Sidelined: The Fight for Gender Equity in the World of Ultimate Frisbee

By Bella Rowland-Reid

Bella is a second year undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Watching the broadcast rerun, it’s hard to tell if the background sounds are cheers or static from the poor video quality. Either way, people were watching. The footage is from an NFL live stream of the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings preseason game where, during halftime, the Minnesota Windchill and Madison Radicals were in the throes of a showcase game. While neither team made a show of running onto the grass, that all changed once the eighty foot video board lit up behind the goal post: there, on the field, a white plastic disc cut through the air, and the game had begun. Although it wasn’t broadcast on television, for the hundreds of thousands of fans in the stands of U.S. Bank Stadium and anyone watching online, it was their first glimpse into the sport of Ultimate Frisbee. And, although the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), to which both the Windchill and Radicals belong, is technically open to people of any gender, of the fourteen players on the field at any given moment of that game, all were men.

It wasn’t surprising, given the AUDL’s historic lack of female representation in the eight years since its inception, that there were no female players on the field. Still, the backlash was swift and grating: comment boards, Reddit threads, and niche ultimate news sites filled with criticism from both sides. Some—mostly male—players and fans criticized the league for playing a showcase game in the first place, as if such a mainstream platform would strip the sport of the its counterculture identity. The match, however, sat much differently with female players. “Thanks for the reminder that women aren’t welcome at real games or showcase games,” wrote Seattle club player Kat Overton on Twitter. When the AUDL promoted a showcase game featuring only male players, they sent a message, intentionally or otherwise, about whom their sport was, and still is, intended for.

From its inception, ultimate Frisbee was off the beaten path. Created in 1968 by a group of high schoolers, participants first played games in parking lots, using telephone poles as goal markers. By 1972, the first ever college game premiered, a match between Rutgers and Princeton. In 1984, the inaugural college championships were hosted by USA Ultimate, the newfound national governing body to the sport. In the finals, Stanford beat Glassboro University by a score of 21 to 18. The women’s division wasn’t introduced until three years later.

The sport is more popular than ever, and is continuing to grow. The biggest matches are shown on sports channels like ESPN 2, and there’s talk of a possible sport for ultimate in the the 2028 Olympics. However, ultimate remains loyal to the game’s philosophy, rooted in spunk, fun and sportsmanship, known in the official rule book as the “Spirit of the Game.” Players wear fake mustaches in the field; tournaments hold trophies for best costume; post-game spirit circles include dance-offs, in which victory is more coveted than in the game itself. Ultimate, at its core, rejects the conventional mold. Therein lies the question: why, for a sport that is said to go against everything that traditional sports values, is gender representation such a large issue?

Up until a couple years ago, it was rare to find high-quality, full-game footage of the women’s division, while men’s leagues had been producing live streams and highlight reels for years. The High School National Invite consisted of only eight girls’ teams in its inaugural year in 2017, compared to sixteen teams in the boy’s division. In ealy 2017, the World Flying Disc Federation was slammed with criticism for failing to hire any female commentators, to which Communications Director Rob McLeod responded by claiming “[we don’t] live in a patriarchy,” and the affirmative hiring of a woman would not be putting “the best commentator on the mic.” Traditional sports are criticized for giving women’s divisions a fraction of the media coverage men receive, and ultimate is no different: the nicer fields, bigger opportunities, and better time slots, are given to men.

The issue of gender equity–along with inequalities in race, class, and other intersections of privilege–is one that ultimate has dealt with since its inception, and will continue to until the sport prioritizes marginalized players. This is not to say changes haven’t been made–filming company Fulcrum Pro has been at the forefront of producing high-quality women’s games, and the USA Ultimate Transgender Inclusion Policy was recently revised to become more inclusive regarding trans players. However, the fight is not over, and for every step of progress, there seems to be another two backwards, a constant reminder of how far the sport still has to go in order to achieve the inclusivity it is so keen on promoting.

This essay was originally written in Spring 2018, and less than nine months later, the Vikings hosted another showcase game of ultimate during halftime. This time, the game was between Windchill and Chicago Wildfire, another AUDL team from the Midwest Division. Yet again, the game was live streamed, and yet again, that same eighty-foot scoreboard lit up with video of players throwing the disc for what felt like miles, only to be caught by the majestic dives of their teammates onto the green and white turf. The crowd cheered louder than they had perhaps the entire first half of the football game, the game they paid hundreds to attend. It was spectacular, history making, even–and there wasn’t one woman in sight.

This was an excerpt from a longer piece. 

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