Casual Convos: talking gender equity with your league team

by Jason Wilkinson

I’d guess that casual mixed Ultimate players far outnumber college and elite-level players.  Many of these players are longstanding groups of friends who gather once a week to play for fun then grab a lighthearted brunch together, despite a roster that dwindles over the years.  Many of these players are in hat leagues, with no idea who’s going to be waiting for them at the fields on the first night of the season. Many teams are groups of colleagues, coming together as a way of cementing work relationships after quitting time. These teams don’t always have leaders, and when they do, there isn’t always the option of being extremely selective about who you’re playing with. So, in these casual settings, how do you handle a complex topic like gender equity, that needs space for deeper conversations and trusting relationships?

You’ve probably seen lots of excellent articles about what gender equity means for an Ultimate team, how to take it into account when you’re forming a team, and how to keep it in place once you’re playing. This is all essential reading, and if you haven’t read any of those articles, I wholeheartedly recommend that you do. But there’s an assumption in those articles; they assume that you have control over the composition of your team. They assume that there are more players than slots available, and that you can use your potential teammates’ attitudes towards gender equity as part of your decision to keep them or cut them. But what if that isn’t the case?

The way I see it, the short version of the story is this: make do with what you have, but follow the scout rule — leave things in better shape than you found them[1]. When playing mixed, the people you’re playing with will have widely varying understanding of gender equity issues, and widely varying commitment to addressing them. That’s okay! You’ll probably play with some people who just don’t care about gender equity, and there’s nothing you can do to force them to.  That’s okay too!

Whether you’re team captain or the last one to arrive at pickup, you can start by being an example. Even if no one around you seems to care at all, you can exemplify equitable values and demonstrate that you’ll stand up for treating everyone fairly – and I’ll bet that people will notice.

More likely, there will be a handful of people who are well-attuned to this issue, and together you can have an even greater impact. These can be simple actions: changing “man” defense to “person”, gently correcting someone who refers to “girls”, or publicly encouraging your women to step into leadership roles on and off the field – and supporting them when they do. Lots of other tips and tricks have been written about; go read up on them!

An unfortunate reality of playing casual ultimate is that you don’t have a lot of time or space to talk about anything beyond what’s happening on the field. Having a dedicated team get-together to discuss how gender affects your teammates is awesome, but it’s just not going to happen on a hat-league team. An hour-long workshop about gender equity is a fantastic idea, but when half your team has kids and the other half travels for work, putting seven on the line is hard enough on gameday. Because it’s so hard to take preemptive actions, it makes it doubly important to react appropriately when you see inequitable behavior.

Here’s a great example: One of the captains in our mixed adult beginner hat league is passionate about including everyone and making sure everyone has a good time. In their first game, a few of the more experienced men were looking off good under cuts and just launching deep hucks to each other. In between points, the captain took them aside one by one, explained how important inclusion and equitable treatment was, and politely-but-firmly told them to play with that philosophy in mind or else he’d pull them off the field. Not surprisingly, in our end-of-season survey, he and his co-captain received several glowing reviews from their team.

Again, many great articles have been written about how to have these types of discussions: for example, you can avoid blame while reframing the conversation positively.  Entire books have been written on the subject; for $8 you can read all about these ‘crucial conversations’.

But it’s important to catch and address the actions as they’re occurring. That means that you may have to have some awkward conversations with people you don’t know well, and that can be quite intimidating.

This is where those well-attuned people you identified before can help you; having some support in the conversation can make it much easier for everyone. You feel supported, your allies get to help out, and the people who are acting inequitably see that they’re in the minority. Most importantly, assume good intent, because we all want the same thing in the end:  a safe, spirited game where everyone has fun and feels respected.

Of course, I don’t have all the answers, and I’d love to hear what you’ve done in these circumstances to keep one eye on the disc while watching out for equity.

[1] The irony of this being the “boy scout rule” in an article about gender equity is not lost on me.

One thought on “Casual Convos: talking gender equity with your league team

  1. Becky Edmonds says:

    Girl Scouts have the same rule! Also heard it called the “campsite rule” (…by Dan Savage so take what you will).

    Great article, Wilk! We need more articles like this for how to do gender equity in casual leagues, not just in club and youth ultimate. One thing I appreciate that you subtly allude to is that men (captains and otherwise) very much can and should be advocating for more equity. One challenge as a woman captain is not wanting to be THE gender equity person, wanting to spread around who’s doing the gentle reminding. Plus, dudes sometimes need to hear it from another dude. So, men, speak up!


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