Equity Within End Zones: Seattle E.N.D., Ultimate Frisbee, and the Decolonization of Social Space (Excerpt)

By Bella Rowland-Reid
Bella is a second year undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Growing up in Seattle, it’s not uncommon to identify with either the “Northend” or “Southend” parts of the city. In the elite bubble that makes up the Seattle Ultimate Frisbee scene, there is a clear division between the regions, not only in culture and style of play, but in resource accessibility and financial support, particularly at the youth level. There’s the Northend, known for posh neighborhood communities and resource-abundant Ultimate programs; and the Southend, with majority low-income residents, Amazon-induced gentrification, and teams primarily made up of students of color. Each area’s respective public high school Ultimate Frisbee teams–three in the North, three in the South–embody their regions accurately, both in demographics and the relative privileges and oppressions that derive from said racial makeup. Northend teams typically receive more funding, newer gear, and nicer fields, while Southend players are struggling to find rides uptown to games and face systemic oppression in the white-dominated space of Ultimate. Although both sides of the city produce an abundance of talented players each year, the region’s visible fragmentation is representative of global race, class, and gender oppression within the sport.

Many Ultimate players have what they call a “Frisbee nickname,” or a name teammates call them on the field. A Frisbee nickname is easy to shout from the sidelines during hectic games and unique enough to differentiate similarly-named players. My nickname is BellaR, pronounced like bell-are, given to me my senior year of high school. The Southend has a Frisbee nickname of its own: Soufend, often shortened to just “Souf.” The nickname is a phonetic translation of the slang many Southend teenagers use. This past summer it was used as the inspiration for the Southend’s new elite club teams: the Men’s program “S.O.U.F.” which stands for “Strictly Only Us, Fam” and the Women’s counterpart, “E.N.D.” or “Empowered N Decolonized.” Teams made of marginalized Southenders, both S.O.U.F. and E.N.D., were created as a way to make high-level Ultimate accessible to players of color who could not afford the high cost of local teams. These teams are the antithesis to everything that is elite Ultimate: rich, white, privileged, inaccessible to many. In E.N.D.’s creation, they became a bridge for marginalized players to exist within high-level Ultimate and propel discussions about what it means to be a diverse, just, and inclusive sport.

Seattle E.N.D. was birthed from the need to decolonize Ultimate, Aileen Perez, one of the team’s founders, told me over the phone. “Going into E.N.D. this summer was a confirmation of all the things I’ve felt throughout the years as an Ultimate player. [My co-founder] and I wanted to build a team where it represented a lot of what we knew in high school and growing up and playing ultimate, but at a higher level,” Perez explained.

The systemic divide in the North and South ends are not only prevalent within the sport; it’s part of a larger issue of systemic inequality that has plagued the city for decades. In October, a local news website reported that the Roosevelt High School PTSA—a school located in the Northend neighborhood of Ravenna—had 3.5 million dollars in total assets. Just half an hour South, Rainier Beach High School—along with Franklin High School and Chief Sealth, two other Southend schools—had a total of zero dollars in assets. The divide amongst wealth and race creates a barrier between the communities and has resulted in an increased sense of community within the Southend. As Perez describes, even though Southend schools have coveted on-field rivalries, once the cleats come off, everyone becomes family again.

“At the end of the day we are all one big community,” said Perez.

Because Ultimate is not a physical space, but rather a collection of individual players, the community operates similar to a hub. Gathering for practice, games, and tournaments, social space is created and divided within teams and communal discussions. Perez believes that this community structure becomes vital to the team’s mission of decolonization. Social space can change as more marginalized people are represented at all levels.

In efforts to decolonize Ultimate, E.N.D. has taken down many of the barriers faced by low-income players of color to intentionally create space for marginalized people within the sport. The team was funded entirely through GoFundMe and community fundraisers. They’ve also been invited to tournaments and events to facilitate discussions about diversity, such as with the Ski Town Classic, an elite women’s tournament in which the team attended last August in Salt Lake City. The team’s Twitter asks the community to examine their own privileges within the sport, discussing the role of transphobia in the game’s gender divisions and asking players to list why they wear #BlackLivesMatter headbands. In an homage to the women who raised them, and as a form of resistance to the overwhelming presence of patriarchy within communities of color, players have their mother’s birth surname printed on the back of their jerseys. Every part of E.N.D. was created with marginalized communities in mind.

While E.N.D. is an independent team, it has deep ties to the Southend’s rich social justice community. The team’s founders all work for All Girl Everything Ultimate Program, or AGE UP, a non-profit based on teaching Southend youth of color about social justice and organizing skills through Ultimate. As many E.N.D. teammates are AGE UP alumni, the team becomes another arm of the non-profit, where older players can discuss social justice within Ultimate long after they leave the program.

In their efforts to decolonize Ultimate, Seattle E.N.D. centers marginalized players within discussions of race, gender, and class. The team has used the power of solidarity and community to demand social space in the overwhelmingly white, male, financially inaccessible sphere of elite-level Ultimate Frisbee. As the cost of elite sports becomes a barrier to low-income participants, the social space of these teams becomes skewed. In the world of Ultimate, a space like the Southend—youth-driven, community-oriented, and largely marginalized—is an outlier. The focus of programs like AGE UP and E.N.D. is a sense of solidarity and community for players in a space where barriers leave them largely invisible. As Ultimate becomes an increasingly white and upper-income space, people of color face an implied exclusion through lack of visibility. As accessibility within athletics becomes a larger topic within Ultimate, teams prioritizing the voices and experiences of marginalized players become the key to decolonizing the social space within the sport.

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