We Don’t Need Saviors, We Need Proponents

One woman’s experience as a player and coach of ultimate

This piece was guest-written by Leslie Keller, coach of HB Woodlawn’s Pandamoniom, and player on the DC-based Women’s Club Team, Grit

Before I coached, I felt like I experienced sexism in Frisbee all the time. In college, our girls team would go to the boys sidelines when we were at the same tournaments and cheer them on. Our byes were split between supporting our Men’s team and scouting out the competition for our next game. We never got the same courtesy from the Men’s A team. We mostly got heckled and criticized, and only if they bothered to come support us at all. It’s not because they are bad people, it’s just the perception. Women’s Ultimate isn’t serious.

Playing mixed in WAFC, the level of sexism was unbelievable. I have never felt so uncomfortable being a female athlete as I did playing Advanced League. If a girl on the other team scored off a deep cut just ONCE, the guys would call in a huddle and say that if she goes deep again, a guy should drop off and take her. I said, “it was one deep cut, I think the girls are covering her just fine”. I was ignored. I also wasn’t thrown to for the rest of the game.

If your girl scored on you, at least one guy would approach you on the sideline and tell you what you did wrong. “You really need to stay closer in the endzone so she isn’t so open on the break side.” Nothing was said to the guy on the mark that got broken. (I imagine a bunch of guys reading this and getting very defensive. Think about it. Really, really think about if you are more likely to be critical of a woman’s play than a man’s.)

After one particularly upsetting game, I quit. Halfway through the WAFC season I decided I would never play mixed again, and I haven’t. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking my mind and telling all these “elite” male players that I thought their attitude sucked and they were being blatantly sexist to the very same girls they desperately needed in order to have a team. I was so discouraged that I almost quit Frisbee all together, but then a coaching opportunity came up.

As a coach, you advocate for players in ways that you may never feel confident enough to do for yourself. It’s bigger than you. It’s about them. It’s about the determination you see from them every day at practice. It’s about how seriously they take themselves and the sport. It’s about the respect they deserve for their time and their effort and the talent that they have developed.

Since becoming a coach, I’ve still seen and experienced a lot of sexism in Ultimate. The difference is this time, I’m not taking it. There is no reason that these young women in Ultimate should receive anything but equal recognition for their accomplishments or that they shouldn’t be taken just as seriously as their male counterparts.

The reaction to this, however, is often to treat girls like they’re playing with a crutch. Treating someone like they need your help in order to be successful or like they need to be coddled is NOT empowering. It’s like saying, “okay, the girls aren’t getting the disc, so every other throw has to be to a girl.” Great! That will make female athletes feel very respected — boys won’t throw to them unless forced! Not only that, but they are being treated like they are incapable of earning respect based on their actual talent and value to their team. It’s not a man’s responsibility to “give” women a turn to play because they are in a position of power and they can. It IS a man’s responsibility to see past his own biases and throw to open women the same way he would playing with men. We need proponents of Women’s Ultimate, not saviors.

After already fighting against some brazen sexism that season, I was optimistic when, last spring, the HB Girls Varsity squad went to a tournament aimed at emphasizing the Youth Women’s division equally to the Youth Men’s division. The idea was that a high level of competition would be provided for both Open and Women’s programs. The problem was that some “special events”, including a “halftime show” with a sprint race and pulling contest, (which were run by Pro-Ultimate Players from North Carolina) undermined the Women’s Championship game.

After the tournament, the organizers requested feedback. This is what I sent them:

I apologize for the delay in this response, I needed to think about this for a while before I wrote it. I really appreciated the idea behind the tournament, but I definitely had some issues with the way the women’s finals were played. I coach the HB Varsity Girls (Pandamonium) and I felt like there was actually a lot of reinforcement that women’s ultimate ISN’T as important as Men’s Ultimate, rather than the other way around.
I was under the impression that the “halftime show” was for the other girl’s teams to participate in rather than the teams actually competing. I thought it was a way to encourage other girls teams to stay and watch the finals. My team and I were very surprised when the professional players came over and asked who from our teams wanted to participate. It was a super intense game and we only had 15 minutes until hard cap, so we barely wanted to take half at all. We did end up agreeing to it because both coaches agreed to stop the clock and then pick it back up once the competition was over.
During the competitions, the professional players were pretty condescending. They didn’t take the girls seriously, which was especially obvious when they didn’t even stay to watch the last 15 minutes of our game. It was clear they showed up to “help women’s ultimate” and then just left when their part was over. It actually totally undermined women’s ultimate because if they really wanted to “help women’s ultimate” they should have just watched our finals game and been supportive and taken it as seriously as they do men’s ultimate. That’s what He4She is supposed to be about, right? At the end of all of that, the prizes they gave were men’s jerseys and our second place trophy was a men’s trophy.
Ultimate is already a sport that isn’t taken very seriously, but Women’s Ultimate is taken even less seriously, even by men who play the sport. But the way to fix that isn’t by bringing male players in and having them run some activity to make them feel like they’ve helped the cause. The way to fix it is to actually change the way men see Women’s Ultimate by having them watch it and learn to support it for what it is. Not comparing it to Men’s Ultimate, not heckling girls from the sidelines, but actually watching and understanding the strategy behind what we do and truly seeing what amazing athletes these young women are.
I really do think it was a great idea, but Women’s Ultimate isn’t what needs to be changed and uplifted, it is already awesome! Men need to learn to see it as equal to their own athletic endeavors so that more women can feel supported and welcome to join as their driven, feminine, athletic, strategic, smart, kind, confident, and bad ass selves. Thank you for your time and I hope that you continue to fight for equality in Ultimate!

I never heard back from the organizers, but I stand by what I said. Women’s Ultimate doesn’t need anyone’s “help”. Anyone who actually takes the time to watch it and makes an effort to understand it can see that it’s amazing! (Quote from Professional Male Player from sideline of championship game: “Wow! She’s actually pretty good!”) (Girls on my team heard it and came and told me. He left before I could throw my clipboard at him.) What needs to change is how Women’s Ultimate is perceived, particularly by men, but also by women, too. It is easier to stand up for other players, and while we should all keep doing that, we also need to work harder to stand up for ourselves as individuals, as well. We’re taught that being outspoken and arguing for ourselves is an unattractive quality in a woman. Well, we’re already completing amazing athletic feats that general society says aren’t for females either, so why stop there? It only takes one woman standing up for herself and being her own advocate for other women to feel more confident and comfortable doing the same. It’s what’s happening now. One person speaks out, and then another, and before we know it, we’ve created a movement. I hope that as these incredibly talented athletes that I coach go off to college, they never experience what many of us did during our time. I hope that because women are vocal and unapologetic about changing the perception of our sport, men learn how to see through the social structures that make them believe we aren’t serious. Because we are serious. And we’re more than “actually pretty good”. By the way, don’t worry, we fixed the Men’s trophy they gave us:

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