May 10, 2021
PLAYER VOICES: BEING BLACK IN ULTIMATE
On February 27, 2021, AJ Merriman (DC Breeze), Ken Porter (Detroit/Charlotte), James Pollard (Philadelphia Phoenix), Nate Little (Philadelphia Phoenix), and Antoine Davis (Atlanta Hustle) met via Facebook Live. “Player Voices: Being Black in Ultimate,” was perhaps the first live discussion of its kind: a real inside look at a conversation between black ultimate players.
The panel reviewed highlight plays from the courses of their careers and shared stories about all that went into becoming elite-level ultimate athletes. The enlightening 68-minute discussion touched on the experiences of being a black player in a predominantly white sport, and highlighted differences at the high school, college, club, and professional leagues.
They shared common experiences such as having to mute the natural expression with which they play the game, being relegated to the D line, and feeling isolated on teams while sharing an unspoken bond with other players of color in the ultimate community. The conversation also spurred classical ultimate arguments such as whether the O line or D line wins games and the importance of team chemistry.
One common theme was the experience of growing up playing sports like football or basketball and how that translated to the ultimate field.
“Most black men grow up playing sports in a street style, where aggressiveness/competitiveness is displayed and celebrated," said Davis. "We naturally bring this sort of attitude to Ultimate, and when we show our backgrounds and the way we were brought up playing sports, it is often frowned upon.”
Another commonality was that all the players were somehow involved in sharing the game with minority youth and creating new opportunities for players of color.
“I’m always coaching everywhere I can, getting in places that are more diverse," said Merriman. "Get them early. If you can get kids playing ultimate frisbee early, they love it, and they stick with it. I’m in everywhere that I can be,."
Collectively, they stressed that increasing the visibility of successful minority players at the highest levels is vital to introducing more black players to the sport of ultimate.
After filming ended, the panelists stated that they were surprised to find how other black players around the country shared similar experiences and were grateful to know that they weren’t alone in theirs. “I was in even more awe of how brilliant these guys were having been able to see their craft on the field but then to also show the same grace and power off the field with just their vibes, their words, and their experiences," said Porter.
"I felt way more connected to them than I expected."
The panel hopes that people who watch the video gain a better understanding of what ultimate players of color face and learn to accept the different ways we all approach, play, and appreciate the sport.
“We most likely enjoy the game in different ways. It doesn’t make it right or wrong, it’s just different. Take the time to learn. What you’re perceiving as offensive is not the intention 99 percent of the time.”
“We’re more different than you might think. It’s good to understand us. We’re complex, multifaceted, and the mental side of the game is there.”
“Be yourself. Don’t let the predominantly white players say you have to be a certain way. Just be yourself and be genuine.”
“I hope ultimate players all over the country or even the world can look at a teammate and say ‘I don't know what you're going through but I'm willing and ready to walk through it with you if you'll let me.’ Imagine how strong that team's chemistry could be if every one of its teammates had that approach...that team could beat anyone and everyone they wanted regardless of their talent gap.”
The participants expressed gratitude to the AUDL for providing the space for such a conversation and allowing the opportunity to use the sport of ultimate to transform and enrich the lives of its athletes, coaches, and fans.
OFF THE RECORD
The AUDL celebrated Black History Month and Women’s History Month by sharing the stories of a few of the amazing black and female players and coaches we have within the league. The video series called “Off The Record” showcases their journeys through ultimate.
Black History Month kicked off with a story of perseverance from the Atlanta Hustle’s Antoine Davis. Davis says that growing up as “one of the only bi-racial kids but also one that didn’t fit into any of the categories” sometimes felt isolating and confusing. He describes using adversity to make him “a really strong and driven person,” attributing this drive to lessons learned early on from his parents. Davis says that “the system may be built against you, but that doesn’t mean that it has the power to win against you.” He personally is “going to do double the work and be a better man for it.” His drive is made evident by the dangerous offensive threat he has become in the league. With his growing status, Davis hopes to provide leadership and inspiration to other POC members and show viewers that through the unique adversity POC players face, they can persevere and push change within the system.
Next, the San Diego Growlers’ Khalif El-Salaam described the formative experiences he had growing up. Throughout his career, El-Salaam saw varying degrees of racial diversity, which has helped to shape his views on race within ultimate. In middle school, sharing the field with many POC players gave El-Salaam a safe space to express himself freely. “It was like having a path that I knew that I could walk on with no nails on it. I didn’t have to worry about stepping on anything or worry about any of the other stuff that I had to worry about every other day,” he says. When it comes to the ultimate community, El-Salaam says that everyone is now generally more aware of social issues but how we should all put more effort towards ensuring that people who don’t look like us can succeed in the sport. He pushes us to use the energy and lessons learned in this past year and Black History Month as a trampoline to begin studying black history, but states, “It would only be a bad thing if you only do it this month and you forget about black history the rest of the year.”
From the Toronto Rush, Remi Ojo added his perspective on Black History Month and his first experience of playing ultimate on a monochromatic high school team. “That gave me more drive and passion to fix that disparity,” he says. Ojo is currently working to address the disparity by serving on the Aii. “The AUDL Inclusion Initiative is already doing a great job to at least get the discussion out there, listen to the players, and partner with the right programs to make the right steps,” he says. Considering the ultimate community as a whole, Ojo feels that it sits in a place to be a force of change, saying, “I think that diversity and inclusion are part of Spirit of the Game and manifest in the fabric of the sport. We have an opportunity to shape how a sport welcomes everyone and creates a safe space.” Recognizing that conversations can be challenging, Ojo recommends simply making the effort while being open to feedback. He says, “There’s always the fear of sounding disingenuous or making a mistake, but the willingness to try to grow and evolve is super important. As long as we are open to feedback as we can move forward, it will make the space more welcoming and better for everyone. So don’t be afraid to try and be open to feedback.”
The last story during Black History Month was Ken Porter (formerly of the Charlotte Express, current Aii member). Porter recognizes the importance of having role models in sports that are of diverse backgrounds. He says that at an early age he noticed, “Everyone I looked up to in sports were minorities,” providing a ‘Mount Rushmore’ of names that includes Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Bruce Lee. In the push to get more diversity within ultimate, Porter says, “To change how race relations look in ultimate, we have to start with kids.” He points out that it’s not a lack of talent that’s preventing youth minority athletes from making the jump to AUDL. “The high school and college is the barrier for that kid, which is common within minority community and is a big gap to jump,” he says. Porter admits to not having all the answers to alleviate every issue but hopes to contribute to ideas and solutions as a member of the Aii, saying “It’s been an amazing group to be part of, and I’ve enjoyed the work. It’s not easy work, but it’s really rewarding work.” At the end of the video, Porter shares his motto: “Stay positive, test the negative, and love everybody.”
Women’s History Month kicked off with a video about Philadelphia Phoenix owner Dr. Christina Lee Chung, MD, FAAD. Openly admitting that she is not a competitive ultimate player (classifying herself as “recreational”), Chung’s competitive drive was displayed through tennis and skiing growing up, as well as her fanaticism for Philadelphia sports. This is also what sparked her decision to first give ultimate a try. After a chance rec-league encounter between her husband and Aii member Mike Acarta, Chung was presented with the opportunity to get involved with the Philadelphia Phoenix, and she took it. Since then, Chung has become increasingly involved in many capacities within the AUDL. In 2019, Chung was integral in the formation of the AUDL Inclusion Initiative (Aii), driven by a passion to increase participation among POC players. At the onset of the COVID pandemic, Chung found herself at the intersection of her medical profession and her identity as an AUDL owner when she became the Chief Medical Officer of the AUDL and was essential in shaping how the sport of ultimate would safely return to play (more on that to follow). Chung applauds the AUDL for highlighting women at many levels within the league and for not only encouraging female participation but actively engaging them and utilizing their strengths. Chung’s colleague reported, “It’s really unbelievable that in the year I’ve been working with the AUDL, that no matter what I say the leadership doesn’t make me feel like I’m saying it from a female perspective. This has never happened to me in medicine.” Chung encourages any woman who wants to get involved in sports organizations to take advantage of every opportunity that’s presented. She encourages women to, “Think about what your strengths are and the vast array of opportunities and ways to get involved. Align yourself with the people who are not only going to give you opportunities but mentor you and give you the tools to succeed. It’s very important to identify those opportunities and capitalize on them. Don’t be scared.”
Next up was three-time world champion player, Wisconsin Hodag coach, and AUDL referee Becky LeDonne. Her brother is who first encouraged her to try ultimate, where her track and cross country experience gave her an edge on the field. Being a standout player, she quickly rose to compete with elite teams in the mixed club division. Although she is nearing the end of her playing career, LeDonne has continued to find ways to stay involved in the sport, ensuring that she’s being seen as a female in a position of authority in the men’s game. “Part of the reason that I’m an AUDL ref is that I wanted to make sure that there was a woman on the field. And that’s part of why I coach the Hodags,” she says, “I’ve said yes to so many things in my ultimate career because I’m female and because I want young girls to see females in this position.” Her advice to other female athletes is to be confident in your abilities and your skillset and just do it because women belong on the ultimate field. “Whether it’s as a referee or a coach in the men’s game, they belong with a whistle, they belong with stripes on their shirt. Women belong in places that you might not expect,” she says.
The story of Megan Tormey’s introduction to ultimate and journey to becoming an AUDL broadcaster came next. Originally planning on joining the college band, Tormey instead pursued athletics—everything from rugby to taekwondo—until finally finding the women’s ultimate team at the University of Chicago. She was immediately welcomed and worked to eventually earn a spot on the area’s club team, Chicago Nemesis. When she was first approached to help broadcast for AUDL games, she almost turned down the opportunity, but thought, “Why should I let that stop me, not knowing what I’m doing?” and she gave it a whirl. She admits to feeling extreme anxiety prior to her first broadcast on ESPN 3, but she settled into the role and found her voice in the booth. Since then, “Meagles” has been a mainstay on the AUDL broadcast crew. Ensuring the visibility of women in sports where you wouldn’t expect them is an area of importance for Tormey, saying, “If there are young women who are interested in sports broadcasting, seeing a woman in the booth can reaffirm their understanding that they definitely belong there and that their voices matter there.”
The Women’s History Month “Off The Record” series wrapped up with Atlanta Hustle coach Miranda Knowles. Growing up, Knowles played virtually every sport available to her before finding ultimate in high school. She quickly excelled in the sport and was invited to play on the women’s U-20 girls national team. She describes finding ultimate in high school as a gift, as it helped to keep her involved in sports beyond when women generally age out. “As a woman, sports end when you graduate high school. For me, they didn’t for another 20 years,” she says. She didn’t originally think of herself as a coach, but when she was approached by the Atlanta Hustle GM to join the coaching staff in the team’s first year in 2015, it allowed her to see that in herself. She has been helping to lead the Hustle ever since, taking over as head coach in 2018. When faced with criticism, Knowles relies on her deep knowledge of the game. She says, “A lot of times I have to trust that I know more than they know. Especially as a woman, to trust that I know a lot about this sport. Even though I played in a different division than the elite men that I’m coaching, I understand what I’m doing.” Sharing similar sentiment with the other women featured, she recognizes the significance of girls seeing a woman in power in the sporting world for a number of reasons. “Part of the reason I love coaching in the AUDL is the girls that I coach also see me coaching men, and I want them to see that a woman can be powerful no matter who is taking the instructions. I also want them to see that men can be respectful of a woman in power and that you can have good relationships with men as partners, as subordinates, and bosses, and all of those can be really healthy,” she says. Knowles is excited for the return of ultimate, realizing the important role that it plays in our lives, stating, “I couldn’t be more excited about the AUDL season, especially as we come out not only of the pandemic but out of a racial reckoning and social justice movement. I’m thrilled to be part of an organization that is actively working on that. The AUDL is a great place for us to be coming back after a heck of a year. 2021: It’s going to be dope.”
We couldn’t agree more.
Guest writer Rob Lloyd, AUDL Chairman
When Steve Hall, AUDL CEO and Commissioner, announced on March 5 that the AUDL’s Executive Council, in consultation with the league’s Athletic Care Network (ACN) and AUDL COVID Task Force (ACTF), had ratified a competitive format for a full 2021 season, you could sense a collective sigh of relief. But with just three months before the start of the season, there also remained a certain amount of trepidation.
After a year like no other in the collective lives of our community; living with feelings of isolation, dealing with workplace disruption, addressing the issues of racial justice and in many cases the anxiety associated with personal or economic hardship, everyone wanted this to be the time to finally get back to playing ultimate. But could we make it happen—and do it safely?
Since then, most of the data we see on a daily basis has become increasingly positive. As we entered spring, the US had a broad availability of COVID-19 vaccines and a significant decline in the number of serious cases of the virus from levels experienced during the winter surge. Teams were beginning to return to train and practice in adherence to local regulations while following league protocols. Stadiums were being booked and the 2021 schedule was taking shape. Our Canadian teams were making plans for the Canada Cup and will likely begin to play a little later than their southern neighbours. (Yes, that is the correct Canadian spelling.)
When I first became involved with the AUDL in 2012 as a team owner, then in 2013 as an investor and advisor to the league, and in 2018 as an active member of the AUDL leadership team, I was always encouraged by our steady progress and many successes. When we messed up, we listened, went back to work, and vowed to do better. We often measured our collective accomplishments by the number of new teams and owners joining the league, when signing a new broadcast or sponsorship contract, judging the competitive level of our games, the growth in social media and fan engagement, or another financing round completed.
As we prepare to begin the 2021 season, I applaud the AUDL for adding another priority, player safety, and experience. Our players form the basis of everything we do and we want our players to enjoy a more professional and rewarding experience while playing in the AUDL. We also want our league to be more accessible to all top athletes and reflective of the communities we serve.
The first step in this direction was the formation of the Athletic Care Network (ACN). Initially, the ACN was focused on implementing specific COVID-related protocols, but developed into a mechanism to develop general health and safety best practices to ensure the well-being of AUDL athletes, officials, and team personnel. The league created the new position of Chief Medical Officer, which is now held by Dr. Christina Chung, co-owner of the Philadelphia Phoenix. Christina helped each team identify a Head Team Physician to act as the gatekeeper of athlete health to ensure AUDL athletes receive medical care adherent to best practices and the standards followed by other peer sports leagues. The ACN currently includes medical specialists, athletic trainers, and other allied healthcare professionals.
We also recognize that most players participate in the AUDL based on their belief in the future of professional ultimate, not for immediate personal financial reward. They are playing for the future players, many of who could earn a living wage by dedicating themselves full-time to the AUDL. For this reason, the league and its teams are actively investigating creative ways to financially reward those ultimate players who commit their time, athletic skills, and passion to bring Ultimate to more AUDL fans around the world. More exciting news is on the way, stay tuned!
GET TO KNOW
Highlighting different perspectives and experiences from players and personnel around the AUDL.
Dr. Christina Lee Chung, MD, FAAD
Owner, Philadelphia Phoenix
This issue’s "Get To Know" individual is Philadelphia Phoenix owner, AUDL Inclusion Initiative Co-Chair, and AUDL Chief Medical Officer Christina Lee Chung, MD, FAAD.
Chung was essential to the AUDL’s return to play. She worked tirelessly during the off-year, assembling the AUDL COVID Task Force (ACTF) and establishing COVID return-to-play policies and procedures for the sport. After being named Chief Medical Officer in October 2020, the Philadelphia powerhouse worked with multidisciplinary health professionals to establish health and safety procedures more closely aligned with those in other professional sports leagues. This groundwork paved the way for the full AUDL Health and Safety Guidelines we have today, which includes Athletic Care Networks for all 22 teams, comprising team physicians, athletic trainers, and health and safety managers. She is currently outlining the mission, structure, and role for a permanent AUDL Medical Advisory Committee, and coordinating the launch of a long-term injury study similar to that found in other major professional sports.
When was your first experience with ultimate?
At Amherst College. There were these “alternative” kids playing on the freshman quad. It wasn’t my vibe whatsoever, but my best friend dated a senior on the club team. He graduated in 1994 and I never thought about it again until 2003 (see next question).
How were you introduced to the sport?
I met my husband (in 2003) while we were both in residency training. The first thing he said to me was, “I’m an ER-resident but I identify as an ultimate frisbee player.” To which I answered, “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?” I thought it was all completely ridiculous, but he was so cute that I went with it. I used to show up at his PADA games after work all dressed up in my dermatology work attire. People looked at me like I was nuts (not sure if it was because of the image or because I was dating him!). I decided ultimate looked too fun not to try, so I dove in.
What are some of your earliest and/or fondest memories?
Running in the wrong direction, laughing at really competitive people that would shout at their teammates to cover me, and having one of the best women in Philly tell me at the end of a game that I was impossible to get open on. Marking Trey Katzenbach in 2010 FPSL semis, 6 months after giving birth—there’s a great photo somewhere. He overthrew his receiver by 20 yards, called a foul on me, and 500 people booed for 10 straight seconds. Still cracks me up.
What about the sport drew you in?
Speed, strategy, hand-eye coordination, and that I had a natural flick (probably because I have a nasty forehand in tennis—I feel like the basic mechanics are the same). And, of course, the community.
What is your role within your organization and what does that involve?
I am the President and Managing Partner of the Philadelphia Phoenix so I oversee all aspects of the franchise. Luckily, I have a fantastic team of highly motivated and organized people leading each division. Mike Arcata is my right-hand operations guy and has built an incredible youth program over the past year. My husband, Jeff, is our GM and runs our ultimate operations, Emily McHose heads up Marketing, and Dr. Sommer Hammoud leads our medical division.
What have been some of your favorite experiences in the AUDL?
Bringing together the best ultimate talent in Philly with shared goals. Sweeping Toronto in 2019. Watching personal relationships grow through the Aii as an ancillary benefit of working together on D/I issues.
Who’s your favorite POC player/athlete?
Growing up: Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan (Asian female athletes at the top of their sport, I had never seen this before), Jackie Joyner Kersee (GOAT), FloJo (the OG beast mode with hair, nails, rocking a one-legged jumpsuit). Ultimate: Amel Awadelkarim and Matt Smith (because they’re awesome).
As a POC, have you ever felt like you have to “be” a certain way?
Absolutely. Sometimes it is blatant and sometimes it is imperceptible. But the expectation is always there. Not just as a POC but even more as a woman these days. My immigrant parents were “progressive”, succeeded in achieving the “American Dream” and, from the very get-go in the 70s, tried to balance being culturally Korean while raising Philly-born, outspoken, ambitious, Korean-American daughters. Issues of race, gender, and socioeconomic status were ubiquitous in our childhood—at home, at school, at church, in public—just everywhere. The sense of pressure to “be” a certain way came from every direction. And no matter the situation, we were always “different”, and me in particular. I wasn’t Korean enough for the Koreans but obviously Asian to everyone else. Not “girly” enough for one group, yet obviously the only woman in many, many rooms. Frankly, it’s draining to always be navigating a world where the power structure favors being white and male. But it’s also motivating. And we must recognize ultimate, inherently, is no different. I’m delighted about the recent debates about the Spirit of the Game. Ideologically, it’s fantastic, but the reality is the cultural vantage point from which “spirit” is assessed is steeped in the cultural norms of white society. So everyone who plays but doesn’t fit that bill will eventually sense the expectation to “be” a certain way.
What have you learned about your own racial or cultural biases?
Because we are human we all have biases, including myself. It doesn’t matter if I am Asian and female, I carry my own prejudice, as does everyone else on this planet. I’m not in a position to judge or condemn and as far as I am concerned, no one else is either. In my opinion, it’s audacious and grandiose for one to think she or he is entitled to do so. I’ve found people who do are often more close-minded and less tolerant than the object of their condemnation. Which ultimately undermines the whole cause. We must keep doors wide open for conversation, be sincere in our efforts to understand all sides (even when we disagree) and share our own perspectives and experiences in constructive ways. It’s really, really hard and, realistically, a struggle without end. But we must all persist and, like Ken Porter always says, it’s about loving humbly, not arrogance and hate. The latter are terribly reactionary and limiting. They will only contribute to the endless cycle of oppression across the world.
What action items would you like to see the league take in regards to racial equity?
Whether you’re Joe-Schmoe or Amazon, we’re in this together and no single entity can affect change on its own. We all have to do our part, big or small, to contribute to the collective mission, and that starts with being concrete and realistic with our goals. For us, we need to look inward and recognize an important fact: that the vast majority of the AUDL and broader ultimate community is white; hence, most granular interactions and decisions are driven by culturally white experiences, perspectives, and assumptions about race/racism. There are a lot of pitfalls with this and even the best of intentions can have serious, unintended negative consequences. That being said, 1) I’d like to see the AUDL support a path for youth ultimate participation distinct from the current “pay to play” model for youth sports. Study after study shows participation in sports to have overwhelmingly positive physical, mental, and emotional effects on childhood development, particularly for girls. Yet access to sports is shrinking for the demographic who need it the most. We have a platform to help address this gap from the start and I’d love for the teams and league to make this an integral part of our development as a professional sport. 2) I also believe the AUDL, because it is semi-pro, is uniquely positioned to level both the socioeconomic and cultural playing fields in ultimate. In addition to removing the need for self-funding, the AUDL, by having referees and not having a “spirit scorecard” can help remove subjectivity which can be culturally influenced. We subscribe to the universal language of competing to win which transcends race, gender, or socioeconomic status. 3) I want the league to be an avenue for women to get involved in the sports industry. The AUDL has female representation in our ultimate operations, marketing, media, tech, to name a few areas. And 36% of our Head Team Physicians are women—unheard of in the major pro sports and an achievement in which I take pride. Most importantly, in my experience, from top to bottom, the league welcomes female leadership. I highly encourage women who are looking to establish a career in sports to capitalize on the many opportunities within the AUDL.
The Philadelphia squad is excited about the 2021 AUDL season, and Chung is eager to see the Phoenix return to play. Be sure to catch their season opener on Friday, June 4 against the Tampa Bay Cannons.
RISE & Lead Discussion Series
The AUDL is excited to be partnering with RISE to launch the RISE & Lead Discussion series. RISE will be training a handful of AUDL volunteers from around the country as discussion leaders over the next few weeks. Those volunteers will then lead a 6-part discussion series over the first half of the AUDL season. The curriculum will focus on educating AUDL personnel on the complexities of race, diversity, inclusion, and how they intersect within professional sport. Ultimately, the discussions are a stepping stone for the AUDL as an organization to better understand these issues and create a more welcoming and accessible environment for more groups of people.
The series will be free for any AUDL personnel to participate and there will be multiple sessions available each week for the duration of the program. The goal is to have this be a year-over-year program and we are excited to be kicking it off in 2021. Many thanks to Monica Johnson of the Seattle Cascades for organizing this effort on behalf of the Aii. We look forward to reporting on the program’s progress in the next newsletter.
New Media Distribution
The AUDL is also very excited about the return of the season and what it means for helping spread ultimate to new communities. With no new game content in over a year, it can be difficult to generate buzz even within a diehard community of fans. With that in mind, the league is excited to begin executing on several new media distribution deals they’ve closed on in the last several months.
With new partnership agreements in place with Fanseat and Eurozone India, the league stands to gain many new international followers and is perfectly positioned to introduce the game of ultimate to new audiences around the world. With so much opportunity, and after a strange pandemic year, the excitement from everyone to return to play is palpable.
After a long year off, the AUDL is finally ready to once again take the field. The Aii will continue working off the field promoting inclusivity throughout the league and the newsletter will continue to provide visibility of successes among the diverse talent that we have within our organization. Get ready for what is sure to be an exciting 2021 season.
To have any actions that you or your team are taking towards diversity and inclusion within your community featured in an upcoming newsletter, please send your information to Matt Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Aii is a committee that strives to increase racial and cultural diversity and inclusion throughout the sport of ultimate by providing underserved communities access to an affordable sport whose culture emphasizes healthy living, integrity in athletics, and potential to compete at the junior, collegiate and professional levels.