in the reporting.

If Ultiworld were to state clearly what we believe equity looks like for our site, we could better work toward that as an organization. If we were to make that statement publicly, we would set a unique and positive example for what a responsible, community-focused news source can be. The good news here is that Ultiworld already does provide more equitable content than a straight market-driven decision would dictate. Defining and communicating a policy that explains how those decisions are made would benefit both Ultiworld and the community.

1b. Whatever The Gender Equity Policy Is, It SHOULD NOT Be Tournament Focused

Gender equity must be viewed in context and allow for flexible decision making. Just because Ultiworld covers a men’s division of an event doesn’t mean that the women’s division at that same event should receive the same level of coverage. While a policy that requires equitable coverage of events by division would be easy to judge and measure, it would result in decisions being made for men being applied to women.

Should the Women’s division of College Easterns receive the same coverage as the Men’s division of that event? Or, is it more equitable for Ultiworld to put the same resources to the Women’s division of NW Challenge as they do to the Men’s division of College Easterns, reflecting that the premier college events are not always the same across divisions?

In the specific instance that caused the latest stir, the boys’ division of YULA was relatively stronger than the girls’ division. The boys’ division hosted two top five teams — including the #1 team in the country — while the top ranked girls team in attendance was #16. There was, objectively, greater reason to cover the boys’ division from a news perspective.

I propose that the better way to judge the equity in Ultiworld’s coverage is not to look solely at the decision to cover the boys’ but not the girls’ division of YULA, but whether Ultiworld’s overall reporting for the high school divisions over the course of the season is equitable.

1c. The Gender Equity Policy Must Cover All Age Groups

We should not apply gender equity differently for high school aged play than we do for college or club play. High school aged boys and girls are still very much forming their view of themselves and who they are and are heavily influenced by the culture around them. In the small sub-culture of ultimate, Ultiworld is a big player. We frame what and who is important in the sport. Reporting on youth boys while ignoring their female counterparts sends a message to both the boys and the girls. The message that they receive resonates through college and into their adult lives and beyond. Being clear that we value girls playing at the same level of boys will help to grow and retain girl athletes, expanding the division, growing the depth, and growing the number of girls and women consuming media. Furthermore, it will provide an important message about equity to boys who hear that message infrequently elsewhere.

Beyond that, much of ultimate media is consumed because players are known. If we start the process of building youth players into stars as high school aged players, people will follow them in college and beyond and they’ll continue to generate clicks.1 If we want to start addressing the disparity in clicks between men’s and women’s content, we need to start by addressing the disparity in boys and girls coverage.

2. Ultiworld Can Make Contributing Girls’ And Women’s Content More Accessible

One idea raised in the internal Ultiworld discussion was to create a coverage calendar so readers would know what Ultiworld planned to cover. The challenge to this idea is that Ultiworld’s coverage plans can often change and setting expectations that are not met would likely lead to more frustration and misunderstanding, not less.

An alternative would be to identify newsworthy events — particularly women’s events — that are not currently scheduled for coverage, alert the readership, and provide an avenue to apply to work as a reporter for the event, or at very least share an easy link to “submit a recap.” This transparency and call-to-action could lower the barrier for attracting reporters that want to contribute to women’s coverage. While Ultiworld and our reporters work hard to cover the whole world of ultimate — and do so in a professional way — it is difficult with limited resources. Increasing transparency and creating avenues for the community to identify and help Ultiworld address inequities before they create a real world impact, can address many of the current problems.

It’s important that we all remember that Ultiworld writers and editors are members of the ultimate community trying to help improve the community through coverage and discussion. And, while we can definitely do more work on our end to address inequities, the more help we have, the easier it becomes.

3. Ultiworld Should Codify And Share The Language We Use Related To Gender In Ultimate

Ultiworld has made big gains over the past few years in terms of the language we use for ultimate and it’s important to recognize those efforts. Ultiworld now consistently designates the gender in tournament headlines and tweets, a big symbolic step in moving away from the norm of “ultimate” meaning men’s ultimate while women’s ultimate needs a modifier.

Publishing those standards along with the gender equity policy would help the community recognize what Ultiworld is doing, build trust and goodwill, and also help lead ultimate journalism forward. As the most prolific site of ultimate content in the world, what Ultiworld says and writes becomes the language of our sport.

Ultiworld should go a step further and standardize and publish gender neutral language including “person” or “match-up” defense instead of “man defense” and “4-person-cup” instead of “4-man-cup.” Ultiworld should codify a gender-neutral term for the third person singular pronoun (“they”?) for strategy and other articles where appropriate. This language can and should apply across all gender divisions to further communicate gender equitable norms.

4. Ultiworld Should Establish A Women’s Ultimate SWAT Team For Video Examples

One recurring gender equity issue for Ultiworld has been in strategy articles, where the video samples are often weighted overwhelmingly toward footage of male players. There are a number of people on staff who watch a good deal of women’s ultimate. Creating an internal group who can identify relevant clips for strategy and can be brought in early in the process of article writing, can help ensure a more equitable balance of video examples for strategy articles.

5. Ultiworld Should Continue To Foster Discussion On Equity In Ultimate

Ultiworld must continue to address issues of equity in ultimate. Part of that means better, more honest engagement when we are accused of falling short of the community’s expectations of equity.

A few broad discussion points for the community and Ultiworld include:

  • If a volunteer reporter only wants to cover the men’s division of an event, is it better to have no coverage than unequal coverage?
  • How can Ultiworld better recruit underrepresented groups as writers and editors?
  • Given the state of the AUDL, there is more men’s ultimate news to cover than women’s ultimate news. How should Ultiworld appropriately strive toward equity in an ultimate landscape where there is deep inequity in the structure of the play?
  • Men’s content currently receives far more clicks and engagement than women’s. While there are many complex reasons for that, how can Ultiworld balance our business needs with the need to serve the community in equitable ways?
  • If Ultiworld can not sustain ourselves AND achieve gender equity, is it better for the ultimate community that Ultiworld doesn’t exist?

That last question is a serious one. And I think it’s relevant to the sport in many ways. There are a lot of burgeoning businesses in ultimate, from pro leagues to media to camps and equipment. I’m of the belief that we can’t ignore questions of equity and access to the sport and simply say “we’ll address it later, when we’re bigger.” We need to build the sport with equity and access now. What does that look like for Ultiworld? How can Ultiworld be sustainable and equitable?

It’s Not All On Ultiworld

While Ultiworld can make improvements to both improve our transparency and commitment to gender equity, it is important to remember that we are one small part of these efforts. Ultiworld is a media provider in an environment where there is inherently not gender equality. There is more “showcased” men’s ultimate than women’s ultimate and men’s content receives more clicks than women’s content. Those clicks matter. While Ultiworld can and does take impacts to the bottom line in order to work toward gender equity, certainly the ideal for all of us is a media landscape where equal coverage maximizes Ultiworld’s profit and financial ability to cover the sport.

Gender equity in the professional leagues would make a significant difference towards gender equity in Ultiworld’s coverage. That gender equity could be mixed professional play or men’s and women’s divisions. My preference is professional mixed play, which builds in much of the gender equity. Most sports that have separate professional men’s and women’s professional leagues still face drastic inequities.

In the meantime, those of us who want a more gender equitable ultimate media landscape need to do what we can to help make women’s ultimate coverage more profitable. That means reading and sharing women’s ultimate related content, including both video and articles. It means encouraging more women to subscribe to Ultiworld’s premium content. It means showing up to women’s and mixed games like you do for men’s. And it means working toward bringing more women into the sport so that there are more potential consumers of that content.

Coaches, league organizers, and other leaders in the community also have a responsibility to build a culture of gender equity. Ensuring that women are valued in league play and within mixed teams will translate to women’s ultimate media content being valued by both genders. We aren’t going to level the playing field by simply having those of us who value gender equity consume women’s content at five times the rate of men’s content — we need to build the consumer base and that means making people ultimate fans, not just men’s ultimate fans.

Ultiworld can certainly improve their leadership in gender equity. But we must all lead in order to change this long-standing paradigm.

  1. I want to say that I despise this line. While I understand the desire to build “stars,” one of my big concerns as ultimate media expands is that we communicate to people that they are valued as “spectatable,” not valued simply because they play the sport. I think this line of thinking is what leads to conforming not only high levels but lower levels of the sport to spectator and not player needs, which ultimately leads to far too high drop-out rates. I would strongly prefer that Ultiworld’s policy be to mostly avoid covering high school and youth play. But, if we are going to cover high school and youth play, it must be equitable. 

  1. Kyle Weisbrod

    Kyle Weisbrod has coached several teams including U of Washington women’s team, Monarch HS, Paideia Girls Varsity, and the US U19 Girls national team. He began playing in 1993 at The Paideia School and has played for Brown University, Johnny Bravo, Chain Lightning, and Bucket. He was the UPA’s first Director of Youth Development and served on the Board of Directors. He currently resides in Seattle, WA. You can reach him by e-mail ([email protected]) or twitter (@kdubsultimate).

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