On Ultimate And Race: Spirit Of The Game

Ultimate does not corner the market on fair-play. Not even close.

A spirit circle.
A spirit circle. Photo by Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

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 the third article in a series: here are parts one and two.1

What if the reason ultimate has remained so stubbornly white is unintentionally part of the very fabric of the game?

What if Spirit of the Game reinforces culturally and racially insensitive behaviors?

I love that ultimate is self-officiated, even at USA Ultimate Nationals. It is – without question – something that makes ultimate very different from every other major sport. At the youth level, it is incredibly important because it becomes the lens through which ultimate players talk about fair-play, and it has the added benefit of keeping costs down which should make ultimate a very easy sport for under-resourced districts to adopt. And, yet, we still see very little youth ultimate played outside of white middle-class and upper-middle class areas.

Ultimate goes on to define Spirit of the Game as the heart of what the sport is about. It is, at its root, the combination of self-officiating and fair-play, which on its face, is a powerful thing. The Spirit of the Game (SOTG) clause in the rules of ultimate is as follows:

“Ultimate relies upon a spirit of sportsmanship that places the responsibility for fair play on the player. Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors, adherence to the agreed upon rules, or the basic joy of play. Protection of these vital elements serves to eliminate unsportsmanlike conduct from the Ultimate field. Such actions as taunting opposing players, dangerous aggression, belligerent intimidation, intentional infractions, or other ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior are contrary to the Spirit of the Game and must be avoided by all players.”2

And as a player and a coach, I left that clause unexamined for many years. But I can’t anymore. There’s nothing wrong or bad with the first part of the clause, but as I hope to take apart in this piece, the second part is deeply, deeply problematic when it comes to how that manifests on the field, in how we talk about and teach it, and in who feels welcome to play our game.

Because ultimate players talk about SOTG as if it somehow puts ultimate on a higher plane than other sports, it can be to our detriment if it keeps us from really examining our actions as a sport. And after thirty years playing and twenty years coaching it, I am concerned that SOTG has created the conditions by which players are less likely to examine their behavior because they view themselves as “spirited.”

I’ve been in the room when ultimate officials – local and national – have talked about how the sport is better than others because of SOTG. And I’ve heard coaches and organizers say, “When we get players from other sports in, we have to teach them how to act on the ultimate field.” I’ve coached youth ultimate, soccer, and basketball, and ultimate does not corner the market on fair-play. Not even close. And we do damage when we think we do.

There are two problems with that attitude. First, it blinds us. Arrogance and critical self-reflection do not go hand-in-hand, and, as a sport, we need some critical self-reflection. And two, if a mostly white group of athletes and coaches have a holier-than-thou attitude about their sport, that’s going to come across really poorly to a lot of athletes of color when they start playing.

To that end, I want to look at the video on Spirit of the Game that USAU puts out as part of its coaching re-certification program. This is a video, narrated by Jon Sandahl and Christie Lawry, about SOTG that all coaches must watch if they want to be a USAU-certified coach.

Before we examine the video, we need to look at a few terms so that we are working with shared definitions about racial literacy and the way that we talk about race.

The first term is Implicit Bias. This definition comes from the Kerwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University:

Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.

The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.  These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.

If you want to test yourself to see what – if any – implicit biases you may harbor, go to Project Implicit, run by Harvard, and you can take any of the tests they offer. Be aware – it can be really uncomfortable to examine the results of the tests, but understanding our own implicit biases is both hard and necessary if we’re going to create the conditions by which our sport gets better on issues of race. And we have to be willing to admit we’ve got work to do both as a sport and as individuals.

The second term is Cultural Competency. Cultural competency, loosely, is the ability to understand that not everyone has your cultural lens on the world. The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Association, in an article, What Does It Mean to Be Culturally Competent, defines cultural competency as “our will and actions to build understanding between people, to be respectful and open to different cultural perspectives, strengthen cultural security and work towards equality in opportunity.”

And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “culturally competent programs maintain a set of attitudes, perspectives, behaviors, and policies – both individually and organizationally – that promote positive and effective interactions with diverse cultures.” I think we have to examine our attitudes about Spirit of the Game – and the way we teach it – with these lenses in mind.

With that, the video:

SOTG USA Ultimate Video

Let’s start with the intro montage. By my count, there are over 50 ultimate players in those first 18 seconds of footage, and there are, by my count, three players who I could visibly identify as a player of color and zero coaches. The effect of the montage is that it presents ultimate as a very white sport — and this montage is used in all four of the coaching videos. Representation matters. I cannot imagine using these videos to recruit coaches of color or players of color. And as the coach of a diverse team, I was angry and hurt that USAU thought this was an appropriate opening montage to four videos I was mandated to watch to renew my coaching certification.

At 47 seconds, we see the first really concrete example of implicit bias. It’s here – and it’s that second part of the Spirit of the Game clause:

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 12.01.16 AM

The phrases that are problematic here are “taunting opposing players,” “dangerous aggression,” and “belligerent aggression,” because all of them are subjective. And USAU knows it, because if you look on their web page Ten Things You Should Know About Spirit, they attempt to clarify the difference between taunting and heckling as such (italics are mine):

Ultimate has a long tradition of good-natured heckling. Heckles are friendly barbs, typically from non-playing spectators. Heckling can be fun, but taunting is unspirited and wrong. Harassing remarks after an opponent’s foul call or close play are NOT heckling: they are abusive taunts which create unpleasant playing conditions and often escalate to acrimonious disputes.

This is exactly how implicit bias can come into play — and that has been our experience at Science Leadership Academy (SLA). How you interpret the actions of a player depends on all the experiences and biases and assumptions you bring to that moment. If a team or a player brings an implicit bias to the field — and research suggests most people do — then that “good-natured heckling” a player of color is engaging in is now seen as “taunting opposing players” or “belligerent intimidation.” And this happens over and over again in sports.

SerenaBrodieSmith LeBron

Think about how implicit bias would influence — does influence — how each of these celebrations are judged. Happy celebration or “belligerent aggression” – implicit bias tells us that a white player will often judge the celebration of players of color more harshly, and in ultimate, we codify that with ‘spirit scores’ as a way to judge, rate, and sort SOTG.

At SLA, we’ve played against predominantly white teams that storm the field after every point, spike, and make comments from sidelines, but those same teams have made comments about our spirit and our aggression when we engaged in similar behaviors. Last season, a predominantly white team came on the field after every point they scored, but we mounted a comeback and when our kids ran on the field after we scored, we heard the very tired refrain of “you guys have bad spirit.” And so many coaches who have teams with a significant number of black and hispanic players that I have ever spoken to have had similar experiences. There’s a reason that Masterman – one of the only other public schools from Philly with an ultimate team – roots for SLA whenever we play anyone from the suburbs. Because we both know.

The next issue that I want to highlight speaks to the notion of cultural competence, and that’s at 2:30 in the video when they talk about the Golden Rule. This is a classic case of lacking cultural competence in assuming that all athletes come to ultimate with a shared definition of how we want to be treated on the field. That can highlight racial and cultural differences.

For example, for many of the players I’ve coached in Philly and New York over 20 years, the closest analogue to a self-refereed sport is pick-up basketball. The expectation of how people react to foul calls to the trash talk that happens on a court is a powerful cultural context that people understand. (For example, don’t think you’re going to get away with calling a charging foul in a game on a playground in Philly. You’re getting mocked. A lot. And you probably deserve it.)

And it’s what’s expected on that court. Every player in that game expects to get taunted if they get dunked on. (I know. I have been. Many times.) Every player knows that someone is going to give you grief if you call a foul every time you drive the lane. And every player knows they are getting talked to if they foul a guy three times in a row. And the thing is that pickup basketball culture is just as beautiful, meaningful, and fun as ultimate, as are the kids who play it.

Yet very few of those behaviors would be considered “spirited” by the overarching (white) ultimate culture. But that’s the way a player coming from the culture of city pickup basketball would want to be treated. And we should and must create space to seek and find common ground so we can see each other and play together.

The Golden Rule – as it is explained in the video – starts the process of reinforcing a very narrow, privileged, white, suburban view of what appropriate behavior looks like throughout this video. And, again, that’s incredibly damaging to any efforts to make our sport more welcoming to athletes of color.

The next really problematic moment occurs at 3:05: “Encourage your team to assume that the opposing team has the best intentions when making a call just as you would want your team to assume the same.”

Here’s how this translates to a team that has been on the wrong end of racial micro- and macro-aggressions over time:

“Pretend Racism Doesn’t Exist On the Field.”

I cannot express strongly enough how toxic this is. Whether it is when a white player feels like they have to explain the rules to a player of color every time a call gets made, or when we notice that our black players have fouls called on them at a much higher rate than our white players do, assuming positive intent and ignoring the implicit bias that we see at work is exhausting and infuriating. And while this is not just an ultimate problem, the way we talk about and promote Spirit of the Game makes it worse and hamstrings our ability to address it.

The next moment I want to highlight is at 3:26 when the coaches say, “Spirit of the Game is about how to…adjust your tone in the moment.” This is a particularly race-blind comment to make. Within the language of social and racial justice, there is such a thing as tone policing — when someone tries to discredit an argument by attacking the tone with which it is made. This plays into the stereotype of the “angry black man” or “angry black woman.” To not understand the context for that is to further brand this video as speaking only to white people.

This continues as the coaches talk about “just breathe.” There’s no easy way to say this, but this is such an upper-middle class, white value structure here. It’s almost comical, as if the proper way to respond to a foul call is to step back and say in your best upper crust British accent, “Well now, old chap, quite a whopper of a call you made this time, don’t you think?” Also, after thirty years in ultimate, I’ve almost never seen this version of SOTG. People get hot, they don’t like calls, they react. And that’s true across the racial spectrum. But when you set up SOTG as a very specific reaction to calls, you have to consider a racialized lens on what you are saying. Now, when a white player has a reaction that isn’t “just breathe,” they’re being a hothead or they were caught up in the moment, but when a black player has the same reaction, it gets interpreted and often labeled as “dangerous aggression.”

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 12.35.56 AM
Can’t you players just be a little less, you know, loud?

And then there’s the fact that clearly no one thought about what two white coaches talking about “teaching your players self-control” might sound to players who are not white. And that’s because there’s no way a coach of color or player of color was asked to give feedback on how all this sounds. Did USAU seek out coaches and players of color and ask for input on this video? I cannot imagine they did. As Matt Kay said when we looked at this section, “We’ve been ‘just breathing’ for several hundred years. No white person has to tell us that.”

And it just keeps getting worse — at the 4:28 mark of the video, “The first call often sets the tone for the rest of the game…” but what if that tone was set before the game ever started?

Again, when we say “you are responsible for how other people perceive you” without ever taking into account the implicit and explicit biases that people bring to the field, you set players of color up to fail.

And it happens again at 5:31 when Jon and Christie talk about celebrations. They state, “Be aware of how your team’s celebrations are perceived by others.” Again, what if others are coming to the field with implicit bias? What if they are judging the actions of a team with many players of color differently than a white team? Why is the impetus on the players to control how others perceive them? Why do we assume that players of color must be the ones to sacrifice their cultural norms around how they celebrate?

Because this also assumes that the way a white team celebrates is the “correct” way to celebrate. Why is it bad when a bunch of kids from the city who come from a basketball culture pull their best LeBron James move after they score? Is that really any different than when Brodie Smith creates an entire YouTube video where he teaches people how to spike?

Simply put, when you say things like this….

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 12.28.22 AM

And your Men’s Nationals team looks like this…

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It’s time for some reflection.

It’s funny, at 7:20, the video says, “Be a consistent role model.” That’s what I’m trying to do. I’ve seen how much the implicit racism of ultimate has hurt my students. I started coaching high school ultimate in 1996 in New York City with a wonderfully diverse team, and I’ve seen ultimate stay consistently and stubbornly white, even as the numbers of people who play have grown and the exposure people have to the game has exploded. And I’ve seen the thing that we hold up as sacrosanct – Spirit of the Game – hold us back because of the way we venerate it as making our game better than other sports and the way we frame it to players with a decidedly white lens, as I hope I’ve shown in this article.

And finally, I want to go back to the moment that is most crushing to me. At 5:52, Christie Lawry says, “Teams that acquire poor reputations often have to work for years to overcome that image.” Yes, USAU, we know. Try being the only majority player of color team other teams face. Try feeling — over and over again — that you’re being judged as outsiders and that the calls never seem fair and the comments always loaded. Trying feeling – again and again – that your team gets chastised for behaviors you see from other teams that are just “energetic” or “passionate.” And then try knowing that your spirit scores are seemingly always low, no matter how many micro-aggressions you were forced to endure.

And then try staying convinced that ultimate is for you.

  1. For this piece, Lehmann thanks the following people for being critical readers along the way. Matthew Kay – SLA founding teacher / coach / athletic director and author of the upcoming book Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Classroom Conversations About Race, Prof. Airea D. Matthews, author of Simulacra and Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr, Jose Vilson, teacher, speaker and author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and EducationTiina Booth, USAU Hall of Famer and Coach of UMass Ultimate Men’s Team, Manisha Daryani and Frank Nam of Downtown Brown, and Steph Sessa, SLA teacher and girls ultimate coach. 

  2. From Section 1. Introduction, item B, Rules of ultimate 

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