An Open Letter to Minnesota Ultimate

Dear Minnesota Ultimate,

Let us introduce ourselves: We are a group of teenagers, we attend a diverse range of schools throughout the state of Minnesota, we are athletes, students, community members, leaders, ultimate players and activists. We represent our state at the Youth Club Championships, our teams rank within the top 25 high school teams in the country, we brought multiple teams to high school Centrals and altogether we make up one third of Minnesota high school players and a large portion of the women who play high school ultimate nationally.

We would like to begin this letter by thanking you for your work, for organizing our tournaments and league games, recruiting the volunteers needed for these events to run smoothly and working hard so that we can play this incredible sport. We appreciate the work you do.

We will make many requests in this letter and ask that you hear us out, keep an open-mind, respect our stories, and help us create changes that will make Minnesota Youth Ultimate more equitable and inclusive.

Inspired by the recent national Food, Frisbee, and Feminism campaign, we as female ultimate players came together to have our own conversations about gender equity within the high school and YCC programs. Our conversations were reflective, empowering and necessary as we learned that as young female athletes we share a lot of the same struggles for gender equity within our own programs, with male teammates, and our YCC experiences.

The consolidation of our stories has led us to identify a few main problems that discriminate against and exclude female ultimate players in the youth program. Before we introduce our stories we want to mention that the key to growth as a community is conversation. All of the problems and solutions we introduce in this letter can only be addressed if we as a community and you as our authority are committed to having conversations, engaging in productive dialogue and holding each other accountable

1) Inequity within the YCC programs

There are two perspectives that reveal the inequity of the Minnesota YCC programs: the feelings of the women who participated on the mixed team and those who play on the women’s team. Both are concerning and need to be addressed in the coming season.

The Superior women’s team has repeatedly struggled to succeed at the Youth Club Championships. As said by this year’s captain, Jacalyn Gisvold,“Overall, I felt that our resources and organization were significantly lacking in comparison to the open team.”

The women’s team had two consistent coaches throughout the year. This can be compared to the 4 coaches of the open team and the 6–7 who attended mixed practices. Additionally, unlike the open team, the u16 and u19 women had to consolidate and practice together which lead to a difficulty in creating chemistry. The practices were also open to non-rostered players which caused a relaxed practice environment further creating attendance problems. By the end of the season, a scrimmage with Snap revealed there was little chemistry among players and coaches going into the tournament.

This dynamic has been present for many years. The women’s program is understaffed leading to a variety of problems that impact play and competitiveness. This caused a large amount of women to tryout for the mixed team in the past season in hopes of more productive coaching and a competitive environment. Coaching staff wasn’t a problem for the mixed team, however, dangerous play combined with not throwing to or involving women on-field created a team that was not as successful as they had hoped.

Mixed women were told by their coaches to have a more positive attitude when addressing the fact that they weren’t being thrown to, were injured by the plays of their teammates, constantly had to prove their athleticism, feared mistake would result in not being involved on-field, were looked off constantly, and coached by their peers.

These are familiar problems that we see in conversations about mixed play on the club level. The treatment of female players on-field and the concerning attitude towards the female team members went without consequence from authority figures.

Currently our dilemma as women going into the new season is that playing mixed means the possibility of playing a game and never touching the disc whereas playing women’s means a less competitive ultimate experience. This is a choice we shouldn’t have to make as model players for the state paying significant fees to participate. Compared to the other programs Minnesota open teams were extremely successful.

Women’s ultimate is strong. Minnesota should be proud of our women. The lack of resources, organization, and value placed on women’s programs and women who play mixed does not send the message that we are a state who values gender equity or the growth of women’s ultimate.

Our requests for YCC are as follows:

- Equal coaching for each team. No team is more valuable than another and every player deserves the opportunity to grow and represent our state to the best of their abilities.

-Coaches and players need to be committed to promoting gender equity. We need to see our coaches holding all players to the same standard. Countless times we have been cut off on field, looked off, injured, been insulted or overheard sexist comments without interference or consequences from our authority figures. We believe that this can be prevented through organized conversations about equity but only if additionally we have explicit consequences for inappropriate actions and comments.

-Mixed women are not to be held accountable for the inequitable actions of their teammates. Additionally, in community conversations about equity, female players are given a space to talk, be heard, and be respected.

-Lower price for play and introduce fundraising opportunities to make the program more affordable. YCC is expensive which isolates the opportunity to play and prevents diversification. As stated in the Minnesota Ultimate Mission “Strategy​ ​#2:​ ​Develop​ ​and​ ​manage​ ​robust​ ​programming​ ​for​ ​players​ ​of​ ​all demographics​ ​and​ ​capabilities….6.​ ​Expand​ ​programming​ ​for​ ​underrepresented​ ​groups.” neither of these can be done if opportunities to play ultimate are unavailable to some because of the economic burden. The previous opportunity to lower the playing price by recruiting family members to volunteer was very exclusive. Not everyone has a family that can take time out of their life to volunteer.

2) Youth Summer league is overwhelmingly a negative experience for women players

Youth summer league is often the first experience many players have with mixed ultimate. As a mandatory prerequisite for YCC, the players are often there without the desire to play mixed resulting in on and off-field problems with gender equity. Whereas on the YCC mixed team, where all the players have signed up to play on a mixed team, open players playing summer league have no introduction to thinking about how sexism is reflected on a mixed field.There are two main problems we as women’s players face in youth summer league:

-We aren’t thrown to. Women don’t play a role in youth summer league. There is an overwhelming consensus that in general, throws don’t go off to women on the field. This is detrimental to the growth of mixed ultimate as well as completely unproductive for us as women. We deserve the opportunity to play and grow as much as our male teammates.

-The language and attitude towards women can be hurtful, sexist and without consequence.

One story tells of a male teammates asking to trade a woman on his team for another. Destructive language was used causally from small things such as “way to get skyed by a girl” to “why didn’t you bid for that?” and “she looks hot and can go deep”.

“On the very first day of Summer League, one of the guys on my team knew of my brothers. After asking me if I was so-and-so’s brother, he said “Let’s see if you can prove yourself”.Whenever I play with boys, I always feel like I need to do something to prove that I know what I’m doing and that I’m a valuable member of the team. Whenever a boy messes up or does something wrong, he’s brought back up and sort of comforted to make sure that he doesn’t feel down on himself. When a woman messes up she’s no longer thrown too. While on the field, only one girl was ever thrown to, and it was only because she was friends with many of the boys on the team. My coach never enforced equal participation on the field, honestly she barely interacted with us. The reason I never go to Summer League is because unless you already have a name for yourself with fellow members of your team, you’re not even given a chance”- Ana Caballero

While constructing this letter it was overwhelming to hear how negative summer league is for women players. Half of the programs participants are having a negative experience and are participating despite their discomfort because of the YCC requirement. There was often very low turnout for women’s players but this in large part was due to how degrading it was for us to participate.

A few ideas we have for program improvement:

-Introduce a women’s branch of summer league

-Require mixed play to be 4 women 3 men in order to put priority on women players

-Enforce a standard that requires women to be involved and respected as players from day one

-Authority figures need to be more involved in enforcing that standard and creating consequences for sexist language

-Institute trainings for coaches and volunteers about ways to disrupt sexism

-Reach out to local women’s college teams to fill the summer league “coaching” positions

We shouldn’t force women to participate in a league where they feel objectified, undervalued and disrespected in order for them to participate in YCC. Summer league has the potential to be a great way for the high school community to connect but currently the lack of conversation about equity and of authority and teammate accountability is concerning and creates an unproductive and unhealthy environment for our women.

3) The attitude towards women high school players

There are three issues we want to address: There are significantly fewer women high school players than open players, individual programs struggle with inequitable treatment, and less value is placed on women’s high school ultimate.

We would like to see an increase in MNYU sponsored outreach initiatives. This past season we attended in-state and regional tournaments where the average ratio of women’s to men’s teams was 1:3. We would like to see our governing organization actively adopt initiatives that show that they value women’s ultimate and our growth as a program. We are excited about GUM but because of how large the gender gap is, there needs to be additional outreach to female athletes across the state.

Women’s ultimate and women who play ultimate have both been historically marginalized. Equity can not be achieved simply by having an individual program that promotes women in ultimate. Equity can only be achieved when the community is actively initiating policies and conversations about inequality in all aspects of Minnesota Ultimate. Opportunities for women to play do not need to be equal to the opportunities that boys have. Because of the inequity that exists, opportunities for women’s ultimate need to be more than equal, they need to be the priority.

Secondly, as women’s teams in co-ed programs we often struggle with inequitable distribution of resources and a general attitude by our open team of superiority because gender is conflated with athleticism.

“Our women’s team isn’t taken seriously. We aren’t considered as competitive of a team or a sport by our boy’s team. When we play mixed in the fall with the guys it’s like we have to constantly prove that we are athletes or they won’t throw to us, even as the captains of our girl’s team. It’s all about winning and they think that if they use the girls on the team they won’t be able to win. Women’s ultimate is as much of a sport as men’s ultimate but for some reason our own peers don’t take us seriously.”- Anna Gleason, St. Louis Park

“Our women’s team is constantly struggling to prove that we are equal to our men’s program. After a big tournament win last year one of the boys said “if we played women teams we would win too.” Even as the state champions, our own classmates don’t take us seriously. They think women’s ultimate is second to their own superior ultimate. It’s so frustrating. How do you go about proving that you’re as much as an athlete to someone who is surrounded by media that is telling them that as a male athlete and a male ultimate player their sport is superior. They already have society reinforcing their capabilities and now within ultimate all these young boys are watching men’s pro-ultimate, going to competitive tournaments, and given the opportunity to play on a really successful YCC team. We can win all the tournaments we go to and the program is still centered around growing the open team.”-Emma Piorier, Great River

“Playing on the women’s team for an established program like Edina, it is hard to get recognition for our achievements. Game footage is almost unheard of in women’s youth ultimate. Our boys team has had game footage for conference and even league games for many years. Secondly, the head administrator for youth ultimate programs are usually the varsity men’s coach. This puts on a ton of responsibility for that one person but also leaves a gaping hole of fundraising/financial questions. Why does the boys team get nicer and higher quality jerseys than the girls? Additionally, during the season and the off-season, the women’s team doesn’t get as much and as nice practice space as our open teams do. I struggle with these seemingly small issues all the time but I feel that even though I’m a captain, I struggle to voice these concerns.”

-Melissa Bernstein, Edina

A summary of concerning problems our women’s teams face:

-Decision making about team training is centered around the growth of open teams

-Open teams are prioritized in the distribution of field space both during and outside of the regular spring season

-Many more open players then women players

-Sexist language without consequence

-Conference games for the open division were more widely attended and publicized

-Open teams have more coaches than women teams

-Program coordinators are often open coaches

-Open teams at tournaments are often placed closer to HQ, water stations and trainers

-Women’s teams face the constant attitude of “boys teams are better than women’s teams”

Lastly, we think that both the lack of female youth ultimate players and lack of appreciation for our sport can be countered by initiatives that highlight how kickass we are. We are seeing campaigns like this nationally and it is empowering. We want girls who play ultimate to feel strong and empowered by their abilities and potential as well as encourage new players to join our sport. Showcasing female high school ultimate is not only important for growing the sport but it is necessary if we want to change the attitude that currently exists towards our programs.

With the requirement that all high school teams have a Minnesota Ultimate certified coach, we know that there is training dedicated to instructing adults on how to interact with their youth teams. We want to stress how important it is that our coaches in high school, summer league, and YCC, are thinking about and enforcing equitable standards. Coaches training should require instruction on using inclusive language, disrupting sexism on a mixed field, and noticing the overlooked inequities in the distribution of resources and the difference in which women’s and open ultimate is discussed.

Some of our ideas for promoting youth women’s players:

-High school women Callahan competition

-High school women showcase games

-MNYU events organized specifically for women’s players to attend

-More opportunities to play that are specifically for women

-Increased media about our MN women’s teams

Most importantly, use all of the above suggestions to work towards changing the culture of ultimate to be a place where women are taken seriously

In conclusion,

With the addition of the middle school program, Minnesota now has players as young as 11 joining our community. We have the opportunity to be a generation of ultimate players that are leaders in gender equity throughout athletics nationwide. If we can begin having dialogue about how sexism is reflected in our sport and society at introductory levels of play, our sport will only see growth as we branch out to college, club, and world level teams.

Ultimate has taught us an amazing set of skills that we see on and off of the field. We are part of a community in which incredible athletes compete in an intense and focused game while respecting themselves, their teammates, and their opposition. Self-officiation means learning how to have a conversation, understand disagreement, and reach a solution.

As women who play ultimate, sexism provides the perfect opportunity to utilize these communication skills. We are constantly needing to approach our male teammates about the throw that didn’t go off, the stall five huck when there was an open female handler, the unsafe and unnecessary man-save in the end-zone, and the uncalled for feedback that is constantly thrown at us. Female initiated conversations to resolve a problem on the field is a normalized aspect of mixed play. This in itself reveals a concerning and sexist dynamic. Not only are women facing problems on the field with their teammates but women are holding men accountable for their actions. Men are not holding each other accountable or having the difficult confrontation, a blatant example of male privilege in our sport.

Teaching young men that they don’t need to be accountable for their actions, nonetheless be inclusive and respectful of their female teammates, will do nothing for the future of ultimate.

That brings us to our overarching request: We as a community need to be talking about gender equity.

Throughout this letter and the recommendations we propose, a theme has arisen that is our final, and most important request: the need to talk about gender equity. It is not a coincidence that this came up throughout and as such, it is imperative we talk about gender equity in our community. Specifically, the first day of YCC, Summer League, and high school practice need to be dedicated to enforcing standards and talking about how our programs are going to promote equity on and off the field.

Change is a long process in which conversation, the sharing of experiences and communication is crucial. If we are not enforcing standards that require the equal treatment of female players in all levels of play, then we will continue to see discrimination. We need specific policies that encourage conversation, awareness, and accountability.

This letter shows the voice of our community, we are united as female youth players and we are motivated to create changes that benefit our teams. We are proud of our sport, our accomplishments and our communities. Show that you are proud of us too. Let’s be a leading state in the long overdue movement for equality.

Your friends,

The Minnesota High School Women’s Players

Written by Emma Piorier

Co-authors: Anna Clements, Tova Breen, Renee Smith, Leona DeRango, Anna Gleason, Tori Hengel, Emma Krasky, Esther Gendler, Casey Hoffman, Makayla Jones-Klausing, Susan Sultana, Bea Ibes, Egypt Moujid, Christine-Siebels-Lindquist, Anna Barron, Gracie Velasco, Beth Zobitz, Anna Erickson, Maeve Kruser, Melissa Bernstein, Jacalyn Gisvold, Ana Caballero,Sylvie Mercil.

Supported by:

CULT, Great River Stars, South Squall, Mounds View, Saint Louis Park, Mahtomedi, Edina, Open World, Hopkins HURT, Raging Safari (CDH), Henry Sibley, Como Aurora.

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