By Anna Clements
On November 14, 2017, Claire Chastain tweeted that she thinks the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), the closest thing to pro ultimate, is bad for the sport. She put it simply and without caveats. I agree with her. In this essay I will outline why that is. I want to say right off the bat that I’m not necessarily claiming to have all the right answers, and there are likely positions and perspectives I have not considered, but this is mine, as a young female player.
I want to start by just saying that it really sucks to see that the most widely publicized version of the sport you love does not include people like you. Every week during their season, the AUDL films and broadcasts multiple games, which is far more media exposure than most other ultimate formats receive. I have friends who can watch these games and see themselves represented, and think about potentially being one of those players someday. I see those games as a youth player and don’t get to feel that same way.
The higher media coverage and accessible format of AUDL games gives ultimate the ability to reach a new, wider audience. I can’t dispute that. But the version of the sport that this new audience sees is one that simply does not include women. I think this changes the climate of the sport: suddenly now, women are an expendable part of the sport (even more than we were treated before), because there is a version that exists entirely without us.
Some people argue that this is okay, that we should worry about growing the sport first, and then worry about equity. I disagree. First of all, I have no interest in the growth of a version of the sport I love that doesn’t include me. No thanks. But right now, the small size of the ultimate community actually gives us a unique opportunity to work towards equity. It is easier to have far reaching discussions that include wide swaths of the ultimate community, and easier to have your voice heard. So I would much rather work now to become a more equitable sport and then focus on growth.
The semi-professional ultimate is also the only version of the sport where you don’t have to pay to play, and (for the most part) it is exclusively open to men. If women want to play ultimate, even the most elite women in the sport, they have to pay to do it. But men have the opportunity to GET PAID to play.
Another of the most common claims that people make when defending the AUDL and its effect on equity is that it is not technically an all-male league. This is true: this season, Jesse Shofner played with Nashville NightWatch. She was the second woman to ever play in the AUDL, and the first to sign a full season contract.
I want to unpack the idea that Jesse Shofner’s presence in the AUDL makes it an equitable actor in the ultimate community. Before I do, I want to make it clear that I don’t mean to reduce Jesse to a token female player and downplay her agency in any way. But I do think that just because one woman plays, does not mean that the league is open or welcoming to women. The format of the AUDL does not take gender into account, meaning the teams are “open” teams, not mixed teams. This means that there are not roster spots designated for women, which allows teams to default to being all male.
“But if the women who tried out were just better, it wouldn’t matter! So women should just be better!” In theory, this argument makes sense. The best players at tryouts should make the team. But this depends on how you measure skill and being “good,” and historically in sports this metric has been skewed towards maleness. I’m not saying the way that male players and female players (and players who don’t fit into that binary) are different by definition, but in the past, we have been taught to equate strength and athleticism with being a man, and these stereotypes can potentially color the decision making of coaches during tryouts, leading to a roster of only male-identified players. So yes, the AUDL is technically an open league. But there could still be factors that are built into the league that for the most part keep it male-only.
Based on everything I’ve discussed above, I feel strongly that the top male players in ultimate should not participate in the league. This would not only show their solidarity with their female counterparts, but help to delegitimize the AUDL altogether and hopefully allow the ultimate community to construct a better semi-pro option in its place, or at least convince the institution to make changes towards a more equitable model.
There is an argument, however, for creating change from within. Jesse Shofner and Miranda Roth Knowles recently contributed to a Twitter thread in which they (along with the Titcomb sisters and others) discussed why they choose to remain involved in the AUDL. Shofner wrote, “Women should be represented in what is perceived to be the highest lvl of the sport...As long as it exists we must show up and push back.” I think there is definitely merit to this statement. Right now the AUDL is perceived to be the highest level our sport has to offer, and so even there is only limited representation of women, it is important that it exists.
I would argue, however, that we should fight the notion that the AUDL is the highest level our sport has to offer, because if it doesn’t include having the sport’s most elite women on the field (except Jesse), it isn’t. I’m slightly more revolutionary than reformist when it comes to the AUDL; I don't think we need to slowly change this institution into something better, as if we are stuck with it. The ultimate community right now can take any power the AUDL holds in our sport by choosing not to participate.
1 With the exception of Jesse Shofner. More on that to come.