This is a follow-up to the piece I wrote last month – Ultimate and Race. If the first step is naming the problem, then surely the second step has to be taking steps to address it. Access, visibility and acceptance are key pieces of changing the demographics of Ultimate Frisbee, and for me, we have an incredible opportunity to make the greatest change at the youth level.
And one of the best ways to address this issue is to look at the pipeline of players – how can we increase the number of players who find the sport and fall in love with it at an early age? And specifically – how can we ensure that young people of color have the opportunity to play Ultimate in their communities? And then, if we change who has access to the learn the game, how do we make sure that the higher levels of the game are financially accessible and welcoming to players from underserved communities?
To that end, USAU must devote its energy to school-based teams and leagues as a higher priority than the YCCs. The cost of youth-based sports is rising astronomically (as evidenced in this article from The Washington Post) and much of that is because of the increasing importance of club teams over school-based team which creates a much higher financial burden on families. We have the opportunity to buck that trend. With eight cones, some cleats and a disc, we can play the sport. We need to keep costs down and remove any potential barriers to entry – especially for the communities who are underrepresented in our sport.
And we must face that Ultimate has done a poor job of helping schools with high percentages of students of color or high percentages of low-income students to start teams. And that demands that we look at the strategies we’ve used to encourage growth and consider a more inclusive and purposeful strategy to achieve a more diverse and inclusive growth. And we must recognize that this move away from school-based teams as the target for growth will reify every inequity we already have in our sport.
Every. Single. One.
Schools are where the kids already are. If we want a more diverse representation of athletes, we have to go to where the kids already are and make it easier for kids to play the game.
So what could that look like?
1) PARTNERSHIPS BETWEEN ULTIMATE AND URBAN SCHOOL DISTRICTS: Create a partnership program between local Ultimate organizations, USAU and urban school athletics. We have to make it easier for schools to start teams. This means focusing on after-school games – especially as teams enter the sport. This would give new schools a system to plug into, instead of the somewhat overwhelming and expensive process of trying to get to tournaments – most of which are outside city limits, given what schools currently have teams. By moving away from weekend tournaments being the primary entry for high school Ultimate, we lower the cost for new teams, while still offering a tournament system for teams who are at that level.
2) ESTABLISH A COACHING PIPELINE: Establishment of a High School Coaching program where we incentivize coaching at Title I or majority student of color schools. In many ways, this would be a targeted shift / expansion of the USAU New Team Start Grant program. This could include a commitment of 25 free discs a year, cones, rulebooks for Title I Schools, waiver of coaching certification costs, and support from the local organization for coaching resources both on-field and off. USAU could come up with a “How to Convince Your Administration that Ultimate is a Great High School Sport” document that would help students, parents and coaches make the case for starting an Ultimate team. Combining this with the partnerships with urban school districts, and we could see an explosion of teams in our cities.
3) CULTURAL COMPETENCY FOR COACHES: Cultural competency and diversity training as a mandatory part of all USAU Coaching Certification and all local coaching programs. This is so desperately needed that it actively angers me that it’s not already part of training for all Ultimate coaches. The NCAA is way ahead of Ultimate on this — and they’ve published many of their resources here: http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/inclusion
4) WAIVE FEES FOR TITLE I SCHOOLS: Expand the USAU Pay It Forward program so that any Title I designated school would have all player and coach fees waived.
5) INVOLVE THE LOCAL CLUB TEAMS: Commitments from top-tier teams from all three divisions to run exhibitions and clinics that target underserved populations. As the local Ultimate organizations build partnerships with the local districts, identifying schools willing to host these clinics after school should be part of that partnership. Here in Philly, I would love to see Patrol and AMP and Green Means Go playing an exhibition down at the South Philadelphia Athletic Super Site in front of a few hundred Philadelphia high school kids and then teaching the students how to play the game afterwards.
6) UNDERWRITE THE USAU NATIONAL TEAMS: Finally, while this is not directly about youth Ultimate, USAU should underwrite the cost of playing on the US National teams at the World Games. In the conversations I’ve had over the last month, several folks mentioned that the barrier to entry financially to playing for the USA teams was incredibly high. Given the intersection of race and class, we shouldn’t be surprised that the men’s team was as white as it was – and while the Women’s and Mixed teams were a little better, they were still predominantly white, and there was very little black or Hispanic representation. And lest anyone forget, representation matters. Seeing players of color on the team that represents our country matters to every kid who is finding the sport and wondering if it’s for them. This feels like low-hanging fruit to me. Get sponsorship. If SLA can have Johnsonville Sausage on the back of our shirts, then USAU can find the National teams a sponsor.
These are all concrete “Right Now” steps we could take as an Ultimate community. Everything on here is doable right now. For those who would say that our sport has welcomed anyone who has come out to play, I’d say that we have to look at the demographics and ask ourselves why the sport has, then, stayed so stubbornly white. We can borrow from the work that Karen Mapp has done around increasing participation of parents of color in schools and understand that the “open door” policy is not the same as an invitation and a welcome. In Ultimate, we’ve had 50 years of an open door policy. The time has come to make targeted invitations and to look at our own actions to see where we can do better.
And to be clear, even if we do everything on this list, there are larger and harder conversations to have about things like micro-aggressions and Spirit of the Game, and those conversations definitely need to happen. But we can’t wait. The time has come for defined programs and policies that can make the game we love more visible, accessible and welcoming to those who have long been denied access right now.
Let’s start with these.