Wearing a Mask: The Experience for Players of Color in Ultimate

How can we build better experiences for underrepresented communities in ultimate?

Shylynn Rodrigues. Photo: Alec Zabrecky — UltiPhotos.com

I grew up in Seattle, southeast of downtown in Beacon Hill. Originally a neighborhood for Boeing workers and later Asian immigrants, the neighborhood has, more recently, been one of Seattle’s most diverse communities. I attended middle school at Asa Mercer, where there were over 1,000 students, the majority of whom were Asian or Black.

When I started sixth grade at Mercer, I would go out to the field during lunch and toss around a frisbee with my friends. I went to ultimate tryouts — every public middle school in Seattle offers ultimate — and, man, did I fall in love with the sport. It was as if everything came naturally to me: I could throw, run fast, and catch, and I quickly picked up the rules of the sport. After watching a drill for the first time, I was able to flow in and out of rotations, and I built a nice groove with the rest of the team and really connected. That’s what I liked about the sport, but what I really loved about it was the community. It was so welcoming, and the team really felt like a second family.

When I graduated from middle school, I decided to leave the South End and head to University Prep (UPrep), an elite private school in the North End. When I walked onto UPrep’s campus, I was a bit taken aback. I didn’t see a single teacher of color until my third day there, and there were barely any students who looked like me. I was one of the few Native Hawaiian and Filipino students at my school. I was the only one from Mercer and one of the 16 students of color in my 86 person class. In middle school, I didn’t think about race because everyone looked like me in the South End, but now, in the North End, I couldn’t help but notice it — and privilege — all around me. My classmates were privileged, almost all white, and more “welcomed” by the institution. This lack of diversity and welcome, I would soon find out, extended to the ultimate field.

When I went to try out for the ultimate team, the first thing I noticed was that I was one of nine students of color out of the 35 people that tried out. Only four students of color made the varsity team of 17 players.

I couldn’t help but to compare UPrep’s ultimate team to what I experienced playing at Mercer. In middle school, we had coaches who worked with AGE UP, an ultimate outreach program for players of color, who taught us how our race was a factor in how people see us. AGE UP taught players about leadership, social justice, oppression, classism, sexism, and racism. They provided support for each of their players. I can recall times when our coach at Mercer would talk about AGE UP. About how our race will be seen differently on the field. We talked about ways to deal with that. Honestly, I didn’t see that at UPrep. There were small discussions that we had here and there about race, but those would only happen about once every two months. Yes, the school is mostly white, but a lot of students of color play sports there and stay quiet about their experiences if they don’t match those of their white teammates.

And I’m not the only one experiencing this kind of problem.

Ultimate at University Prep

I was not the only one who experienced or witnessed the microaggressions or felt the burden of race at UPrep. Due to my experiences, I started to speak to current UPrep players and alumni who expressed having similar experiences. We discussed things that seemed unfair and our experiences with the head coach.

“My coach would talk more critically with me, whereas with the other girls he would just praise them and give them certain pointers,” said Nubia Robles, UPrep class of 2020. “But with me and a couple other girls that are people of color, he would be like, ‘you gotta be like this, you have to throw like this, I expected this from you.’”

There were imbalances of playing time for players of color compared to white players, and it wasn’t entirely based on skill level. Players of color often have to overcome ignorance and (not so) subtle forms of discrimination in the ultimate community, which make it harder for them to get the time they deserve on the field. A current UPrep player said, “Students of color seem to have to ‘earn’ their playing time during practices throughout the week, and [one of the coaches] seems to always be ready to call out each of their mistakes.” These problems became frustrating for them because it seemed like “each time a student of color missed a practice, the coach would demand explanations, but when one of the white girls continuously misses practice, he never mentions anything,” and most of the time they still get more playing time. My former teammate tried to bring this to the attention of a coach at the beginning of the season, but they didn’t see much change.

For Nubia, me, and many other UPrep players of color, we faced the issue of our coach, a white male, unintentionally treating us differently.

“I think our coaches are good people who make choices based off of unintended biases, but when the patterns run so deep, it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt,” said one UPrep player who graduated this year.

Regardless of whether it’s the beginning of the season or closer to playoffs and states, the upper (mostly white) players receive the most playing time and attention. I felt like I had to prove to the coaches that I had the same skills the white players did. In my ninth grade year, Nubia and I experienced having to sit on the sidelines because the white players would automatically get put in even if they were brand new and inexperienced players. We didn’t play in our playoff game against Seattle Academy because the coaches didn’t think we had the potential to do well on the field. It’s hard when there’s that imbalance between players.

Recently, Mario O’Brien — the founder of RISE UP Ultimate, an online learning library, and a current club player for Seattle BFG — has coached at UPrep as the high school Varsity Boys and Girls co-head coach and the D1 middle school Girls head coach. When I asked Mario about this imbalance of playing time, he agreed that he’s seen a bit of this. He said that there were a couple factors, one being seniority. Although Mario hasn’t actively fought for the equal playing time for his players, he realizes what his impact was.

“It doesn’t matter what the reasons were, what matters is that it was there, and it was felt,” he said. “That’s my big takeaway. It doesn’t matter that there were reasons why certain people played more over others. It doesn’t matter that my intention was one thing. What matters is what the impact was. That’s one thing that I’m working on.”

As Mario looks back on his time there, he sees room for improvement. “I have not put any intentionality until right now,” he said. “I would say I never did as much at UPrep as I could have, and I think it just wasn’t on my radar yet.”

Looking back at it, something he would do to improve is have a season-long discussion and plan around equity and take time to talk to the players of color and ask them about their experiences.

Being One of the Only Players of Color on the Field

Often, when I or a fellow player of color steps onto the field, whether it is for a game or practice, it seems like we often need to put on a mask and hide certain parts of ourselves. Some players feel like they have to play a role, myself included.

According to Miko (Meeks) Pugal, a player and coach of color in the South End, “I needed to act clean, so I don’t get the representation of the South End that if you’re aggressive, you’re violent or hella shady. I had to put my white voice on and feel smaller. It felt like when I played other people, they just looked at us and I already felt like I didn’t belong, and that made me upset.”

Whether you have to put on a mask or play a role, there are still certain situations where you will be treated differently, where you will be seen as less than your white teammates. Your mistakes will be extrapolated to the point that people start talking about the school you go to or where you live, saying things like, “You know your team really gets by on their athleticism” or “Tell your player to stop playing like a thug.”

These microaggressions against a team of black and brown players are unfortunately common: the diverse team is seen as more aggressive because they are from a lower income neighborhood, or simply because they are black and brown. Even though white players do the exact same things as players of color, it’s the diverse team that faces backlash.

In his article for USA Ultimate last year addressing the impacts on players of color, Larry Melton wrote, “Khalif [El-Salaam] and Jesse [Bolton] believe the reason the majority of players don’t really know the Black struggle or minority struggle is that, unless they have a Black person on their team or they go seek out opportunities to be better informed, they simply don’t experience it. This is why it’s so important to spread ultimate to new communities and increase the diversity within the sport.” Without really knowing what your teammates or players of color are going through, it’s hard to change and really foster diversity within this sport.

Youth Club and College Experiences

Playing on a high school team has its ups and downs. You can either be really close to your whole team or just with a few teammates.

“It’s nice to see people like you,” said Robles. “We get together during practice and talk about stuff other girls don’t get. It’s nice because you get your own community, but it’s a little sad because you don’t get to mesh as well with the rest of your team. There’s different cliques, which can affect the team’s overall play because there isn’t chemistry on the field.”

There are often times when you don’t share the same connections or inside jokes with each other because your teammates may not come from the same background.

“It was hard for me; I would feel super isolated… there was a level where they don’t understand the stories I have. The things that lead me to use ultimate, why it’s super serious for me to play and why I choose to play,” said Pugal. For Pugal, ultimate wasn’t just about playing for fun. For a lot of people of color, me included, it is our outlet, our safe place.

“I play because there’s things in this world that I didn’t feel safe in and ultimate was the first place that I got to choose how I want to dictate that space,” said Pugal.

He found it difficult to balance competitiveness and using ultimate as a place that he was comfortable being in. “Me being brown or my homies being followed by cops isn’t going to stop because I’m playing ultimate,” he said. “I wear [my Black Lives Matter and Don’t Displace the Soufend shirts] to remind people that nowhere is safe for us, so we have to actively choose to make it safe.”

Often, that’s the reality for players of color. You can have the feeling that you either belong or don’t on a team, and I’m sure close to every player of color has felt that at least once in their career. When you make a team solely for the reason to add diversity, you aren’t going to feel like you belong. You won’t feel like you earned that spot: it was just given to you, and that can hurt your self-esteem.

Growing up Cuban and Filipino and attending Aki Kurose middle school then Lakeside high school, Nariah Sims wanted to play on the most competitive teams possible, but they didn’t always want her. “Whenever I made teams when I was younger like YCC or Worlds, they would say I made it because they needed more diversity and not because of my skill,” she said. “I was told that as a joke from my friends and seriously from others that I shouldn’t be on those teams.” When you get told that at a young age, it really sticks with you, but it also makes you work harder and prove to everyone else that you do deserve to be here, and it’s not purely just to add diversity to the team.

Whether or not they realize it or make the decision consciously, many coaches make game decisions based on race. White coaches often make the assumption, for whatever reason, that players of color would only want to guard other players of color, when in reality you really just want to line up, play, and guard the strongest opponent regardless of their race. Jesse Bolton told me about a vivid memory from YCC: “I remember playing against Pittsburgh, and they put another black person on me and after the point he’s yelling at his teammates, ‘he’s the best player on the team! Why would you give me this matchup?’ And it seemed 100% racially involved like, ‘oh no, you’re both black, you should guard each other’ versus ‘well, we should probably put our better defender on him.’” The person that originally matched up on him walked off the field yelling at the leadership of his team, and the leadership was shocked because they made the assumption that that player would feel more comfortable matched up against Jesse instead of strategically thinking that a better defender should match up for better outcomes.

Assumptions and Standards Held Against People of Color

Coaches of color with an outside perspective know that there are tensions between players of color and white players and that it’s hard, because you know that the players have a right to be frustrated with what they deal with on the field. Pugal has seen his players face a lot over the years.

“A lot of our players get called for playing overly aggressive, music we listen to, how loud we are, being hella rowdy, all narratives that black and brown people are supposed to be smaller and take up less space. Those are the things we’ve experienced and it’s just hella annoying that we get micromanaged and looked at differently, when we have teams full of white boys doing the same thing we’re doing,” he said.

Being micromanaged and having a double standard held over your head at every game and tournament you go to is tiring. There are certain structures that we live in that don’t go away when we step onto the field, “so, every time you play your white opponent whether they know it or not, that race dynamic is there, that class dynamic is there.”

Playing through these structures is one thing but being micromanaged and scolded for things that everyone else is doing is taking it to another level. “Anytime I celebrate, it’s seen as aggressive, when a white person celebrates its energy and intensity,” said Bolton. “It doesn’t feel good when I’m being scolded for celebrating while others aren’t. It feels like a double standard.” There’s so many standards that players of color feel like they have to follow that at some point it feels like they can’t have fun on the field without feeling that they’ll be scolded for doing something that their white counterparts are doing.

You’ve probably heard some of the stereotypes about players of color.

Oh, you’re black you must be able to jump really high or run really fast…

You’re Asian you’re probably fast and sneaky…

Black people are really athletic…

Asians are robots…

Lili Gu has experienced some of these assumptions in college and even now at the club level. “I’ve seen those kind of things and when people see the assumption, ‘oh well you look like you should do this thing,’” she said. “And I’ve even been told by coaches when I’ve been like ‘are you sure you want me to do this, I’m not really sure what I’m doing’ they’ve been like ‘oh well, it’s a great thing you get to join the club of small Asian handlers.’”

When these assumptions are made, it makes you feel smaller, like you aren’t fully appreciated. Bolton said it well, “It feels like we’re put in a box, and white people aren’t put in boxes. They can mess up at something and be put somewhere else, be asked to do something else, and it’s like ‘well if you’re a person of color and you aren’t athletic and you can’t play defense and get a dump off, you’re not valuable.’”

Sometimes it’s hard to process and deal with these types of things when they happen on the field, especially if there’s no one there to help and support you. “There was a moment at College Nationals where I was the only player of color on the field and I was given a blue card when someone else, who was white, went into my back and blindsided me, but I was given a card for it because I was being ‘aggressive,’” said Sims. When she got the blue card, perhaps it was because people make those assumptions — subconsciously thinking brown people are aggressive. Your family may tell you that it will happen on the field, but it doesn’t prepare you for the moment it actually happens: no one teaches you how to have those conversations.

Implicit Biases

In the last couple years of playing professional ultimate, Ryan Segal, a player for the AUDL’s Seattle Cascades, has noticed an implicit bias from some players on the field. When you add referees, he says, it’s taken to another level. He saw his younger Cascades teammates (who are players of color) consistently taking physical contact on offense, disrupted by fouls, getting ignored over and over again. Similar or even lighter contact with white players on his team would get instantly called.

“There’s this implicit bias and ignorance that some teams have because they come from a community that is so homogenous that it’s like a big echo-like vacuum of noise that at times, when they get out into the world as a whole, they’re just awful people,” said Segal. He said it was consistent, obvious, and incredibly frustrating for them when it was blatant they weren’t getting a fair shake.

There are times when implicit bias can be seen in leadership. The 2019 Seattle Cascades season had room for improvement on that front. Brad Houser and Mark Burton, two white players, were picked as primary captains. Houser mentioned that there were a couple factors that aided that decision: people didn’t want to captain due to prior commitments and team managers didn’t see a player as a “good fit” as captain. “I don’t know what it is, but teams are afraid of change, and we really need to embrace it. Getting a new perspective in leadership will only broaden the scope of your team and allow growth,” Bolton said.

Burton and Houser did try to even out leadership by setting up five different committees: O-line, D-line, Workout, Spirit, and Social Justice. They made sure that the committees were represented by women, players of color, and younger players including Khalif El-Salaam, Marc Munoz, Dennis Casio, Kodi Smart, and Steph Lim. With this in place, most of the team was able to have a say in decision making, combatting some of that implicit bias, although there were still some places where the team could have done better. Bolton and Houser both agreed that the “talented roster was not fully utilized to [its] potential.”

AGE UP

There are ways to make ultimate more inclusive for all players. That’s something AGE UP strives to accomplish. The organization represents a way forward for making ultimate a more inclusive and equitable community.

“AGE UP is the intersection between coaching, understanding systems of oppressions, and doing work in the community through projects. All these different ways we can build around ultimate frisbee,” said Pugal.

AGE UP’s programming includes 10-week courses for those who identify as male and those who identify as female that offer a crash course of systems of oppression. They discuss racism, classism, sexism, and the limitations sexism has on men. AGE UP also reaches out to different community members in the South End that do social justice trainings, anti-racism work, anti-displacement work, and environmental justice, and they bring in facilitators to meet with the young people and run workshops so players know that “hey, there’s people in our community that are fighting for you and fighting with you.”

AGE UP is the perfect organization for players of color to feel connected to one another. It is also in the works of expanding its programming so that schools like UPrep have access to their opportunities for players of color.

***

“People will like you and you’ll be more comfortable with that. And people who don’t want to be around you won’t be around you and that’s just their loss.” -Jesse Bolton on just being yourself

Players of color should not have to change themselves, “act” more white, or put on a mask when they step onto the ultimate field in order to fit in or to make it easier for others to like them. Any ultimate players should be able to be themselves on and off the field and not have to worry about facing double standards, implicit biases, inequality, or exclusion. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. These issues have and have had a negative impact on players of color. Moving forward, we should strive to create a better environments for players from all backgrounds.

Programs like AGE UP could inspire more discussions around race and equality both in ultimate and in schools. Some people might not see it, but independent schools are much like the ultimate field. Schools also have double standards for students of color. Teachers believe students of color should behave more like the white students. Microaggressions that go unnoticed by white students and teachers are vivid and can be traumatic. Unintended exclusion by teachers and coaches go over the heads of some, but add on layers of hurt. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore or hope these subtle forms of racism will go away. We need to feel their presence, acknowledge them, and act to change them.

When I first started playing, it was because of that community I joined at Asa Mercer. I thought I would have something like that at UPrep, but I was wrong. I hoped for that sort of experience, but it’s not the same community I was a part of before. Yes, I was a part of a community within my team with the other players of color and a few of the white players, but we weren’t as close as I hoped. I’ve had similar experiences on my club teams too. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a community where everyone is close; I do believe that we can achieve it together. It’s just something that all players and coaches have to collectively work towards.

  1. Shylynn Rodrigues
    Shylynn Rodrigues

    Shylynn Rodrigues is a current high school senior at University Prep in Seattle, WA. She currently plays for the UPrep Girls Varsity team as both a cutter and handler and is one of the team’s captains. She has coached elementary and middle school ultimate at fall and summer camps. Her recent ultimate accomplishment is playing for DiscNW’s Seattle Blossom and earning gold at YCC 2019.

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