If you had asked me at any point in my life to describe myself in just a few words, chances are the word “athlete” will be among the top three every time. I climb, I run, I swim, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve played ultimate Frisbee on and off for over nine years (that’s about 40% of my life now!). Ultimate Frisbee is a vibrant, spirited culture that I have been proud and happy to be part of through the years. But when it comes to playing in coed pickup or rec league, I’ve always had one big problem that’s never changed—the challenge as a woman to be accepted as athlete by men whenever I play on a new team.
It started out in pickup games at lunch in high school—I was usually the only girl. When I first started playing, the guys frequently never passed to me or bothered to cover me. I had one friend who knew I could play well, and he would throw me long passes while I hung out in the end zone, ignored by everyone else. We’d score like that all day long. It took weeks for everyone to catch onto the strategy.
And now, nine years later, I join a pickup group in my new neighborhood in New Jersey with Josh, a male coworker. Josh is athletic but doesn’t have a ton of experience playing ultimate. I am a little rusty because I haven’t played for a while, but still have solid skills and a good sense of the game. And what happened? I touched the disk once during the two hour game. At the end of it, my coworker Josh was breathless and excited, commenting on how friendly and inclusive the group is to newcomers. I had no response.
I don’t know how it is in other coed sports, but my guess is that no woman who has ever played Ultimate will find my narrative surprising. All too often, some men just consistently don’t pass to women. Even when we play well, run fast, get open, all the time.
And no, it’s not just me and no, I’m not imagining this. Over the years I’ve noticed a trend: when I join a new group of primarily male players, I will be largely excluded from the game until I make no fewer than three spectacular plays. After that happens, everyone gets all impressed and people begin passing to me. But I have to prove myself first.
So that’s what I do. When I’ve been playing regularly, my playing becomes showy particularly for that reason. When I’m going for a long pass and I’m not close enough to the disk, I lay out almost every time. I catch with one hand instead of two because it’s harder and looks cooler. At all times possible, I will jump and catch while I’m in midair because it looks more badass than catching discs while I’m on the ground. I do this to get noticed and accepted, just so I can be a part of the game. Otherwise I can go entire games without getting passed to a single time.
The problem is, sometimes I take a few seasons off and when I get back into the game my playing is FAR from showy or perfect. What happens then? I get excluded from the game, just like most of the other women.
Most of my female teammates have complained about this at some point in their lives. When I took an informal poll of my friends on facebook, everyone had different reasons for liking coed or single-sex teams. But here was the trend: most of the guys that commented on the thread said they liked coed because it was friendlier, more spirited, and less competitive. A lot of women also said they liked coed sports but mentioned that in single-sex teams they saw more play time, felt like a valued player, and didn’t get pigeonholed because of their gender.
I have a few theories about this. First, our culture tells us that boys are athletic, and girls can go play with their dolls or some shit like that. It’s become so engrained in our minds that most guys don’t even notice that it’s affecting how they behave. While I do acknowledge that on average, guys are physically stronger and able to run faster, but that is a bullshit reason not to pass to a woman. Open your eyes. If someone shows up at a game, it’s because they want to play sports and be a part of the game. Nothing else matters. Plus if you like coed because it’s less competitive, this should be a perfect time to encourage new players and people who need to work on their skills anyway.
Secondly, a lot of Frisbee leagues are very contentious about including females in coed games. There are seven players from each team on the field at a time and the rules of my home league, Washington Area Frisbee Club (WAFC), dictate the male to female ratio must be at least 5:2, or 4:3 if there are enough women playing.
YAY! Good for WAFC! Promoting women’s athletics like a champ! But as much as I appreciate the sentiment, this is what happens in reality: Teams scramble to find enough women. So guys drag along their girlfriends or female friends who don’t usually play. It means there are a lot of newbie women out on the field that no one wants to pass to. It means they don’t get included in the game and then don’t return to play the next season because coed Ultimate can feel like such a boy’s club sometimes. It means that when I play, people assume I’m a newbie as well, until I do something crazy like laying out while catching the disc in my teeth. And of course if I play poorly during the game, I feel like guys assume I can’t play as well as them because I’m a girl.
I can’t tell you how often someone has called me up and invited me to play because “we need you, we’re short on girls.” I can’t tell you how often people have assumed I’m only at a game because they thought I was dating a close male friend on my team. I’d love to feel valued as a player, but—Oh what’s that? I have a uterus? Great, let me hop on the field so you can adhere to league policy and let you give gender diversity lip service without you worrying about really being inclusive to women.
Sometimes this is a fixable problem, although it takes more work than it should have to. In high school I felt very comfortable with my teammates and I actually brought the topic up a few times. A simple comment like “hey guys, have you noticed how no one really passes to the women on the team?” will actually garner a reasonable amount of concern, chagrin, and apologies with promises to do better. It may take a few talkings-to for the message to really sink in.
We need to make coed frisbee encouraging to ALL players, even the new ones. That what noncompetitive leagues are for! Maybe some of the women you know can’t play very well because they haven’t been given the opportunity to improve their skills. Maybe you accidentally played a tiny part in that.
So, my dear gentlemen who play coed Frisbee: you are my friends and I love you. I know it’s not all of you and I know you’re not doing it on purpose. But lets fix this! After each game, think about how many women there are on the team and how often you passed to them versus the other players. If you didn’t pass to a woman at all, then why? Were they open? Were they doing a good job of clearing out of the cutting lane? Could they break their defender? If the answer yes to these questions then consider adjusting your behavior. If the answer is no to some of these questions, offer them some constructive feedback, and pass to them anyway. After all, we’re all here to play. Even the girls.