Putting On A Jersey Doesn’t Cover My Blackness

If the ultimate community doesn’t change, BIPOC players will continue to feel excluded and ignored at all levels of the sport.

Photo Credit: Christy Chen

I began playing ultimate during the spring of 2019, my freshman year at Oberlin College. For me, this was a second chance at college.

During the fall semester of my freshman year, I had been through a lot: a close friend from home passed away unexpectedly and the grief really took a toll on me. Because of this, I didn’t get to do the typical freshman fall stuff like join clubs or make many new friends. I was really struggling in school and planning on transferring or taking a year off.

That’s where I was mentally when I was introduced to the Preying Manti, Oberlin’s D-III Women’s division ultimate program. I quickly fell in love with the team; the sheer amount of positivity on and off the field made me feel at home. It was nice to have a new group of friends that didn’t know of my previous struggles.

I joined the Manti’s B team that spring of my freshman year — the same season that the A team would go on to win the D-III National Championship. It was then that I decided to try out for the A team in the fall. I spent that summer playing club in Cleveland on Notorious CLE, using it as a time to train for fall tryouts. I was excited for a chance to play with the Manti in the fall of 2019. They were the talk of D-III Ultimate at the time; two of our captains spent that summer in Heidelberg playing at U-24 Worlds, so the Manti were given a spotlight.

After successfully joining the A team roster the fall of my sophomore year, the team was happy to benefit from my athleticism. With my new skills from club came extra attention from captains. I got a lot of playing time in the fall and was even put on the universe line a handful of times. One of the captains told me in private, “I don’t think we can win Nationals again without you.” I felt useful, like I had a place on the team because of that statement. I didn’t want to be a burden to our team (something that stressed out many new A-Team players). There was a lot of pressure on the team to win again or at least rank highly in the division, and everyone knew it. So much time was spent thinking about Nationals and not checking in on how players felt about it.

It is hard for me to pinpoint when the microaggressions began, honestly. I am from the South and, like many other Black people, I’ve grown up learning to ignore them out of survival. There was one teammate in particular who said a majority of the hurtful things. This person knew me well enough to know that I was used to hearing racist comments from my background, so she knew that I wouldn’t filter them out, and, to get my attention, she decided to push the envelope. As time went on, this person said worse and worse things. One night in a hotel room during a tournament, seven teammates were present and an extremely racist comment that was pointed at me was said by this same teammate. Silence followed until someone else changed the subject to fill the silence. The comment was harmful enough to be noticed by a white teammate, who checked in on me afterwards to see if I was okay.

This was the only support I ever received.

Not long after this comment was made, I met with a team safety coordinator, known as a SafetyCo (an elected position that we have to help mediate teammate conflicts), to let them know that this incident had occurred. I specifically stated that I did not want any confrontation with the harmful person, knowing that it would blow up in my face if I did so. They inquired about the fact that the hurtful comment was said in front of others. I was told it would be handled, but I wasn’t told how. There was never any follow up that I know of from that specific incident.

After that, I met with not one but two captains (we have three per team) to discuss the various ways that this teammate had hurt and harassed me. Again, nothing. If there was any follow-up, I was not informed. This teammate was a senior and was present on the championship team. She was graduating soon, so the general consensus was to “wait it out” and not take action because this person had put in so many hours on the field and was talented at the sport.

This taught me that our community values athleticism over addressing our racism. The team prioritizes winning a national championship over caring about its Black members. With this “wait it out” mindset, it allows for harmful but skilled players to graduate from their college teams and play for club teams without being properly educated, thus making the larger culture of ultimate worse, and continuing harm as players move from college to club.

On the surface, the Preying Manti has portrayed itself as a group of underdogs that strive to create an inclusive environment. Compared to other Ohio colleges, we’re considered very progressive. But even liberal arts colleges are predominantly white and financially inaccessible. Those barriers are reflected in our team demographics. We had a captain who claimed, “there’s a lot of effort and resources being put towards inclusivity at all levels.” One of the first things I learned is that all of our cheers are gender-neutral to make sure everyone is included. But that’s just one level; the same mindfulness is not applied to talking about race. There was never a conversation about how to care for and value BIPOC team members. Having played club in the Cleveland scene, it was very similar: there were no team conversations about race or gender identity. The Manti have the capacity and resources to be able to have crucial conversations about identity, yet they actively chose not to talk about race.

Since Black voices are being uplifted everywhere, I took this past summer to call out the Manti on Instagram and share the incidents of racism that I dealt with while playing with them.

A second Manti Captain was quoted saying, “You can achieve any goals based on the dedication and love that you put into your team.” I thought I did all the right things. I committed myself fully to the sport and I supported my teammates on and off the field. I loved this team like no other. And yet I was still harassed because of the color of my skin. Putting on a jersey doesn’t cover my Blackness. It was silly of me to think that I could ever call this team my family. The same captain said, “The happiest and most beneficial team is one where every person feels valued and loved.” I agree. I just wish they had worked harder at making the team a safe place for everyone and not just their white friends.

Despite being recently awarded for her leadership and Spirit of the Game, that captain had one of the worst reactions to my posts. When I first called out the team, I anticipated a response from this captain, now an Oberlin alumna. And when that didn’t come, I expressed my disappointment to her. She said her intention wasn’t to ignore me and we scheduled a time to meet. In that meeting, she didn’t apologize for her complicity in the harm I experienced and later claimed that she didn’t want to burden me by putting me in a position of having to forgive her. Instead, she said she wanted to jump into action items. I have not seen any change in Manti culture or behavior from the work she claims she has done. I got a long apology text from her after I again expressed my disappointment that she did not acknowledge her anti-Blackness during our meeting. When I publicly expressed my distaste for how this captain handled the situation, multiple teammates came to her defense and lost sight of the whole purpose of my movement.

I was surprised by how quickly the team defended one another especially because many of my teammates admitted that they were not surprised that the one particular player who made racist comments to me was harmful. Additionally, a former SafetyCo spoke to me in private about the harmful player’s previous instances of racism against a former Black teammate. The SafetyCo attempted to have a conversation with the harmful player, and the player’s response was to start crying. What was even more disheartening to hear was that the former captains all knew that this player made transphobic comments, so they were also not surprised to hear that the player was racist. Why did no one on my team call out this harm or acknowledge the potential for harm from the player? Why did this burden fall on me, one of the few Black players on the team?

I am not trying to “cancel” anyone or my team as a whole. Rather, I want my team to be better and the first step is acknowledgment from both current and past players and captains. In order to work towards being anti-racist, one has to take ownership of their past actions before they can move forward and genuinely participate in this work. This isn’t an unreasonable ask: most of my other teammates took the time to reexamine how they were complicit in this harmful team culture and were able to discuss it at length with me in a productive manner.

After posting my Instagram story, I received a handful of stories from other college ultimate players who have experienced racism on their teams. Incidents like what happened to me are not unique to D-III ultimate, women’s ultimate, or Oberlin ultimate: it’s everywhere in this sport. Racism permeates through.

Not long after, I went to the captains and alums with a list of eight demands that would help protect BIPOC players on the Manti. Some of the demands are:

  • Constructing a clear list of steps to take when someone reports an instance of racism or discrimination from a teammate.
  • Manti (current and alums) who have caused harm should be no longer considered a part of the team and therefore not allowed at any team events.
  • The team (from all of the team’s social media) needs to release a statement addressing their own anti-Blackness and outlining commitments they will make to prevent future harm and work towards being anti-racist.

Because I received a handful of statements from other college players who had similar issues on their teams, I wanted to make sure that the ultimate community could see our dedication and commitment to change. Whether the Manti acknowledge it or not, we have a relatively large platform; we won a championship and had two world champions on our team. I believe that it would be criminal to not use our platform.

As of December 2020, none of these demands have been fulfilled. But recruiting events and practices still took place this fall. Once again, the team prioritized having fun and playing ultimate over confronting their racism. Why bring new players into this harmful environment? Ignoring these demands shows BIPOC players just how little they matter on this team.

What worries me more than anything is having players graduate from college, uneducated on how to be anti-racist in a team setting and causing harm in the greater ultimate community. Having played a season of club, I can acknowledge how hard it is to educate older players. In college, it is easier to live and breathe ultimate because the team can become your second family, if you let it. If all college teams step up to the challenge of educating their players on how to be actively anti-racist, players could take that mindset with them as they continue their ultimate careers. It wouldn’t fix ultimate entirely, but it would be a step in the right direction. Educating these younger players at the beginning of their ultimate careers will allow for community growth in a healthy way. If the ultimate community doesn’t change, BIPOC players will continue to feel excluded and ignored at all levels of the sport.

BIPOC players are a crucial part of ultimate history and the future of ultimate. If things don’t change, BIPOC players will leave and take their much-needed talents elsewhere, to other sports and other communities. Will a sport that prides itself on including everyone leave behind its most important group of players?

  1. Natalie Soord
    Natalie Soord

    Natalie Soord is a player for Oberlin Preying Manti.

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