“I'd say we're in the zone where Black players are being outwardly proud of their race. I don't know what's gonna happen with, like, the 90% of the rest of the white population of ultimate.”
April 5, 2021 by Zoe Collins Rath in Analysis, Profile with 0 comments
Colton Green first saw ultimate at camp when he was in fifth grade. He currently plays in Dallas, where he is also a member of the Dallas Ultimate Association’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion board.
Jasmine Childress first started playing as a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara after a competitive career in volleyball through high school and undergrad.
Octavia “Opi” Payne, a former track athlete, started playing her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, and has since put together one of the most successful club and international careers of any player in the last decade.
Amel Awadelkarim started playing as a freshman at Penn State University in her hometown of State College, PA, and is now a graduate student at Stanford.
Takisha “TK” Tarvin was introduced to ultimate by her twin. Both played at the University of Oregon.
Each of these players had their own journey to ultimate: in different places, from different backgrounds, at different stages of their lives. Each has given time and care to the sport in various ways beyond playing. At the same time, each has been critical of the ultimate community because their Blackness has made it difficult for them to be there.
The United States has long created systems that disproportionately affect people of color, and sometimes the effects of those systems are felt within the sport of ultimate. Increasingly, Black players are discussing the racism they’ve experienced within their teams as well as on the field, and raising issues with the “Spirit of the Game” ethos as a tool for genuine respect and accountability. Their stories reveal elements of inequity and uneven power dynamics that can make community spaces toxic for players like them. At a time when people are clamoring to create a playing community that better represents the diversity of our society, that toxicity continues to turn Black players off from the game.
Colton was one of them.
Trouble In Texas
Days after the death of George Floyd in June 2020, a member of the UT Dallas women’s team posted an informal poll within the Discord server shared by the men’s and women’s programs for players to share steps they had taken to organize, protest, or learn about racial justice. In a series of conversations on the public server that have been reviewed by Ultiworld, a member of the men’s B team described the poll as a “witch hunt” intended to single out players who hadn’t taken action. Several players pushed back, including a Black member of the women’s team.
The men’s B team player reacted especially strongly to the Black women’s player, describing her comments as “racist” against white people. Subsequently, he and his sister posted cropped screenshots from the Discord to social media, tagging the university in what others received as an attempt to draw a punitive response.
Until Colton brought the problem to leadership, no major intervention was made. The B team player continued to single out the Black women’s player in the chat. When Colton addressed the B team player to say he didn’t understand what it was like to be Black, he was harassed with profane direct messages from the player and another teammate. After a brief suspension, the B team player was allowed back in the chat, then given another warning for verbal harassment of Colton. The B team player was banned for good a week later, and Colton led an equity meeting to help the program learn and move forward.
In September, when students were back on campus, the program attempted to host some pod practices. Colton expressed discomfort to team leadership about players who had defended and perpetuated anti-Black harassment being welcomed to play with the team. But according to Colton, it was a final conversation with the captains about their responsibility to racial justice that caused Colton to leave the program for good.
As he described it to Ultiworld, Colton confronted the team’s captains, saying they had been “silent on all the Black Lives Matter stuff” while he had been left to take on most of the work. The captains responded that, as equity chair, the work was Colton’s job, and it was his responsibility to tell them when they weren’t doing enough.
Feeling betrayed and not wanting to play where anti-Black speech would be given space, Colton publicly left the team. Woof put out a statement addressing his departure, and a program meeting followed. After the meeting, some people apologized to Colton, while others did not.
Colton has not returned to college ultimate, and a source from the team says they are working on new protocols.
Finding A Support System
TK is currently captain of the Oregon women’s team, Fugue. Her twin, who also played ultimate at Oregon, spent years attempting to convince her sister to try it. TK finally joined her a few years ago after a stint at Mount San Antonio College as a track athlete.
When TK came to Fugue, she had her twin beside her, and they were able to support one another in a mostly white space. But by 2019, her sister had run out of eligibility, and TK found herself on her own.
“Not having anybody of color was really hard,” she said.
Being the only person of color on a predominantly white team may have been hard, but TK was able to build a network of Black players elsewhere. She met many of them by simply introducing herself at tournaments, looking for people to talk to who could relate to her experiences — experiences that range from conversations with teammates skeptical of her management abilities to encounters on the field that left lingering impressions.
In one of those encounters, TK was guarding a player on a muddy day at sectionals her first year on the team. While trying to play tight defense on her matchup, the opposing player stopped for a catch. TK tried to halt her motion, but slid in the mud, colliding with the player and causing both to hit the ground. Recounting the incident, she recalled her person flailing and saying how TK was being “too aggressive.”
“And her coaches said, ‘What are you talking about? She just slipped,’” TK said, recalling how taken aback she felt because “everyone [was] slipping.”
Since her first year on the team, TK felt that there has been a lot of growth and change at Oregon. At first, a lot of the equity work was focused on gender inclusivity, and those talks were often optional. But recently, attending equity talks of any kind has been required for all players as Fugue prioritizes equity as a part of the entire team identity and not just a side project for a subset of the team.
“I feel like once you try to separate [equity conversations], it starts to feel like it’s its own thing, instead of being a part of the culture,” she said.
Jasmine is currently doing a Ph.D program at UC Santa Barbara, studying parasites in reptiles and amphibians. She is a passionate athlete who has played sports all her life: an Indiana state champion volleyball player at a powerhouse high school, she continued playing competitively as an undergrad at Florida Southern College.
“I was fostered in an environment that was, you celebrate your accomplishments and you celebrate even harder for your teammates’ accomplishments and you lift them up. I don’t play a sport tepidly,” she said.
In her first year at graduate school, she tried to play volleyball again, but a severe shoulder injury forced her out of the sport. The following year, she gave ultimate a chance, and her first practice was much like any other rookie who never played before.
“I was trash! I couldn’t throw to save my life,” she said. “And I did have a lot of fun.”
Chatting with others after practice, she was shocked to receive so many compliments for doing so well her first time playing. One person chimed in to say, “it’s genetics.”1 Frustrated and upset, Jasmine called her mom on the way to her car. With some humor, her mom was able to help Jasmine get past the day and give ultimate one more chance.
Now, Jasmine is a D-I College First Team All-American and part of the All-Black Core for the Disc Diversity Con10enT Tour. But the road to her current status as a star ultimate player has not been easy.
“Where I would say it gets worse is that the better I’ve gotten, the more that I see the field, the more I play, I’ve had some pretty shitty interactions with teams as a result,” she said.
One moment at the 2019 College Championships sticks out. It was a prequarters game, a Saturday evening matchup with Georgia for the chance to play North Carolina on Sunday morning. At halftime, Jasmine’s coaches had a “talk” to tell Jasmine that members of the other team felt “uncomfortable” with how she plays — in that case, the calls she was making. But Jasmine hadn’t made any calls to stop play.
Jasmine had been playing with her usual full intensity, but after that unsettling encounter, an extra gear kicked in. She told her teammates, “If you throw me the disc, I don’t care where I am on the field — I am going to catch it.”
While no stranger to intense competition, Jasmine says she had rarely felt so much like she truly became a different person as she did during that game. After skying two Georgia players, with no celebrations on the field and the air boiling around her, Jasmine felt something new and uncomfortable. She felt she was playing in “one of the best performances of my life, in what was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
The game was becoming chippy between players, and parents were yelling obscenities. A potential score ruled a turnover by one observer over the disagreement of their partner further escalated the contentious mood. The game ended with a UCSB victory, but the weight of a season with multiple strange “talks” came falling down on Jasmine. As the team celebrated making the quarterfinals, she cried in her mom’s arms.
While UCSB advanced in the bracket, Saturday’s game still hung over them on Sunday because Georgia had issued them a spirit score of zero. A score that low can signal the need for a conversation between team leaders and tournament officials, and even serious questions about whether the team can continue in the tournament.
“I’m really proud of our team’s performance,” said Jasmine. “But you can imagine the mental toll — that an entire team has to go and defend their performance at a game, because another team has the power to potentially kick you off because they don’t like you.”
Spirit of the Game is the phrase by which ultimate distinguishes itself from other sports, an ethos of accountability and mutual respect supposedly woven into the game by virtue of the self-officiation system. However, a structure driven by players’ perceptions of events means that, not only can the rules can be consciously exploited, but players’ own judgment can be weighted with bias. A person who makes a call carries a lot of power over their opponent, and can hold their discomfort with that opponent over them in a way that has real consequences in the game — even if their opponent is simply playing with energy and competitive enthusiasm.
Jasmine’s story from 2019 is one example of a team giving low spirit scores because of their discomfort with the actions of others on the field — whether that discomfort is justified or not. But biases and preconceptions about spirit makes their way onto the world stage of ultimate as well.
Opi has played in the college and club divisions. Outside her career as a Black woman who codes, she plays ultimate in the Bay Area, internationally, and is part of Disc Diversity’s Con10enT Tour, she’s seen implicit bias appear in those settings, too.
After a game against Colombia in the 2016 World Ultimate and Guts Championships, the US women’s national team was discussing what spirit scores to give their opponents. According to Opi, some were suggesting a low overall score, with justifications including teammates “yelling at each other” or “yelling at a player who made a mistake.”
Recounting the incident to Ultiworld, Opi said, “That’s not our business. We don’t know the kind of dynamic that those players have with each other [and] what they were saying to each other, because they’re not speaking English… and there is a cultural thing.”
A page on USA Ultimate’s new website dedicated to Spirit of the Game’s intersection with bias acknowledges that “often without even knowing it, we make assumptions and judgments based on stereotypes that have unconsciously formed pieces of our perspective and worldview.” In one game, a team communicating internally and according to its own team dynamic was judged negatively by another team against its own team culture, ignoring the cultural differences that might create varying expectations for “spirited” behavior.
Amel, a daughter of immigrant parents from Sudan who now plays club with Opi on San Francisco Fury and another member of Disc Diversity’s Con10enT Tour, also raised issues with official guidance for spirit scores. “It’s already written in a template of conflict and tone policing and pretending that spirit equals high fives, kudos, gifts…”
“The scorecard is such a biased representation of what spirit is,” said Amel, who has often been in the position of spirit captain through her ultimate career. “The metric we’re trying to score teams on is ‘did you play nice, were you not very physical, did you communicate politely with each other’… It’s a superficial depiction of what spirit is.”
“Spirit needs to be defined differently,” she continued. “Spirit is playing the game within the rules, honoring your opponent as a competitor, and playing within the rules of trying to win. That’s what I feel like a spirited game is.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
The updated guidance on USAU’s website for reconciling Spirit of the Game with bias in the community states that spirit timeouts may be used when spirit captains “feel bias might be impacting game play or causing conflict between the teams.” But unless programs and communities do work of their own to make sure they can recognize bias in action, then the players disproportionately affected by that bias will continue to suffer.
Colton suggested that USAU should require implicit bias training for all its members. “I know they have the capability of doing that, because they have coaching quizzes [and] I did quizzes on their website, so they can clearly do it,” he said.
Jasmine has completed anti-racism and implicit bias training for her Ph.D program, but she believes that those trainings are not helpful for people of color and fail to address the real root of racial issues. She is already familiar with the information these trainings can provide, and she does not want to be in a space where people address their white guilt to her, approaching her afterwards with statements that start “I just never realized…”
Hearing those epiphanies placed on her makes her feel the realization is shallow, and that people need to do more. “Players and coaches with their biases, implicit and explicit, the looking inward to ask if what you’re doing off the field — or, A) are you doing anything off the field, and B) is that bullshit [and] performative, and what is your actual goal?” she said.
As long as biases — including racism and anti-Blackness — impact the game, they will continue to turn players away. Even Black players who remain in the sport may choose to realign their priorities away from ultimate, or avoid fully investing in relationships within the community like they might if that community took less and gave more for players like them.
“In the past few years, I started distancing myself or stopped investing in friendships that I would have considered meaningful or close relationships. When I tally my experiences, a lot of the good only happened because I was willing to accommodate or meet them where they were,” said Opi.
But there is an awakening occurring: Black players sharing experiences with racism in the community, prioritizing their needs in the ultimate space, and being unapologetically Black.
“I’d say we’re in the zone where Black players are being outwardly proud of their race. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with, like, the 90% of the rest of the white population of ultimate,” said Amel.
Now, that pride is being directed toward creating a greater sense of equity in the sport, and players are demanding change within their programs and their communities. These are only some of their stories.
“Someone or some generation has to be the first one to start paving the way,” said TK.