Going Beyond A Boycott

Convincing AUDL owners to change their product will take a more engaged approach.

San Francisco FlameThrowers’ Audry Lyman lays out for a catch at the 2017 Cascades Cup. Photo: Daren Ruiz

This article was written by Lyra Olson, an athlete and medical student living in North Carolina. She played undergrad at Princeton and played her last year of eligibility with Duke. She was voted Player of the Year in the Metro East in 2016 and in the Atlantic Coast in 2017. She’s played mixed club for the (now defunct) Expendables and women’s club for Green and Phoenix. She was the spirit captain for the 2015 U23 USA Women’s team. She was also a practice player for the Raleigh Flyers this past season.

In light of the recent AUDL boycott, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we, the women in ultimate, can most effectively use our voices and actions to promote gender equity. I write to share my thoughts on the league and to suggest that there is more we can do than just boycott.

As a practice player for the Raleigh Flyers this past season, I have mixed opinions about the AUDL. On one hand, I believe that that the owners and leaders of the league genuinely have their hearts in the right place. They’ve helped our sport reach a broader audience, and even if it doesn’t mean too much to the athletes within our sport, I’ve found that the “professional” branding grants an easily accepted measure of legitimacy to conversations about the sport with those outside the community. It is genuinely cool to see ultimate on the SportsCenter Top 10, to have high quality video content of our athletes, and to enjoy a fun environment where we can gather to watch games. The league also provides significant financial support to Fulcrum Media, which has enabled an awesome increase in the quantity of mixed and women’s video content online.

The Flyers organization has won my heart in other ways too. My teammates are kind people and utter ballers. Our coaches are thoughtful leaders and brilliant tacticians. The ownership is passionate about engaging our local community through clinics, theme nights, and halftime games that feature local youth and women’s teams or young performers from the community. For two years now, women have been explicitly invited to tryouts, and our reduced tryout fee has been donated to Take the Field, a Triangle Ultimate program which runs a clinic and conversation series between youth and adult female ultimate players. They share practice spaces with Phoenix and were the first team in the league to put a female athlete on the field (Jessi Jones, 2015). They are eager to find more ways to support women’s ultimate. And they’re trying to do all this while pouring their personal finances into an organization that has yet to turn a profit.

It is because of all this good that the AUDL frustrates the hell out of me. I love the vision that the Flyers leadership has for the Flyers as a hub for the Triangle ultimate community. I then see the utter disdain or apathy so many in the community reflect back towards the organization, and it hurts my heart. It makes me think that the league has somehow missed the mark on their most powerful resource.

I think of my own teammates on Phoenix, who, as a whole, don’t care at all about the Flyers. We’ll volunteer for clinics and cheer our faces off when the Warhawks play at halftime, but many of my teammates have intentionally never attended a game because of the profound inequity of the league. To many others, the AUDL seems like a lower stakes prelude to the men’s club season. In full honesty, this is often how I describe the pro league to the uninitiated.

And sure, the league is trying really hard right now. In their leadership meetings, I’m sure they felt that eight well-produced games is a great answer to our call for equity. Their three year plan is commendable, but as a female athlete who loves the Flyers, I’m still left with a bitter taste in my mouth from the notion that they believe that eight games even approaches equity when compared to 12 games a week for 14 weeks.

I have no desire to wait a few years for the league to finance a separate women’s AUDL. I have no interest in playing as a side show for the dominant narrative of men’s ultimate.

I believe that the future of the AUDL is mixed. However, the AUDL is in no way compelled to think the same. Unlike USA Ultimate, which is answerable to the players, the AUDL is first and foremost a business selling an entertainment product in a proven model. There are several tangible obstacles standing between the AUDL’s current men’s product and a mixed one.

The largest financial barrier comes from the surprising corner of liability insurance. Because there are so few mixed sports, the cost for owners insuring players in case of injury and death is exorbitant, substantially higher for a mixed sport than for a men’s sport. Many AUDL teams already run a deficit every season and do not feel that they’d be able to support the increased overhead. There is also the very understandable fear of changing a business model from a men’s product, successful in every other venue of athletics, to one in which there is no proven track record. I can see why owners recoil from such a change. They love the sport as much as we do, but they also have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into their teams and have yet to see a return on investment. Therefore, I don’t believe that the AUDL has any possibility of changing based on a desire for gender equity alone.

Nevertheless, I believe that the AUDL would have a vastly more successful business model with a mixed format. Most of the three-million plus people who participate in our sport play mixed. Imagine seeing the professional level of the sport as a high-velocity reflection of your local league! The women I’ve spoken to, from the pickup to the elite level, consistently say that they’d give more time and money to the league if it were mixed. They’d attend games, watch more footage, and be more likely to encourage those outside the sport to check out the league. I think of the youth teams in our area, especially our stellar girls’ programs, who love the Flyers, and think about how much more pumped they would be if the Flyers was comprised of the top athletes in the community, both male and female, that they idolize. It is exciting to think what a groundswell of support the AUDL has waiting for it if it were to change its product.

The boycott is an amazing first step in this process, as it places enormous conversational and moderate economic pressure on the league. I am thrilled to see the many talented athletes who have recognized the privilege of their ability to play and are stepping away from the opportunity they’re gifted by virtue of their gender to demand representation for women. I also want to thank Jesse Shofner for balling out under the pressures of tokenization, using her platform to help all of us, and inspiring me with her every explosive step. However, I don’t believe that the league will notice the absence of women as much as they’d notice our action. Given our overall minimal engagement with AUDL at baseline, I believe that they can weather the storm of our silence and continue to make only nominal efforts towards equity.

My proposal: meet the league halfway and demonstrate the economic advantage of switching to a equitable product.

1. We attend tryouts. In every city. In hoards.

But why? Aren’t we boycotting this whole thing?

Because we deserve to be at tryouts. Because it’s freaking fun to attend a competitive tryout and play as hard as you can with great athletes. Because I genuinely don’t think the AUDL knows what it’s missing by overlooking us. Because if we don’t show up, it’s exactly the same as every other year.

I attended tryouts last year under the encouragement of Georgia Tse, a dynamic defender and teammate from college and club. I was initially afraid of feeling inadequate and embarrassed on the men’s field. Instead, I had an amazing experience. I saw the places in my game where I had been hiding skill deficits behind my athleticism. My imperfect defensive footwork? My slow commitment to deep cuts? These errors were made glaringly obvious by the taller, faster bodies I marked up with. On the other hand, I learned that my low-release break throws were near unstoppable, that my shut-down handler D was damn strong, and that having a center of gravity closer to the ground gave me the advantage when juking out my defenders. Sure, there were moments when I felt outclassed (going up for a disc against a 6’7” man, for instance), but I worked to lean into those moments, to scream for help when someone took off deep on me, to ask for feedback when a throw didn’t connect.

I learned that I could hang with the guys. That I deserved to be playing with them. That I had skills to offer that others didn’t. And what’s wild is that I know how many hundreds of women across the country would ball out as hard or harder than I could.

Are you out of shape in the off season? Go and get your butt kicked and get angry to train for club.

Injured? Go with your teammates and cheer them on from the sidelines.

Don’t want to give money to an inequitable organization? Demand that your local team match the model of the Hustle (free tryouts for women) or Flyers (Take the Field donation). If nothing comes of that, donate the fee to a local youth ultimate program in the name of the team you try out for and bring the team the receipt so they can get a tax deduction.

Afraid of looking bad? Face your fears of inadequacy. You are more baller than you know and you are more capable that you can imagine. The league will never believe that we can join their ranks if we do not believe that we belong there.

What then? Well, if you make the team (and I’m sure many of you will), you do what feels right for you. You can enter the privileged ranks and use your platform from within the system to push the leadership towards change. Or, you could refuse to play for an inequitable league from the empowered position of choice. If you aren’t offered a spot (and most of us won’t), use it as fuel to improve your game for the college or club season and redouble your efforts towards equity because you’ll know first hand how much fun and opportunity is denied to you.

By itself, attending tryouts is in no way a solution to problem of inequity, but it’s fun and it demonstrates to the league that we are not getting out of their face any time soon.

So go to tryouts. Get your metrics measured. Get a ridiculous workout in. Ball the fuck out and show the owners, coaches, and players the skill, power, and energy they’re missing out on.

2. Foster conversation within your local community.

I find it striking that in a whole season of playing with the Flyers, none of my teammates ever asked me what my experience was like with the team, and I never thought to bring it up to them either. Over the past ten days of conversations, it’s become clear that many were curious but unsure of how to broach the topic, afraid of somehow offending me. For my part, I didn’t bring it up because I was afraid of sticking out more than I felt I already did. I feel so grateful that this boycott has given us an opportunity to ask questions of one another, to discuss where we stand, and to grow from one another.

It has become clear that this lack of conversation pervades our local ultimate community. I commend the communities around the country that open their club seasons with discussions of how they can actively promote equity. In our community, we’re playing catch-up.

Triangle Ultimate is revisiting its mission statement to ensure that its future aims promote equity and access for underrepresented communities. They are bringing aboard new staff to promote girls’ ultimate through more clinics and representation on social media. In addition, the organization plans on sending out a survey to the local ultimate community to gather stories and data about what it’s like to be a female athlete in this area.

They will use this information to take a hard look at where our community is supporting equity and where it falls short to build a foundation for conversation and action.

3. Demand action from the male athletes of the AUDL.

Most of the men I’ve spoken to have been neutral to highly supportive of a switch to mixed. However, many of these men are reluctant to boycott the league. Who can blame them? It’s freaking fun, all costs are covered, and, in our area, the pro team is a preseason to the club open season under the same coaching staff.

So we ask our friends and peers who choose to play to use their platform to promote an equitable future for the sport. At tryouts, they can trust the cuts and throws of the women who take the field with them. The can use their social media platforms to promote gender equity. They can wear armbands at practice and games emblazoned with the message #MIXED2020 (see below).

At the very least, we can ask them to think about the league from our perspective. Ask them how they would feel to train just as hard and be just as hungry to play at the most visible, public-facing version of our sport and to have no avenue to do so. Ask them to consider what it feels like to be asked to use their skills and passion to lead clinics for youth players, knowing that the kids who look like them will never be able to play in the game that follows. And ask them to recognize that the fact that they can choose to stay out of this conversation is an amazing gift they’ve been given purely by virtue of their birthright.

4. #MIXED2020

The AUDL is, at its core, a conglomeration of 24 small businesses trying to make ends meet in a fledgling sport. We cannot expect them to overhaul their product overnight, especially without the data to demonstrate that such a move would be financially feasible. However, if the league is as committed to gender equity as much as it says, then let us meet them halfway by providing the data to make such a shift economically possible. Perhaps those in our community with market research skills can gather data to show that our money is where our mouth is. Perhaps those with ties to law or insurance can negotiate quotes for mixed insurance or find work-arounds like individual liability waivers. Those with strong social media followings can pass along opt-in petitions like that of the boycott to demonstrate the market that is waiting for equity to support the league.

From the league, I expect a lot of resistance, but I also expect a willingness to engage with us in an ongoing conversation about what is possible. Perhaps the league could alter its three-year inclusion plan to experiment with a mixed model. For instance, in addition to the eight women’s games they’ve promised this year, individual teams could replace a regular season open game with a mixed game on agreement between the two teams. While I’m sure these games would have messy moments as players adjusted to mixed play, it would provide a logistical trial run. In 2019, perhaps each team could create a men’s and mixed roster which alternate game days and then track attendance and profit from each event type. By 2020, the league could use the data from the 2019 season to determine if a mixed future is fiscally possible.

If a mixed league indeed isn’t possible, then perhaps we can generate a novel two-team structure where women’s and men’s teams exist as truly equitable partners in each AUDL franchise. One option I’ve heard is that we could have the men’s and women’s teams play back to back games with slightly shorter quarters. Each AUDL game would be a double-header, and they’d alternate which game is first each week. Another interesting option is to have men’s and women’s teams play every other quarter, so that both teams fight together for the same win.

I recognize that I come from a place of wild naiveté, but I believe that ultimate is better than no ultimate, and I want to see the AUDL thrive. I believe that the ownership is doing the best they can with the resources they have in a framework they’ve been told their whole lives is the only possible one. I believe that they are good people who are balancing what’s best for the sport with huge financial investment.

As the women in our sport, we can use our words and action to forward what this boycott has started. We can prove to them that a different, more powerful product is close at hand. We can show them that equitable can be profitable.

I don’t think there is one right way to protest, so I encourage each of you to find the path that resonates with you most. For my part, I’ll keep doing much of what I’m doing now. I’ll facilitate conversation in my community, play my heart out at tryouts with as many women as will join me, lead clinics for youth players before Flyers games, and attend the games that feature our youth players or that promote equity. I believe that my voice is more powerful than my silence, so I’ll stay in partnership with the Flyers in good faith that they will do everything in their power to meet us halfway.

I believe that the future of the AUDL is mixed and that we as women in ultimate have the power to make it so. When I most recently spoke to one owner of the Flyers, he stated that it was unlikely for the AUDL to go mixed, but that if you’d asked him a year ago, he would have said it was impossible. Impossible to unlikely is an amazing leap!

So I’m going to take that leap and I’m going to do with it what I do best: run until the point is over.

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