Spirit of the Game & Gender Equity

May 31, 2017

Note: Because the divisions of our sport run along a gender binary, including within the Mixed division when fielding a line, I follow the gender binary in my terminology. I want to acknowledge that the experiences of trans* athletes exist in our sport. Those experiences are complex and intersect with the content of this column.

Last year, along with Niko Heckman, the coach of Madison NOISE Ultimate, I spearheaded a movement to establish a divisional individual spirit award for the Mixed division at Club Nationals, much like the Pufahl and Farricker awards for the women’s and men’s divisions. I don’t remember at what point we decided the award should be about Spirit AND Equity, but according to email archives, that was a part of the name from moment one.

We independently collected blurbs from teams about their nominees and held voting over the course of the tournament for one female and one male rep from each team. At the end, Allysha Dixon (Philadelphia AMP) and David Protter (Colorado Love Tractor) won the inaugural awards, the take-home prize being a homemade puff paint masterpiece. This award is going to get a lot more official this year as USA Ultimate takes the reins, but one thing that will remain is that a commitment to equity on and off the field will be a part of the award’s description and parameters.

In my mind, spirit and equity are inextricably linked together, especially when you consider spirit of the game applying to not just how you treat opponents, but also your own teammates as well as fans and the community at large.

The essence of Spirit of the Game is mutual respect among competitors. Often, we think about this as being just respect for your opponents. This is how I personally framed SOTG for a long time, until Mixtape’s outgoing Spirit Captain, Lauren Pattie, presented to the team how Spirit applies to the way we respect each other and the leadership on the team, as well.

Doing the little things like showing up on time, supporting each other on the sideline, or filling out team surveys on time are all ways we can show respect for our teammates. Let’s peel this back one layer and look at intra-team Spirit from an equity lens. I can show respect for my teammates by valuing the contribution that each person makes, fostering the growth and development of all those players, and creating an inclusive team culture.

In general, regardless of the division or level, this means making sure that all the players on my team have the same opportunities for growth and access to team activities. What this looks like is offering rides, doing collaborative fundraising, and being communicative about season costs so lower resource players can participate fully. If there’s a wide range of ages on the team, it might look like choosing family-friendly settings for team hangouts so that younger players or players with kids can participate in culture-building activities. It means establishing everyone’s preferred gender pronouns rather than assuming them. It means challenging your assumptions about the skills a player brings to the table (and what can be developed) based on the color of their skin by checking your checking your opinions against stereotypes about relative athleticism, skill with the disc, and decision-making. In Mixed, this means counteracting internal biases and respecting women just as much as men for their knowledge and ability by providing appropriate amounts of feedback and framing mistakes equitably.

All of the ways we show respect for our teammates translate to the game experience of opponents and the perception of fans and other bystanders (organizers, observers, potential fans). Think about the most enjoyable games you’ve played. For me, those games are against teams with positive internal team attitudes that carry forward to how they interact with us. I, personally, hold onto these negative and positive associations for teams for a long time - there are teams I respect and value and look forward to playing, and there are teams I grit my teeth to see on the schedule because of that one player with a toxic attitude or knowing that the team won’t use their women unless we leave them unguarded.

An additional layer comes from how we talk on the sideline and in huddles about the other team, and how we evaluate a players’ skill based on their outward appearance. To a certain extent, yes, matching up based on height is a good place to start, but we tend to make assumptions about other parts of play as well. We can counteract these biases through asking reflective questions as a team or individually. Do I look across the line and see a Black player and think they’re going to be more threatening without the disc than with it? Do I assume if I’m matched up on an Asian player than I’m about to guard a crafty handler? In Mixed, do I assume the men will be better than the women? If a player makes a call, how do I react - do I let the players sort it out or do I provide input? How do my reactions differ if it’s a male or female that just made the call? If it’s a younger or older looking player? If the player is a person of color?

The Community
Not only can individual teams show respect for all competitors by valuing equity, the organizational structures can do the same. USA Ultimate can show that Spirit of the Game is fundamental to our sport through competition structures, the division of resources, and efforts to promote visibility of the sport.

We can (and have, according to the Vision Tour results!) push USAU to make conscious decisions to make competition structures accessible to all players and disburse resources to communities that need it so lower resource players can participate in the sport. We can (and have, according to recent media coverage announcements and last year’s Equity through Visibility project in the women’s division!) push USAU to make conscious decisions in how they cover the sport at the highest level to show respect for women as athletes. We can push our local organizations to follow USAU’s policies regarding transgender athletes and to have inclusive language for non-gender conforming individuals in the way they talk about players.

We can also push the AUDL to represent our sport more accurately by showing a more explicit value for Spirit of the Game and equity in their rules and competition structure. Those efforts are budding, but are meeting some resistance since pro leagues are businesses, not player-driven organizations. In my mind, the relative attendance and fan enthusiasm for the Cascades Cup compared to other Cascades games is an incredible argument on the side equitably showcasing athletes of all genders even within a professional structure. (Have you ever heard fans chanting “four more quarters!” at the end of a regular pro game?!)

Spirit and equity are intertwined across all the intersections of identity, at all levels of organization, and at all levels of play. If we hold Spirit of the Game to be fundamental to our sport, then we must hold equity as fundamental, as well.