On Ultimate And Race: A Way Forward

Science Leadership Academy 2017 boys’ ultimate team. Photo: Chris Lehmann

This article was written by Chris Lehmann, founding principal and CEO of the Science Leadership Academy and the Science Leadership Academy Schools network, a network of three progressive science and technology schools in Philadelphia. It was originally published on his blog, Practical Theory.

This is a followup to the piece I wrote last month, On Ultimate and Race. If the first step is naming the problem, then surely the second step has to be taking steps to address it. Access, visibility, and acceptance are key pieces of changing the demographics of ultimate, and, for me, we have an incredible opportunity to make the greatest change at the youth level.

One of the best ways to address this issue is to look at the pipeline of players—how can we increase the number of players who find the sport and fall in love with it at an early age? And, specifically, how can we ensure that young people of color have the opportunity to play ultimate in their communities? And then, if we change who has access to the learn the game, how do we make sure that the higher levels of the game are financially accessible and welcoming to players from underserved communities?

To that end, USA Ultimate must devote its energy to school-based teams and leagues as a higher priority than YCCs. The cost of youth-based sports is rising astronomically and much of that is because of the increasing importance of club teams over school-based ones, which creates a much higher financial burden on families. We have the opportunity to buck that trend. With eight cones, some cleats, and a disc, we can play the sport. We need to keep costs down and remove any potential barriers to entry—especially for the communities who are underrepresented in our sport.

And we must face that ultimate has done a poor job of helping schools with high percentages of students of color or high percentages of low-income students to start teams. And that demands that we look at the strategies we’ve used to encourage growth and consider a more inclusive and purposeful strategy to achieve a more diverse and inclusive growth. And we must recognize that this move away from school-based teams as the target for growth will reinforce every inequity we already have in our sport.

Schools are where the kids already are. If we want a more diverse representation of athletes, we have to go to where the kids already are and make it easier for kids to play the game.

So what could that look like?

1. Create Partnerships With Urban School Districts

Create a partnership program between local ultimate organizations, USAU, and urban school athletics. We have to make it easier for schools to start teams. This means focusing on after-school games—especially as teams enter the sport. This would give new schools a system to plug into, instead of the somewhat overwhelming and expensive process of trying to get to tournaments, most of which are outside city limits. By moving away from weekend tournaments as the primary entry for high school ultimate, we lower the cost for new teams, while still offering a tournament system for teams who are at that level.

2. Establish A Coaching Pipeline

We should establish a high school coaching program where we incentivize coaching at Title I1 or majority student of color schools. In many ways, this would be a targeted shift/expansion of the USAU New Team Start Grant program. This could include a commitment of 25 free discs a year, cones, rulebooks for Title I Schools, waiver of coaching certification costs, and support from the local organization for coaching resources both on-field and off. USAU could come up with a “How To Convince Your Administration That Ultimate Is A Great High School Sport” document that would help students, parents, and coaches make the case for starting a team. Combine this with the partnerships with urban school districts, and we could see an explosion of teams in our cities.

3. Train Coaches In Cultural Competency

Cultural competency and diversity training should be a mandatory part of all USAU Coaching Certification and all local coaching programs. This is so desperately needed that it actively angers me that it’s not already a part of training for all ultimate coaches. The NCAA is way ahead of ultimate on this—and they’ve published many of their resources here.

4. Waive Fees For Title I Schools

Expand the USAU Play It Forward program so that any Title I designated school would have all player and coach fees waived.

5. Involve The Local Club Teams

Get commitments from top-tier teams from all three club divisions to run exhibitions and clinics that target underserved populations. As the local ultimate organizations build partnerships with the local districts, identifying schools willing to host these clinics after school should be part of that partnership. Here in Philly, I would love to see Patrol, AMP, and Green Means Go playing an exhibition down at the South Philadelphia Athletic Super Site in front of a few hundred Philadelphia high school kids and then teaching the students how to play the game afterwards.

6. Underwrite The USAU National Teams

Finally, while this is not directly about youth ultimate, USAU should underwrite the cost of playing on the USA National Teams. In the conversations I’ve had over the last month, several folks mentioned that the financial barrier to entry to playing for the USA teams was incredibly high. Given the intersection of race and class, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Men’s team was as white as it was; while the Women’s and Mixed teams were a little better, they were still predominantly white, and there was very little black or hispanic representation. And lest anyone forget, representation matters. Seeing players of color on the team that represents our country matters to every kid who is finding the sport and wondering if it’s for them. This feels like low-hanging fruit to me. Get sponsorship. If Science Leadership Academy can have Johnsonville Sausage on the back of our shirts, then USAU can find the National Teams a sponsor.

***

These are all concrete “right now” steps we could take as an ultimate community. Everything on here is doable immediately. For those who would say that our sport has welcomed anyone who has come out to play, I’d say that we have to look at the demographics and ask ourselves why the sport has, then, stayed so stubbornly white. We can borrow from the work that Karen Mapp has done around increasing participation of parents of color in schools and understand that the “open door” policy is not the same as an invitation and a welcome. In ultimate, we’ve had 50 years of an open door policy. The time has come to make targeted invitations and to look at our own actions to see where we can improve.

And to be clear, even if we do everything on this list, there are larger and harder conversations to have about things like micro-aggressions and Spirit of the Game, and those conversations definitely need to happen. But we can’t wait. The time has come for defined programs and policies that can make the game we love more visible, accessible and welcoming to those who have long been denied access.

Let’s start with these.


  1. Title I federal funding goes to schools with a high percentage of students from low-income households 

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