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USA Ultimate & Community Relations: An Interview with Maelyn Divinski

Some candid thoughts from the outgoing digital communications manager.

Maelyn Divinski.

This interview was originally published as part of my In The Zone monthly email newsletter for Ultiworld subscribers. It has been stirring some discussion on social media, so I’ve unlocked it for everyone. Please consider subscribing: this newsletter is just one of many great benefits!

Maelyn Divinski served as the Digital Marketing and Communications Manager for USA Ultimate for three years, starting in early 2017. She just left the position to become the Manager of Communications for the USA Hockey Women’s National Team program after being contacted by a recruiter in late 2019.

Divinski was the person behind USAU’s social media accounts and helped to develop much of the organization’s digital strategy.

She sat down with me last week to talk about her experience working for USAU. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you take away from your time at USA Ultimate?

I took away a lot of really great opportunities to start at the ground floor and just create a really big vision for some cool projects and ideas to help grow the sport, one being the #LiveUltimate brand and campaign in general and the other part working with some really passionate people, not just about the sport but the fact that they just want to do good work. And they want to feel like it adds up and matters to a bigger picture.

And then I definitely learned that USAU has to deal with some unique personalities within the community, some of the elite athletes.

Learning how to communicate with people that are just so passionate about a sport that they feel gives back a lot to them. That’s why they’re trying to give their opinions and their vision back to the sport to see it continue to thrive. But that also causes a lot of differing opinions.

I think overall I definitely walked away from this job with like a ton of different friendships, which sounds super corny but really true.

What does USA Ultimate need to do to take the next step in the sport?

This is a very unpopular opinion. Or maybe it’s not. Gotta get into the Olympics, and USAU is headed that way. I think they’re doing all the right things. But obviously that doesn’t come down to USAU, that comes down to WFDF.

USA Ultimate is working really hard, giving all their resources and assets to help WFDF reach that goal. They’re there to support as well as how to help other countries develop, I suppose: printing discs and trying to help the global competition grow as well. That’s all filtered through WFDF.

I think from a competition standpoint, we’re dominating the world stage. We’re definitely getting into tighter and tighter situations of getting that gold taken away from us, though, which is exciting, and I think that the athletes would agree that that’s exciting too, for them.

If we want to grow the sport, getting into the Olympics is the right idea because that opens up so many more resources for for the youth scene. You hear it a lot online – and obviously that is like what I’m going to go back to because I was on the other side of the USAU social media accounts – people are talking about, ‘You gotta make the sport more accessible. How do we diversify?’

And the thing is that’s on the forefront of USAU’s mind. That’s their number one strategic goal in the current strategic plan. They’ve hired an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion consultant, they’re reaching out to the right people in the community to get feedback, because the community wants to be involved and so they’re trying to keep the door open and allowing for that two way communication to happen. And they’re creating grants and scholarships to support their affiliates and state-based organizations, any local disc organization that is willing to go through the steps to apply for these grants. They realize that the only way to make a sport sustainable is to obviously continue to grow the youth scene. A big way to do that is by getting into the Olympics.

The Olympics means getting into the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Clubs and some really community-driven organizations that are there in diverse communities that are only going to make the sport more accessible and getting a disc in someone’s hands. And then from there, it’s: how do we continue to support it? And how do we support the infrastructure for local disc organizations to capture those kids and get them into the pipeline to continue to play?

They’re taking the right steps and they’re working as fast as possible and as hard as possible to make some of these key things happen. And I think the community likes to forget how many people are on staff, and how many different divisions and subdivisions exist. And, in my opinion, I think USAU is doing a great job trying to create as many opportunities as possible, while also trying to be realistic and sustainable and seeing what things aren’t completely flourishing to the level that they had projected.

USA Ultimate has a somewhat fraught relationship with a lot of its at least most vocal members. As somebody who has to deal with that, or had to deal with that, more than maybe anybody else in the organization, what’s the issue there? Why is that still a problem? You make the case well for why USA ultimate is doing good things? What is causing this disconnect with members?

Being the person that had to deal with all-capital tweets that were really hateful, the ones that had “F*** you,” really crazy things that people thought was appropriate to write online or thought that there was nobody on the other side, I like to believe that there’s just a handful here and there of really loud voices. It just so happens that they’re very influential too. I know from emails that we get after events, as well as people who come up and talk to some of us, that it definitely doesn’t feel like the majority is always upset with USA Ultimate.

I think that the ongoing problem between USA Ultimate and the community – a problem that’s never going to disappear – is the fact that ultimate frisbee started as a player-owned sport, and it’s the whole concept of there being a national governing body and players feeling like they’re losing control, or players feeling like they don’t have as much influence.

Everyone’s going to have their own vision that they think is absolutely perfect and strategic and the exact way that the sport should grow. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to be working with USA Ultimate to help influence that vision.

It’s hard; it’s really hard to let go of that control. And I know that it’s really hard because starting with the #LiveUltimate ambassador program, I got to talk to some of the different elite athletes, and they each had their own vision of how the sport should grow and what it should transform into. Even amongst themselves, it was different.

But you’re not going to have full control and there’s always going to be tension, then, between USAU and the community, especially if the community doesn’t accept that it’s not a player-owned sport anymore. There are aspects on how to be involved and work with USA Ultimate so your voice is heard, but shouting on Twitter isn’t getting your voice heard. At least, it’s getting your voice heard by the wrong person. It was me: I sit there and I kinda want to slam my head up against the wall.

Sometimes, yeah, the arguments are well-said. And, by all means, I would copy that tweet, I would put it in the email for people that should see it, and I pass on that opinion. I would do what I can because USAU doesn’t want to feel like the community is like completely shut out. USAU provides quite a few opportunities, more than a few opportunities, to let your voice be heard: giving survey feedback on the strategic plan, voting for board elections, to all the different club working groups and competition groups in general.

And the ambassador program. Obviously I approached those athletes, I made the decision who to approach, but that was still an opportunity for opinions to be heard.
There’s going to be this consistent friction between the two. And so I think the best thing for USAU to do, to help continue to improve trust and relationship with the community, is to continue to try to push up those opportunities for the community to engage and to let their voice be heard.

I think it would be awesome, especially as a past USAU employee now, it would be so awesome if the community would do it in a professional and productive way. The really loud voices that get on Twitter and do the all-caps tweets that are just super disrespectful…it’s kind of mind-blowing to me when the sport beats on its chest about being inclusive and being respectful.

So my biggest advice to the community would be to take the opportunities that USAU is providing to provide feedback and input on how the sport should grow. Because our organization is small, you can walk up to these people – more often than not the entire office is at the flagship events. And so there’s opportunity to go up and talk to them and have a real human conversation.

USAU has been criticized for not being communicative enough, that many of the issues seem to boil down to a lack of communication about decision-making. As somebody who worked on the communications team, do you think that that’s true? And how do you think that that should be addressed going forward?

There are times where people will say, ‘You didn’t update the community on why you decided to do X, Y, and Z.’ And it was such a superficial thing to update the community on that it was like, ‘why would you want to get every little detail about this one decision,’ that I would make a joke to myself: it’s like you want me to livetweet what everyone’s doing all day, every day.

I think there’s a fine line to walk between updating the community on the really big news, which I think USAU does a good job doing. Obviously, there’s always ways to improve and everyone at USAU recognizes that. Nothing is ever perfect. But, at the same time, updating the community every single time we order another box of discs from Discraft – obviously I know I’m being kind of ridiculous with that example – that’s not always beneficial. I think that that usually opens up to more questions. Those questions could have been answered in other ways if they had waited for the big news.

For example, the EDI volunteer job posting that we put up for the National Outreach Director: that could have been handled differently. And we recognize that. It was a really long job description that came off really intimidating and didn’t come off as a volunteer role. Now, we actually take every job posting, we put it through our EDI consultant to get her feedback to make sure that it’s not too long or if there’s certain language that we’re missing, and then we go forward and we post it.

How do you react to seeing people using the #LiveUltimate hashtag as a joke?

I have to say that, before I answer this question, the best moment ever was in San Diego Nationals of 2018. I had just finished up going out to dinner and I looked over and there was a Sin The Fields sticker and it had #LiveUltimate on it. And it was the one where it was your face on the baby’s bottom or body or whatever with the bathing suit. I was like, “Okay, well, you’re doing exactly what we wanted. You’re spreading this hashtag around.”

The sticker.

And I guess that’s more or less it, right? We launched the brand in 2017. I created all of the 10 by 10 banners that you see, the flags, all the giveaways that we did that year, all the creative assets online. It was a lot. And I would say that at Nationals in 2017, I was so excited to launch it because it had been months of hard work to get things ready to be announced.

The overall meaning and message of the brand I thought was really powerful. And that’s for someone who’s not even involved with the community, really, and who doesn’t play the sport, but I don’t know how else to describe ultimate frisbee! Being married to an ultimate frisbee player [Jonah Wisch] kind of perfectly sums it up: you play ultimate, you live ultimate. So I thought that there was no way this brand was going to miss the mark.

And I don’t think it necessarily has by any means either. I think that there’s a lot of potential with #LiveUltimate, and as much as there are people that use it as a way to make fun of USAU, make fun of the brand, ‘live or live.’ [rhymes with ‘give or five’] There are still a lot of people that use the hashtag #LiveUltimate because they embrace the message of the brand, but, even making fun of it, you’re still doing exactly what the brand entails. You’re being an ultimate frisbee player. I recognize that.

But in 2017 at Nationals, I definitely was frustrated. We even had some of the volunteers making jokes about it. And mostly the joke was, “Is it live or is it live?”

That’s also when we announced the ambassador program and Jimmy Mickle…Oh, Bravo was on the showcase field in Sarasota and they were warming up and every time they went over the painted hashtag of #LiveUltimate on the field, they started chanting “live [rhymes with five] ultimate.” And I got so irritated. And I pulled Jimmy off to the side and I was like, “Jimmy, what the heck man?” [Laughs]

He said, “I can’t control my team!” and was super sweet Jimmy about it, but I’m just like, ‘come on!’

Because of his reaction, I did start to kind of laugh at it because, yeah, this is ridiculous. It’s live or it’s live, whatever. And now, especially now, what Sin The Fields is doing and what so many others on Twitter and Instagram do by making fun of the hashtag: you’re actually doing exactly what we wanted you to do, which was share the hashtag. If that’s how the community is going to make the brand it’s own, then that’s great. That’s awesome.

Is there anything else that you that you want to mention about your time at USAU or about the ultimate frisbee community?

Last Friday was my last day at USAU, and I had not been emotional about leaving whatsoever. I’ve left jobs before and moved on to new opportunities. But the people that were in the office that day signed a disc for me – a #LiveUltimate disc, go figure – with really sweet messages. And I actually started to get emotional as I was reading the messages because it occurred to me how many awesome people work at USA Ultimate.

If I was completely honest, I took this new job opportunity because it’s an awesome opportunity for my career and I would be a total knucklehead to not take this job. But at the same time, part of me was relieved to have a new opportunity knock on my door because this community is kind of brutal. Specifically with Beach of Dreams. As you know, I was heavily involved with Beach of Dreams. And that was a lot of fun, because I was on the athlete side, so I got to manage all of them and help with that. The community, how it reacted was pretty harsh. The community wore me out and kind of burned me out with how they treat USAU staff. I’m generalizing big time and I don’t mean to – it’s a handful of people and it’s the same people.

I have always felt welcomed by the community. When I came on board, we had announced the 2017 World Games team. And that was super exciting: that was my first impression of the sport, which was pretty awesome. The pinnacle of the sport. They were all so kind to me and so welcoming, and I just hit it off with all of them. It was really awesome. I’ve made a lot of lifelong friendships with quite a few of them.

And I remember that a few of my colleagues looked at me and they’re like, ‘Honestly, this is really rare that you’re being treated this way as a USAU employee. Because usually we’re immediately villainized and especially if you haven’t played the sport, they do not like you.’ I was kind of taken aback by that – never would have had that impression.

As time has gone on, there were a few moments where people called for my job, called for me to be fired because of things that I chose to post online to represent the sport. One time on Reddit, someone asked for someone else to share my cell phone number so they could harass me. It was just insane stuff. I’ve been called a racist. I have, oddly enough, been called a sexist, to my face. And I’ve also had people online call me incompetent and silly stuff like that because of a social media giveaway contest.

I kind of hope that the community can take a step back and recognize, if these handful of people that kind of foster this or encourage this online to grab your pitchforks and villainize USA Ultimate employees, maybe not do that. Maybe don’t look like a hypocrite. Actually be welcoming and don’t attack people that you have not a clue about.

There’s some really awesome people at USA Ultimate that are doing some really great things. When I was being interviewed for the job, one of the questions that was asked to me over and over again was “how thick is your skin?” Going to art school and dealing with a bunch of rebels without a cause, I was like, “My skin’s totally thick, I got no problem.” And the community definitely gave me a run for my money on that. I have come home quite a few times feeling pretty beaten down and just kind of discouraged.

There are people working at USA Ultimate that are overworked and underpaid, and there are some really loud voices that truly paint the picture that the work that is being done is totally crap. And that just sucks.

Other than that, I think the sport’s really cool! [Laughs] Excited to be a spectator moving forward. Maybe my opinions will change; I highly doubt it though.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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