The AUDL Inclusion Initiative Didn’t Take 2020 Off

Even in a year without play, the Aii's work has pointed the way toward a stronger and more equitable future for the league.

Matt Smith (center) with the Atlanta Hustle in 2017. Smith co-chairs the AUDL Inclusion Initiative. Photo: Daniel Thai —
Matt Smith (center) with the Atlanta Hustle in 2017. Smith co-chairs the AUDL Inclusion Initiative. Photo: Daniel Thai —

America had a racial reckoning in 2020. The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement reached new heights of visibility after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others sparked nationwide protests. With many organizations looking anew at their own equity and racial justice efforts, the role for the American Ultimate Disc League’s own diversity, equity, and inclusion group is clearer than ever.

The idea for a focused equity project gained momentum within the league at the end of the 2019 season, with many smaller conversations about race in ultimate bubbling up as teams gathered for Championship Weekend. A few months later, the AUDL announced the formation of the AUDL Inclusion Initiative (Aii), with a goal to “increase racial, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity and awareness within the sport of ultimate.” Just over a year later, the Aii has been solidified as a core part of the AUDL’s organization as the league addresses racial inequity in the sport.

Established members of AUDL leadership formed the core of the Aii: the committee is co-chaired by Christina Chung, the league’s Chief Medical Officer and co-owner of the Philadelphia Phoenix, and Matt Smith, Director of Player Relations and Youth Engagement and a player for the Atlanta Hustle; league commissioner Steve Hall is also a member. To fill out the rest of the Aii, the league put out a call to players and coaches across the league.

“I’m a teacher, and so it felt like it was right up my alley in terms of education and discussion and just trying to take as many steps forward as possible,” said Michael Kiyoi, an Aii committee member and Los Angeles Aviators handler. Kiyoi got involved by replying to an email from the committee to all league players asking who would be willing to join the Aii. “I’ve been playing ultimate for a long time [and] I’ve noticed a lot of things over the years, and I felt like it was time to try to do something more about it.”

Dave Woods, the Chicago Union coach, answered a similar call to coaches across the league. “It’s a personal philosophy of mine not to just pay lip service to causes that you are passionate about,” he said. “It is much better to get involved than it is to just, like, say that you are passionate about things.”

In his introductory interview, Woods shared with Chung and Smith that he had not heard of the project, at that point a few months old, and wanted to promote it more. He is now one of the committee members in charge of writing the Aii’s quarterly newsletter, which aims to tell the stories of players of color around the league as well as sharing with the public what the committee is working on.

Rather than focusing on league-wide objectives, the Aii serves as a resource to help volunteers take the lead on specific equity initiatives, giving them the liberty to spearhead projects with backing from the AUDL. The committee as a whole is divided into subcommittees that tackle their respective projects, and because of this member-driven structure, the Aii often has multiple projects in motion at once. Smith described one Aii member who wanted to reach out to the Latinx population. The larger committee then explored ways to pursue that goal and support concrete steps toward it, such as translating documents and the AUDL’s Ultimate 101 video into Spanish and sourcing bilingual players to help make that content.

The AUDL has also used its pandemic-induced hiatus from play to focus on education and community-building throughout the league. In September 2020, the league announced it had partnered with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a national nonprofit that focuses on education and empowerment in the sports world to improve race relations and advocate for social justice.1 “We saw the urgent need to provide more diversity training, education, engagement, and action for our players and staff,” Steve Hall said in that announcement. “This is a very important time to make changes, and it’s just the first step on a long path.”

The Aii committee has already completed a training with RISE facilitators, as have coaches across the league. While coaches shared tips and best practices for leading conversations about race within their teams, RISE is also expected to facilitate training with each team once the 2021 rosters are settled. “In order to have the kind of culture shift that is required in this space, everybody needs to be onboard and receiving the same message — players, coaches, owners, and staff,” said Hall in the Winter 2021 Aii Newsletter.

At first glance, one might guess that the RISE programming for AUDL teams (primarily white, part-time players) might differ from RISE’s training for for NBA and NFL teams (primarily Black players who could be millionaires), but the content RISE offers is mostly the same. “Whether we are Black, white, tall, short, yellow, or brown, what we want typically boils down to some very similar things: to be treated with respect, to realize our goals for our families and loved ones,” said Dr. Andrew Mac Intosh, RISE’s Vice President of Curriculum. “So our approach to this discussion is a recognition of what has happened historically and that continues to happen around systems of inequity, but really getting people to have a discussion about how they might fix and address that.”

“I think the RISE partnership has really been great,” said Chung. “Everybody comes from a different culture, everybody comes from a different perspective, everybody comes from a different generation, and certainly that is true of all companies, corporations, businesses, schools, whatever. [So] we are not only engaging Aii leadership, but we are also engaging coaches, players, staff and administrations. I find it really interesting participating, as a POC female of my generation, in these conversations.”

Facilitating conversations about race among teams is an important first step, but Aii members’ goals go further than that. “Ideally, ultimate would have the same breakdown in terms of ethnicity as your surrounding areas,” said Kiyoi, who coaches a majority Latinx team in Santa Barbara. “If you have a large Black population, you’d hope you have a lot of Black young people, and hopefully adults, playing the game. If you have a big Latino community, like I do, you hope there’s more Latino students playing.”

“Ultimate will never be quite as competitive as it can be, or it won’t reach the level of competition that it can, [until] we have equal representation from everyone in the country,” Woods said. “We’re not going to get the top, top athletes if we are only getting one demographic of people.”

Organizers hope the Aii’s impact will be felt beyond the league and its teams. “If you go back to RISE and its mission,” Mac Intosh said, “it’s about educating and empowering the sports community. And we were very deliberate in choosing the words ‘sports community,’ because for us that goes beyond those who are just playing. For us, those are the coaches, those are the administrators, those are the fans … Sport has, for us, that power to draw out people to put aside differences and have some of the tougher, challenging, necessary conversations.” In keeping with that focus, the Aii, has also hosted YouTube panels discussing race in ultimate and anti-racism for followers of the league.

While the AUDL is not perfect, its existence as a semi-professional league creates the potential for a kind of racial and socioeconomic equity distinct from what USA Ultimate’s self-funded club and youth divisions can offer. “If we can get students, young people of color playing the sport,” Kiyoi said, “and — nothing against club, but if they can’t afford it, but they can get on an AUDL team — that’s awesome. Because then they’re not spending a ton of money to play the sport, in fact they’re making a little bit of money, and they’re still playing high-level ultimate.”

Other semi-professional leagues have also made focused efforts to promote social justice in and through the sport, as well as equitable structures within the leagues themselves. In 2020, the Premier Ultimate League established the PUL Foundation as a nonprofit to promote equity in ultimate and across sport, focusing much of its resources for the year on internal equity consulting and creating leadership positions for BIPOC members. Likewise, the Western Ultimate League spent much of 2020 on social justice efforts, both league-wide and on the team level. Outside these leagues, institutions like USA Ultimate and its affiliates have also taken steps to focus on racial equity in addition to the gender equity work that has been a visible presence in the sport for many years.

The AUDL hopes to have a similar impact, continuing to prioritize the work of the Aii as ultimate moves toward a return to play and — perhaps — a more just, equitable future for the game.

  1. RISE also has partnerships with the NFL, NBA, NHL, USTA, ESPN, and NBC Sports Group, among others. 

  1. Alex Rubin
    Alex Rubin

    Alex Rubin started writing for Ultiworld in 2018. He is a graduate of Northwestern University where he played for four years. After a stint in Los Angeles coaching high school and college teams, they moved to Chicago to experience real seasons and eat deep dish pizza. You can reach Alex through e-mail ([email protected]) or Twitter (@arubes14).

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